4 Signs the American Spring May Be Coming to Chicago
Chicago’s G8/NATO organizing committee has landed on a slogan for the city as it hosts the twin summits this May: “The Global Crossroads.” This is certainly an appropriate moniker for a town built by immigrants, with its neighborhoods still bearing the names of the ethnic enclaves they once were: Ukranian Village, Greektown, Little Italy and Andersonville, to name a few. Recognizing the inherently global character of the Metropolis of the Midwest would be honorable, if that is what the organizers intended. However, when they say “global,” they are invoking the 1 percent sense of the word, as Don Welsh of the city’s Convention and Tourism Bureau makes clear: “To penetrate international markets takes time and money, and this is going to help us showcase to the international markets in a quick way.” It is the global markets that will cross paths as the world’s political and financial elite sets its agenda behind closed doors at McCormick Place.
Meanwhile, on the outside, there will be thousands of protesters expressing their dissent with the flagrant militarism and economic exploitation inherent to this agenda. Protest organizers in Chicago are busily coordinating with community groups, labor unions, and occupiers everywhere to plan what figures to be a riveting display of resistance. What’s more, the Canadian culture-jamming magazine Adbusters, which put out the call for Occupy Wall Street last year, has issued a similar “tactical briefing” regarding NATO/G8:
Against the backdrop of a global uprising that is simmering in dozens of countries and thousands of cities and towns, the G8 and NATO will hold a rare simultaneous summit in Chicago this May. The world’s military and political elites, heads of state, 7,500 officials from 80 nations, and more than 2,500 journalists will be there.
And so will we.
Commentators have spent months speculating about the potential for a resurgent movement this spring. Will Occupy simply dissipate like so many movements before, or will it regain the headlines? The hosting of NATO/G8 in one the country’s preeminent cities certainly seems to provide occasion for a re-emergent movement. Meanwhile, there are a number of other factors pointing to momentous actions around these events. Here are four signs that the American Spring is coming to Chicago:
1) Political Provocation
Political processes are reactive in nature. Social movements, in particular, tend to attain added momentum in response to elite provocation. As frustration grew over the increased complicity of this country’s two principal political parties in the crimes of the 1 percent, Occupy Wall Street rose as a vehicle to express this disaffection. Meanwhile, the widespread popularity of the movement is rooted in public disgust over the oft-violent crackdowns of peaceful protesters from coast-to-coast.
The political establishment in Chicago has been particularly brash in its treatment of the movement. Occupy Chicago is one of the few to never succeed in maintaining an encampment, as two attempts were met with over 300 arrests in the city’s famed Grant Park last fall. While clearly intended to deflate the movement’s momentum ahead of the coming summits in May, this political repression only served to place the plight of Occupy in the limelight.
Not content with cracking down on the Occupy camps, the mayor then escalated his assault by introducing a whole new set of rules for protests. Just prior to the holiday recess in December, he proposed changes to the two city ordinances dealing with demonstrations and parades, including increased fines for offenses to draconian new filing requirements for parade organizers. While he retreated on some of the major measures, including the four-fold increase in the minimum fine for resisting arrest, some of the more egregious elements remained in the bill approved by the city council on January 18th. According to the updated parade ordinance, organizers making permit applications will still have to “provide description of any sound amplification or other equipment that is on wheels or too large to be carried by one person, and description of the size and dimension of any sign, banner, or other attention-getting device that is too large to be carried by one person, to be used in connection with the parade”. Long-time Chicago protest organizer Andy Thayer could not emphasize the significance of this enough: “They still have quadrupled the fine for violating this ordinance, and they have used this technicality time and time again to ding us.” He suggests that the economic cost to organizers associated with these almost inevitable fines will deter people from exercising their 1st amendment rights.
Meanwhile, Thayer says that the resisting arrest law is bad enough as is. Regarding the mayor’s apparent retreat on raising the fine, Thayer told AlerNet: “The untold story that was lost is Chicago’s unique interpretation of what resisting arrest entails is egregious enough: going limp is considered resisting arrest.” He also elucidated the fact that the costs of a resisting arrest charge go beyond the fine: “A lot of people, like teachers, cannot afford to have this on their record.”
