The thousands gathered in Chicago this past weekend to protest the NATO summit and the G8 meeting in Camp David are another sign we are in a new era of social activism. The Occupy movement is not going away. What is disappearing from the American landscape is the old passive acquiescence to an unjust status quo, one in which modern states with impunity spend massive amounts on war and militarism, propping up dictators and corrupt regimes in poorer countries while promoting austerity at home.
The measure of the seismic shift in the political landscape that’s taken place is found not just in the thousands who joined the NATO protests, including National Nurses United (NNU) and the activist fire they brought to their Friday, May 18, rally in Daley Plaza for increased taxes on Wall Street. It’s also seen in the overheated, biased response by the political establishment and mainstream media just to the specter of street protest.
It’s not just the crazed Republicans, either. Early on the Obama administration realized Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s desire to showcase Chicago’s “world class status” (whatever that is) by simultaneously bringing both the NATO summit and the G8 conference to the city was a colossal stupidity. The White House was justifiably worried holding both summits at the same place and time was like drawing a bullseye on everything wrong with a corporate-run world. It would be an open invitation for one massive weekend of protest against the social and political status quo.
The G8 summit was moved to the more remote Camp David, but it didn’t really matter. Wisely, NNU continued with its Chicago rally and call for a “Robin Hood” tax of 50 cents on every $100 in Wall Street financial trading, a measure alone they say could raise $350 billion a year in revenue. That was but the opening salvo to the weekend. The march against NATO on Sunday afternoon drew many thousands, perhaps 10,000 or more, with some observers reporting the crowd stretched for 10 blocks. It was likely far more than the 2,000 or 3,000 marchers cited by the mayor’s office and local media.
At the NATO conference, world leaders say they are looking to “wind down” the war in Afghanistan. Apparently, the winding down is scheduled to go on until 2024, as far as U.S. involvement in the war. But the system that creates these wars is not winding down. And that is the problem. That’s also why Chicago’s streets this weekend were alive with dissent.
Democratic Leaders Miscalculate
Actually, even with moving the G8 event to Camp David, it was a blunder for the Obama administration to bring either global summit to the United States. The weekend of protests only put White House’s complicity in the global specter of war and austerity millions are now resisting in sharp relief. Not so smart for a president up for re-election, and who has to count on the votes of millions of liberal- and progressive-minded Americans.
The Chicago protests also highlight just how tense and repressive the political landscape has become. Every social protest in every American city now is met with a massive, militarized police mobilization. The Chicago police presence even included police brought in from other states, with the National Guard nearby in reserve.
Yet the large majority of the protesters were peaceful. As for the exception of the so-called Black Bloc, their justifiable ire toward the state is largely reduced to running infantile street skirmishes with police. They play into the hands of the mayor’s office, the police, and the alleged journalists in the local broadcast media, the latter of whom just can’t wait to congratulate the police on their “remarkable restraint” and a “job well done.” This they do when not busy reporting with solemn authority the latest dubious “terrorist” plot cracked by the local authorities. It’s at moments like this, when politics heats up, that we realize how much news is just propaganda, the gist of which in this case seems designed to persuade the locals that the crazed protestors are just not like the rest of us.
How skittish and insecure the moneyed political establishment has become. More evidence of this came from Mayor Emanuel’s last-minute effort to deny the permit for the nurses rally at Daley Plaza, moving it to Grant Park ostensibly on logistical grounds that popular musician Tom Morello would draw too big a crowd. Thanks to the nurses refusal to be cowed, that attempt at petty intimidation failed.
More folly was to be found in the paranoid response of some Chicago downtown corporate offices, which Crain’s Chicago Business (May 8) reports were advising employees to “dress like protesters” during the summit, lest they be targeted by crazed mobs of rampaging dissenters. There’s a certain Midwestern, middle-management mentality involved in that advice, one that views protesters as just wackos who don’t like “The Man,” which must mean anybody who dresses nicely and carries a briefcase.
The liberal Democratic mayors who methodically repressed the Occupy Wall Street encampments in city after city last fall, no doubt coordinated with federal assistance, understood something. A living, breathing round-the-clock protest against an unjust political and economic system is intolerable. It’s intolerable because, like their Republican counterparts, the liberal Democratic establishment has few answers to the bleak reality of how hard it has become to make an adequate living or find a decent job or expect a peaceful world or just have some damn hope for the future. Even at its best the “free market” capitalism espoused by both parties cannot offer stability and peace for the majority of the people. But no one in power wants to talk about alternatives.
The spontaneous explosion of the Occupy Wall Street protests last fall was the frustrated spirit of the grassroots organizing that swept Barack Obama into office in 2008 finally set free. Spend any time now with the young Occupy activists, watch their press conferences or read their statements, and it’s clear we’ve entered a new era of social activism, one defined by a lively and energetic resistance to social and economic injustices. Most important, it’s also an era of international social protest, as we are seeing from Egypt to Tunisia, Greece to Spain and elsewhere.
The Specter From Below
In the 1930s President Roosevelt’s New Deal program funded greatly expanded public services, including a government jobs program, despite a federal budget crisis worse than the current crisis. Of course, even then the New Deal didn’t come close to achieving significant reductions in unemployment (the War Deal of the 1940s did that). Today’s liberal saviors by contrast spend their time haggling with right-wing Republicans over the “deficit crisis,” which has its own attendant logic in the bleak specter offered of years of bipartisan-endorsed austerity.
Economist Richard Wolff noted with curt irony the meaning of the current moment in his May 12 economic update for Truthout, “Obama plans to reduce Social Security and never mentions a federal hiring program.” Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost an estimated $3.2-4 trillion (and counting) over the last ten years, according to the 2011 report from Brown University’s Cost of War project.
As Wolff and others have observed, what was different about the 1930s was that capitalism then faced a potent threat from the grassroots, as radical ideas and a mobilized industrial labor movement spread across the nation. A similar social and political threat does not yet quite exist.
But let’s put the emphasis on quite yet.
As an advisor to President Obama, Rahm Emanuel was famous for once advising Obama to “ignore the progressives.” As the protests in Chicago reveal, ignoring progressive demands for peace and economic justice is a course society’s rulers now engage at their own peril.
That’s true no matter who occupies the White House come November.
Mark T. Harris is a featured contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003); and "Guide to College Reading," sixth edition, by Kathleen McWhorter (Addison-Wesley, 2003).