I feel compelled to comment on a few things I have heard in the past week during the lead up to and duration of NATO protests here in Chicago. Mainly, I feel disheartened by the way the media and consumerism have shaped national opinion and attitude when it comes to these specific anti-NATO demonstrations. Two friends of mine, whom I highly respect in other aspects both personally and professionally, have made comments that seem to echo too much of the hysteria and general misunderstanding as to why people are protesting and what being a participant in a social movement entails.
In response to the mention of the demonstrations calling for Rahm Emmanuel to restore funding to mental health clinics, I heard one of these friends say something like “some people just have too much time on their hands and don’t know what to do with their life”. It’s sad and somewhat bizarre that when people stand up for something they believe in, they somehow are immediately categorized as lazy or ignorant. Not only is this a vast generalization, it is simply inaccurate. From being a part the anti-war movement, community justice programs and a number of other social projects (all of which involved demonstrating publicly) I can tell you that my colleagues in these movements have not been lazy or uninformed. In fact, they have been some of the hardest working people I know. These friends are not saints or the reincarnation of Gandhi. They are ordinary people who often work full time jobs and then engage in much needed social activism as volunteer work – putting in way more than the traditional 40 hour work week. They often take considerable money out of their own pockets, from hard earned salaries that are modest at best, to travel to demonstrations and participate in events and support causes they feel worthy. Most study these issues to the point of exhaustion; reading articles and books, as well as meeting people first hand who are involved and affected by whatever the issue may be.
The second friend made a comment that since the G8 portion of the summit was moved, the “Trust Fund Babies” from Occupy Wall Street cannot cancel their plane tickets so they will still be coming for the NATO demonstrations. I felt the statement was intended to be insulting and funny. But, again, it was mostly an inaccurate accusation. Though there have been middle and upper class youth who have participated in Occupy Wall Street (and there should be), it’s too comfortable for the average citizen, similarly privileged, to write off this movement as monolithic. Vague criticism can provide an easy out for non-participation and an excuse for not researching the issues being discussed.
I have certainly not been the most active in Occupy Chicago, but I do participate. And what I have seen is far from being easily typified; people from all ages and all walks of life voicing their frustration with an economic system that betrayed the general population a long time ago. Participants ranged from kids out of college facing enormous debt, tenants facing eviction on the south and west sides of Chicago, former home owners who lost their houses in the inexcusable game of poker that our nation’s prominent bankers had played with their mortgages, those already homeless and disenfranchised, nurses and doctors concerned about the collapsing healthcare system, and so on and so forth…
The past six years of involvement in the anti-war movement has also brought me in contact with some of the finest people I’ve ever met. There are those who work full time for peace, those that work full time jobs in another field and organize for social change on the side, and those that come and go as they feel inspired. There are many youth who are raising their voices, and I think they have an important perspective because their moral vision has not yet been clouded by as many years of propaganda and cynicism.
Furthermore, so many in the movement are 60 years of age and upwards. Many of these elders are war veterans who have realized, after participating in war and watching the endless ongoing parade of nightmare conflicts around the world, that violence and coercion will not solve the very serious problems that we as a global society are facing. With time for reflection, they have also come to challenge the notion that violence and coercion are actually intended for humanitarian purposes. This is painfully obvious in the present when the violence which NATO and most world powers are waging is so blatantly serving a small political and economic elite delighted to profit from the misery of others. These veterans and elders hold their opinions from experience and with confidence, without judgment, but in the hopes to leave a more positive legacy behind to the next generations. For those that are non-veterans, the scene is colorful and varied; mothers and sons, grandfathers and grandkids, black and white, US citizens and Iraqis, Palestinians and Israelis, etc… all working together to create a more healthy vision of how we can be better interconnected in this time of rapid globalization.
What I must also mention is the astounding apathy and entitlement that I hear among the portion of our population that are so outraged about being inconvenienced because of the protests. So there are thousands of people coming to Chicago for the counter-summit, but most of the inconvenience comes from the over-zealous police response, not from the protestors. The city frequently hosts sports, music and arts events which bring in thousands of tourists and there is no such public outcry about the inconvenience.