In placing blame for the passage of this ordinance, Thayer did not limit his criticisms to the Mayor. He reserved especially harsh words for the aldermen that enabled its passage, including 49th ward councilman Joe Moore. Moore had previously cultivated a progressive image by introducing an anti-Iraq War resolution in 2003, and spearheading a lawsuit against the city for the wrongful arrests of hundreds of anti-war protesters during a demonstration that March. In voting for this ordinance, he claimed critics were engaging in “overheated rhetoric and over-the-top hyperbole." When asked to respond to the alderman’s comments, Thayer said: “Joe Moore played an absolutely despicable role in this. Any credibility this guy has had for being progressive has been proven to be utterly false. He totally sold us out by deliberately misrepresenting what this legislation is about.” For their part, Occupy Chicago visited the alderman after the vote and handed him a plaque in “recognition of his service to the 1%.”
The focus on Moore, just one of 41 aldermen to support the new law, stems from people having higher expectations of him. This is reflective of the larger Occupy movement nationwide, which is born of frustration with a Democratic Party establishment that has ceased being responsive to progressive ideals. The “selling out” of ostensibly “liberal” politicians is an integral part of the provocation that informs the historic rise in social movement activism throughout this country today.
2) Climate of Repression
The American Spring will not materialize out of resentment from just a few isolated incidents of political repression. Like its Arab-world counterpart, it will be the product of a population that has reached its breaking point after years of systemic abuse. The fact is that the assault on basic civil liberties in this country has been so widespread that focusing on a handful of examples risks trivializing the issue. From the Patriot Act and FISA to NDAA to the president’s newfound right to assassinate, the federal government has acted with marked impunity from Bush to Obama. Meanwhile, the state and local level governments maintain the bulk of the world’s largest system of incarceration, still rooted in age-old prejudices and sociological biases. In many ways, Occupy is reflective of an awakening generation: the babies of the baby-boomers who no longer buy the petty propaganda spoon-fed in school about this nation being a “beacon of peace.”
A few measures designed to create a climate of repression in Chicago are especially noteworthy. One provisions in the new protest ordinance allows for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to “deputize” outside law enforcement. Originally billed as a temporary measure that would sunset after NATO/G8, the final bill left it permanent. CPD superintendant Gerry McCarthy has said this is “common practice” at events of this nature, while also noting that federal authorities will ultimately decide what amount of help the city needs. Meanwhile, many protesters fear that the bill could open the door to private firms like Blackwater. The language of the ordinance is unclear on this, and the CPD did not respond to questioning for this article.
However, multiple reports have already circulated about the use of private security trainers in preparation for the protests. In particular, the local FOX news affiliate documents the hiring of “Controlled FORCE” by the Cook County Sheriffs Department to train officers in crowd control technique. According to its website, the company has been “providing a low-liability method of subject control for law enforcement, adult corrections, juvenile justice, security, and military across the nation since incorporating in 1997.” The fact that they are providing law enforcement and private security forces the same training as members of the armed forces is an alarming example of the increased militarization of American police forces.
Further evidence of this process in Chicago comes from an appeal by a law enforcement non-profit for help from returning combat veterans. The local ABC affiliate in Chicago reports: “The Illinois State Crime Commission says it is urgently seeking Iraq-Afghanistan combat veterans to work security positions for the G8 summit. The commission's chairman clarifies that is for private security. They will not be working with Chicago police."
With so many police and security officers trained in military policing techniques out on the streets, one might think it wise to come armed with a camera to document abuse. However, pointing any recording device at police in Illinois can land one in prison for fifteen years. Still think you live in the “Land of the Free”? This oppressive rule comes from the state’s long-standing “Eavesdropping Law.” According to a New York Times report, “audio-recording a law-enforcement officer, state’s attorney, assistant state’s attorney, attorney general, assistant attorney general or judge in the performance of his or her duties is a Class 1 felony." With thousands of people in the streets armed with smart phones and other recording gadgetry this spring, this draconian measure will pose a poignant threat to their freedom.
