Thousands of people–workers, students, antiwar veterans and activists, Occupiers and community organizers–will take to the streets of Chicago when more than 50 heads of state gather on May 20-21 for a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
As Rev. Jesse Jackson, who organized an April 23 press conference of labor and religious leaders who will join the protests against the summit, said:
Our world has become jilted by war and weapons. There is simply too much violence, too much concentrated wealth and too much poverty. I hope on May 20 there will be a large demonstration with global participation. It's time we go in a different direction. I am urging us to shift our priorities.
Jackson will address the May 20 rally, which begins at noon at the Petrillo Music Shell in Chicago's Grant Park and will be followed by a march into Chicago's Loop, and then to the McCormick Center, where the NATO conference is taking place.
The May 20 rally and march is the culmination of more than a week's worth of activity, which opens with a People's Summit on May 12-13 at Occupy Chicago's indoor offices at 500 W. Cermak Rd. in Chicago (find out more at PeoplesSummitChicago.org).
Occupy Chicago has called for the People's Summit to be followed by a week of action, with different themes about the needs of ordinary people explored each day, including public transportation, education, health care, the environment, workers' rights and democracy.
"Protesting works–from Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin, to Chicago," said Pat Hunt, one of the leading march organizers and a member of Chicago-area CodePINK and Chicago Area Peace Action. "It is a way to make our collective voices heard. When we exercise our First Amendment right to free speech, we are letting the 'powers that be' know that we heartily disagree with their decisions and demand that they listen to us."
Other noted speakers at the People's Summit and May 20 rally and march include Malalai Joya, the former Afghan member of parliament and internationally renowned opponent of NATO's occupation of Afghanistan; the hip hop duo Rebel Diaz; professor and activist Vijay Prashad; Reiner Braun of the International Coordinating Committee of the European No to NATO network; Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence; Malik Mujahid of the Muslim Peace Coalition; Leah Bolger of Veterans for Peace; Medea Benjamin of Code Pink; and antiwar activist and former Col. Ann Wright.
A growing number of labor unions and organizations are also endorsing the NATO protests and planning to mobilize. Dennis Kosuth, a nurse at Stroger Cook County Hospital and member of National Nurses United (NNU), said his union "is supporting this call to action because we believe resources internationally need to be taken away from causing death and destruction in places like Afghanistan, and put towards healing the damage that has been caused here and abroad."
Kosuth pointed out that the city of Chicago is shutting half of its public mental-health clinics used by poor and uninsured people–even as the city spends a projected $55 million to host the NATO summit. Patients and activists organized an occupation of the Woodlawn Mental Health Center on Chicago's South Side–one of the clinics targeted for closure–and then maintained tent city outside after police raided the occupied clinic.
"It's a shame that patients must fight to stop the city from shutting down Woodlawn and five other clinics in order to save $3 million, while billions are spent every year on military occupations by U.S. and NATO forces around the world," said Kosuth.
In addition to NNU, several other unions have also endorsed the May 20 protest, including the Chicago Teachers Union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, SEIU Local 1, United Electrical (UE) Workers Western Region, University of Illinois-Chicago Graduate Employees Organization, Workers United–Chicago and Midwest Regional and Joint Board, Indiana Workers Rights Coalition, UE Local 1110, Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association, Teaching Assistants' Association at the University of Wisconsin, and the Troy Area Labor Council.
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SINCE THE end of the Cold War, the U.S. has directed NATO to take an increasingly aggressive military posture.
From its founding in 1949 until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, NATO never engaged in open military conflict. But this self-described "military alliance for mutual defense" didn't disband after its chief rival collapsed. Instead, it began to draw in new members, expanding eastward toward Russia and China and embracing its role as the enforcer of U.S. and Western military interests–first during the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia and then with the occupation of Afghanistan starting in 2001.
More than 10 years later, NATO still occupies parts of the Balkans, and its war on Afghanistan generates one atrocity after another. Just in the last few months, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have burned Korans, sparking nationwide protests and rioting; a U.S. soldier went on a killing spree, shooting dead 17 Afghans, mostly women and children; and leaked photos of U.S. soldiers posing with corpses and body parts of Afghans touched off a new round of outrage.
