There is much to take away from the mass actions against NATO in Chicago, but most protesters seem to be talking about the menacing police presence throughout the events. Thousands of ‘security’ personnel, drawn from organizations including the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the Secret Service, and the Coast Guard, kept protesters far from McCormick Place. Inside, heads of state from the 28-member NATO alliance, along with delegates from over thirty other countries, met to congratulate themselves for work well done in Afghanistan and Libya and to prepare to spend billions more on military projects like the ballistic missile defense system.
The real action, though, was in the streets, where protesters tried to exercise their seemingly diminishing rights: the rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to redress the grievances produced by our co-opted governments.
One of the most significant mass actions focused on the police oppression surrounding the protests. It was a rally in support of the ‘NATO 3,’ a trio of young Occupy-affiliated men who had been arrested on May 16 and charged with “conspiring to commit domestic terrorism.”
The NATO 3’s mistreatment began with the police raid of an apartment housing over a dozen protesters. The police allege that the protesters had created Molotov cocktails and intended to bomb public locations. By contrast, the protesters claim that the police didn’t have a warrant, acted abusively during the raid, and seized beer-making, rather than bomb-making, equipment. Reports from neighbors corroborate the allegations of illegal and inappropriate behavior by police.
The National Lawyers Guild released a statement expressing the belief that the charges against the NATO 3 are “farcical, politically motivated, and meant to spread fear and intimidation among people protesting the NATO summit.”
The terrorism charges also have a broader national significance. Given the passage of the amended NDAA, anybody labeled as a terrorist could be indefinitely detained without trial. While the NDAA is not being applied in this case, it could be applied in similar circumstances in the future. In that event, terrorism charges like these, based on shaky evidence and possibly illegal searches, would never have their day in court. If the NDAA provisions were to be invoked, the validity of the search warrant, mistreatment of protesters, and the lack of evidence of any crime would be rendered irrelevant.
Even given the nod to “due process” in the current situation, the NATO 3 remain in custody, reportedly being held in solitary confinement. Saturday’s actions in solidarity with the arrested protesters began with a rally including speakers from the StopFBI.net campaign. Many linked the arrests with the trumped-up charges against immigrant and anti-war activist Carlos Montes, who was arrested on May 17th in L.A. After the speakers, protesters took to the streets, along with a heavy ‘police escort.’
Descriptions of other mass actions will serve to illustrate the diversity of social ills addressed by activists, as well as the omnipresence of the police.
The first major action on Saturday involved approximately 2,000 protesters marching to the house of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is known as ‘Mayor 1%’ or ‘Rahmbo.’ The rally highlighted Emanuel’s recent cuts to community health services and his aggressive efforts to prevent legitimate protest. The police showed up in riot gear to ‘protect’ the house against the protesters, who assembled with nothing but signs, voices, and their affinity to one another.
The largest actions took place on May 20th, beginning with a rally in Grant Park, followed by a march to McCormick Place, the largest convention center in the U.S. Corporate media put the number of protesters at two to three thousand, while a visual assessment at the scene easily counted between six and eight thousand.
Speakers at Grant Park railed against a host of wrongs, from the merciless war against the Afghani people, to Emanuel’s closing of health centers, to attacks on Chicago Public Schools. A march started at 2 PM and travelled down Michigan after a brief detour through downtown. The march was led by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), other former and current service members, and Afghans for Peace.
Once the official protest permit expired, CPD decided protesters couldn’t stay in the same place we had been for the past half hour and needed to move west. The official protest organizers encouraged people to comply, although a disgruntled chant began: “NATO’s east, NATO’s east!” The situation remained tense for the next two hours. CPD repeatedly made announcements threatening arrest as well as “other police enforcement action,” including “physical removal, the use of deterrent noise, riot control agents, and/or less-lethal munitions and other force necessary to affect your arrest.” Most protesters did eventually move west.
After meandering through the streets protesters held an impromptu sit-in and assembly, coming to consensus that the best course of action was to march to the Sheraton Hotel, where NATO delegates were staying. The police barred access to peacefully assemble outside the hotel, and so the parade of protesters became a jail-solidarity march.
May 21st began with a rally outside of Obama’s campaign headquarters where activists spoke against NATO and the war on working people, as well as the violence the night before. At Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), activists denounced Obama’s removal of more immigrants than any other past president. They also expressed opposition to plans for an ICE detention center in the Chicago suburb of Crete.
Protesters stopped at Boeing headquarters, targeted because of the more than $12 billion received through defense contracts and its millions of dollars in tax subsidies from Chicago. A street carnival north of Millennium Park saw Food Not Bombs feed some hungry protesters, while an impromptu musical collective blasted sweet sounds like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Later, the mood became tense as police arrested at least three persons for chalking the sidewalk and pointing a cardboard gun painted with peace signs and flowers at the police. A few hundred protesters responded by quick-stepping through the loop, finally gathering at Lake and Michigan to collectively dream of a better society.
The bourgeois media stayed on message, repeating how well CPD Chief McCarthy maintained the peace, with more than twice as many security personnel as protesters. To add insult to injury, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses commandeered by police read: “Chicago is my kind of town.” On the streets, the conversation turned more toward how NATO spends 70% of the world’s military dollars and the U.S. accounts for approximately 45% of the global total.
The bloated police presence exemplifies much of what is wrong with Chicago and our country: austerity for education, healthcare, and necessary services, standing in bitter contrast to the wasteful extravagance of military and militarized police spending. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail in 1963 that condemning peaceful protest because it precipitated state sanctioned violence was like blaming a robbed man for carrying money. It was time to condemn the robber then, and it still is today.