Protest Roars to Life at Chicago NATO Summit in Face of Violent Police Crackdowns
Photo Credit: Molly Knefel
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For weeks, people have speculated over the potential for a blooming “American Spring” this weekend in Chicago, when thousands were expected to come protest the meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the end, it might be more appropriate to speak of a newly born American Summer, as demonstrators were dosed with unseasonably warm 80- and 90-degree weather in a weekend that felt more like July than May.
Meanwhile, the sun was not the only source of heat, as the Chicago Police Department welcomed the predominantly peaceful protesters with flailing batons, dozens of arrests, baseless terrorism charges, and an attempted vehicular manslaughter. Despite this spate of state repression, spirits remained high throughout, with many demonstrators staying out into the wee hours of the night Sunday, in solidarity with arrested comrades.
The lead-up to the summit was replete with fear-mongering, driven in part by the city’s political elite and promulgated by the “no questions asked” corporate press. Back in January, Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president Michael Shields warned of “professional anarchists” coming to town with an eye toward disrupting business as usual. Meanwhile, mainstream press outlets continuously spoke of the threat posed by potentially rowdy demonstrators, often evoking imagery from the 1968 DNC protests in the process (despite that violence being initialized entirely by police, and not protesters). Just last week, the local NBC affiliate ran a segment titled “Beware the Black Bloc” to help drum up a little last-minute hysteria before the weekend.
These efforts at scaring people away from the streets ultimately proved futile, as tens of thousands of protesters participated in various actions through the course of the weekend. The National Nurses Union was responsible for organizing the first of the large-scale demonstrations on Friday afternoon, when roughly 5,000 people crowded into Daley Plaza to support implementation of a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculators. A series of speakers including Nation writer John Nichols, long-time activist Tom Hayden and local organizer Andy Thayer readied the stage for headliner Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine fame. Morello, who has played at Occupy events throughout the country, said he was proud to be surrounded by nurses who fought diligently for their right to protest in spite of a permit revocation just weeks before the event. He noted that the nurses “looked the mayor dead in the eye and...said, in the words of the old 1990s spiritual, 'Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!'"
After the rally, many of the nurses joined a march of hundreds of occupiers and other supporters on an un-permitted march through the streets of downtown. The impromptu march zigzagged through the loop before dissipating amidst rumors of an attempt by police to kettle protesters at the birthplace of Occupy Chicago: the intersection in front of the Board of Trade. This proved to be the first significant un-permitted march over the weekend, and also the least contentious, owing perhaps to the presence of nurses on the march.
The following day, demonstrators delivered their message right to the mayor’s doorstep, as an approximately 800-strong march culminated at Rahm Emanuel’s north-side abode. That action was organized by the Mental Health Movement, with support from Occupy Chicago, and focused on admonishing the mayor over a recent spate of cuts to the city’s mental health clinics. Protesters used the occasion to draw a prescient connection between dwindling city services and the estimated $14 million the city was to spend on hosting the NATO summit.
Not all protesters believe that you can find justice simply through a more equitable apportionment of tax dollars. A growing segment of Occupy organizers identify as “anti-capitalist,” and many of those participated in a march later on Saturday that appropriately kicked off from the Haymarket monument. It snaked its way eastward through the heart of downtown at an hour where the “Loop” was eerily quiet due to highway and street closures coinciding with the passing of motorcades from O’Hare Airport to various hotels near the McCormick convention center. Police repeatedly kettled the roughly 400-strong march whenever the pace slackened enough to allow for it. This first occurred at the corner of Jackson and State and then at Michigan and Congress, adjacent to Grant Park. Police appeared set to commence mass arresting demonstrators at the latter location, before newly appearing protesters overwhelmed the rear of police lines.