Though it’s true that there are occasionally isolated and small acts of violence that occur during demonstrations, I have been to many and I can’t recall ever seeing a demonstrator intentionally try to harm a non-participant. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but the incidents are rare (comparable to incidents following sports events) and the most egregious violence almost always comes from a police provocateur (uniformed or undercover) as a pretense for the police’s standard practice of using violence as a means for crowd control. The provoked violence sounds good for the newspapers and, even if it is later exposed as a bogus set up, the public relations move by the authorities and the police is effective in the moment at turning the population against the protesters. If there are genuine demonstrators involved, they are often convinced to take a more violent path by FBI/ police infiltrators, as was clearly documented with the 2008 Republican National Convention. The population is beginning to see through this well rehearsed pattern. I strongly suspect that this is the case with the three demonstrators charges with terrorism the evening prior to the summit. We will see with time if the charges are suddenly dropped or if any further evidence comes out. Attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild have been closely following the case and have already stated that they perceive the accusations against the NATO 3 to be farcical and politically motivated.
We often hear scathing criticisms in the media and conservative rhetoric on the issue of entitlement and social welfare programs, etc… But the average US citizen expects that they are to live an uninterrupted life of satisfied consumerism in peace. What is often not realized is that this is a false peace built upon the suffering, exploitation, chaos and US and NATO sponsored state terror that others endure on a daily basis. Furthermore, the rights we take for granted have been fought for and won by social movements at great risk and sacrifice by their participants (think Civil Rights movement, etc.), not by foreign wars of aggression.
Capitalism and NATO may seem like they provide security for some living here, but they certainly interrupt and inconvenience other societies around the globe. In China, people are working as near slaves to provide us with the lovely parts for our newest IPad. Iraq and Afghanistan have been devastated through decades of war for their resources and strategic positioning. Countless other countries have been severely disrupted through military and economic interventions. And we don’t want to stop to think about who is causing the continuation of such destructive policies, and how we can effectively involve ourselves in changing these policies.
People occasionally complain when the public transit trains are packed with obnoxious and drunk Cubs fans at 10 AM during the summer baseball season. But generally the city tolerates participants in sporting events. Yet, if there is a demonstration, suddenly it becomes socially acceptable to say things like “Get a job, you lazy freak.” It’s assumed that that loud and boorish behavior exhibited by Cubs fans is healthy because it fits in dominant narrative of our society. Keep in mind that there are often violent physical confrontations by aggressive fans in Wrigleyville. I have witnessed this multiple times just trying to pass through the area. But as long as you keep consuming, no problem.
Our ruling political class in the United States has done an excellent job of enticing us into passivity. Elections have little real effect on policy within the two party corporate system. But hey, what does it matter if the physical and economic violence is not affecting you personally? This is the perception at least. When the truth is that there is very significant violence and poverty within the United States and it is growing due to the self-implosion of these imperial policies that cannot be sustained.
I am not writing this piece to insult Cubs fans nor those who made the comments to which I am referring. I think that sports, arts and leisure are healthy parts of a society (though they could also be participated in and supported in ways that are less consumerist; ways that build real solidarity and human cooperation instead of varieties of empty, meaningless "team spirit"). And I believe very strongly that we should not let war or politics steal the best things in life from us—sharing a meal with family and friends, music, dance recreation for its own sake, art for its own sake, love in its most natural and unrefined sense. I often hear people say “I hate politics”. Well, I do too. I think most of it is hypocrisy and manipulative games being played by the powerful. But should we let the greedy and the morally calloused make all our decisions for us about how to organize society? If we sit back and do nothing, that is political too, whether we like it or not. We have given our consent by default to the reckless leadership of those who care nothing about us at all.
My hopes in writing this were to make my small challenge to the apathy which is so predominant in our national consciousness and also to clarify what I see as a huge misunderstanding as to who is protesting and why. If we, protestors and non-protestors, can move towards understanding, than I have achieved my aims. I don’t think that demonstrations have all the answers. The physical revolutions are regularly needed to call out and challenge the power imbalances and injustices which will naturally present themselves with the continuation of any system. But truly changing the destructive path we are on requires societal and behavioral shifts and reorganization, and each person has their role in that. Maybe your role is not to demonstrate regularly. Maybe it is to do what you love; to give your skills and talents without harming others — an artist, a construction worker, a musician, a teacher, an honest business person or lawyer. Whatever it is, let’s work together to build a more functioning and compassionate society and realize that it is going to take creative thought, effort, and more than a slight inconvenience to make it happen.
Joshua Brollier, based in Chicago, is a co-coordinator with Voices for Creative Nonviolence and a tenant advocate with the Illinois Tenants Union. He can be reached at Joshua@vcnv.org.