This has contributed to a significant shift in U.S. public opinion against the war. After nearly a decade in which many considered Afghanistan "the good war," 69 percent of U.S. residents now favor an end to the war in Afghanistan, and 53 percent want an immediate withdrawal. As Ray Parrish, president of the Chicago chapter of Veterans for Peace, said:
Now seems to be the perfect time to march against NATO. People of the world have come to understand through their own personal experience that war is not the answer, and veterans know that non-military solutions–non-NATO solutions–are essential in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere around the world where NATO imagines that force and violence will achieve its objectives.
The generals in charge of this violence and mayhem will be in Chicago for two days of meetings, but city officials have focused their ire on efforts by protesters to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. The city has organized a campaign of fear and intimidation with the message that the protesters, not NATO, must be stopped.
In recent weeks and months, city officials filled the press with fear-mongering about "a special breed of protester." According to the Chicago Sun-Times, police are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for special face shields because of protesters' alleged plans to "throw bags of urine and feces" at them.
And the cops have procured a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) that emits a directional sonic blast for use in issuing dispersal orders or simply causing pain. The use of an LRAD by Pittsburgh police during the 2009 G20 summit is the subject of a lawsuit against the city by protesters–but that hasn't discouraged Chicago cops from getting one of these weapons of their own.
"We didn't invite NATO to our city to plan their war agenda," explains Tessa Simonds, a graduate student at DePaul University and a member of Occupy Rogers Park, one of the many neighborhood-based Occupy formations in Chicago. "No, that was the mayor, who also just pushed through an austerity budget while our communities are really struggling. We feel that we need to assert our democratic rights to reclaim Chicago for the 99 percent."
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THE OBAMA administration is keen to use the NATO summit to trumpet a long-term security pact with Afghanistan. The U.S. says it intends to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 2014, and in the meanwhile focus its energy on training Afghan military and police forces.
But this strategy has so far failed spectacularly. According to the Associated Press, one in five NATO service members killed this year in Afghanistan have been shot by Afghan security forces or militant disguised in their uniforms.
Other countries are heading toward the exit, leaving the U.S., which has always provided the lion's share of troops to the Afghan war, to manage a country shattered by a decade of war with little international support. According to USA Today, "The United States acknowledges that despite progress, the U.S. is not meeting its goal of drawing $1.3 billion annually from other nations to fund the Afghan armed forces."
The U.S. projects it will require $4 billion annually to maintain its training and support role for Afghan troops, but Afghan President and U.S. puppet Hamid Karzai is anxious that even this won't be provided, so he's insisting on a written commitment that the U.S. provide at least $2 billion a year to the armed forces. This is in addition to other concessions from the U.S. that Karzai has already won, including Afghan control over hated night raids by U.S. troops and control over detention facilities.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, however, that U.S. troops may remain–by invitation, of course–beyond 2014. "We anticipate that a small number of forces will remain at the invitation of the Afghan government for the purpose of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces and continuing to pursue counter-terrorism operations," said Clinton in early April. "But we do not seek permanent American military bases in Afghanistan or a presence that is considered a threat to neighbors which leads to instability that threatens the gains that have been made in Afghanistan."
But considering that U.S. taxpayers have already spent more than $522 billion on the war in Afghanistan–and that number will climb much higher as costs continue to pile up in the coming years–such pledges are transparent attempts at creating the impression that the war is winding down while the U.S. tries to preserve its ability to call the shots in Afghanistan.
In fact, the military is continuing to build installations with a much longer expiration date. "Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years," said Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Bagram Office. "We're transitioning…into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base…The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins." Similar projects to expand and reinforce U.S. bases are underway throughout the country.
In this context, marching against NATO is essential to fighting for a different set of priorities. In the words of Tom Alter, a graduate student and steward of the Graduate Employees Organization at University of Illinois-Chicago:
As workers and students, we have no interest in supporting NATO's wars. While the government is lavishing billions on NATO wars abroad, they tell us that there is no money for education and basic social services here at home. We will keep protesting until we end the death and misery the U.S. is causing around the world. See you on the streets of Chicago on May 20.