Chicagoans know political repression and threats of state violence at all levels of government. This encroachment on civil liberties has been a serious issue for many years, but the public fight-back has only just begun to manifest on a widespread scale. While the state clampdowns are designed to discourage dissent, the opposite effect can occur when a population has passed the breaking point. With the democratic awakening ongoing throughout this country, Americans may have gotten there.
3.) Elite-Driven Hysteria
Another important factor informing a possible American Spring is the promulgation of hysteria by the political, economic and media elite. As with the enactment of repressive policies, hysteria is designed to drive fear into the masses in order to dissuade them from protest. It is also an indication of a ruling elite that has become increasingly desperate and a political class that is rapidly losing its moral authority. As people begin to recognize this, they may be less inclined to trust the vilification of protesters as “destructive and dangerous anarchists,” and may be more likely to identify with them.
Take, for example, the Fox News handling of the report about the employment of private security trainers. In tossing the story over to the on-scene reporter, anchor Corey McPherrin leads in with: “Anita Padilla is live now with how police and security forces will handle the protesters who try to incite these riots.” In her report, Padilla says: “No one knows for sure just how many protesters will descend on Chicago for the G8 and NATO summits, but the potential for violence is great. “ They speak of “riots” and “violence” as inevitabilities, and wrongly attribute past violence to “anarchists,” rather than the police who are often the provocateurs.
This kind of coverage mirrors warnings coming from a range of civic officials. The head of the local Fraternal Order of Police has warned of a “bunch of wild, anti-globalist anarchists,” while CPD superintendent Gerry McCarthy has spoken of plans being made for “mass arrests.” Meanwhile, the leader of the downtown Chamber of Commerce, Jerry Roper, has insisted that Michigan Avenue businesses hire private security guards to protect their property, and that they plan ahead for a potential emergency. In an interview with the Sun-Times he said: “If places need to be evacuated, you’ve got to know where to tell your employees to gather. The same things you would focus on for a disaster like the  Loop flood have to be put in place for an event like this.”
The anarchists are coming! The anarchists are coming! Oh no! These antics are designed to drum up public fear, and they have worked quite well in this country’s past. However, Americans may now resonate too strongly with the messages on the signs carried by protesters to believe all of what they hear in the corporate press.
4) Dynamic Political Organizing Capacity
Another compelling sign of a coming American Spring is the inspiring level of political organization present in Chicago. On the one hand, there is the “Coalition Against the NATO G8 War and Poverty Agenda” (CANG8), which has been planning the massive demonstration on May 19th since the summits were announced. They also organized much of the resistance to the city’s new anti-protester ordinance, including a picket at City Hall on the day of the vote. In that latter effort, they were joined by dozens of supporters of Occupy Chicago in what culminated a strong joint effort among protest groups throughout the city. Organizer Andy Thayer told me: “The battle over the ordinance really brought together these various movements. I think the city was really taken aback by the response.” He further said that he was expecting to see the same few regular faces at the work-time picket at City Hall, only to find that Occupy had substantially energized their efforts.
Since the crackdown on the encampment-to-be in Grant Park, Occupy Chicago has refocused on community organizing. For this article, I interviewed Rachael Perrotta, a member of the Press Committee. She spoke with a marked elegance, reflective of the political refinement of this high-functioning Occupy. When asked about the group’s plans to help with the NATO/G8 protests, she said: “We are focused on our neighborhood organizations. We would like to elevate the struggles of community groups, and labor and immigrant rights groups . . . We are hoping to show the world what people in Chicago are fighting for, and we hope to connect the policies of NATO/G8 with these local issues.”
Among the local initiatives is the increasingly national movement to help keep people in foreclosed homes, which Occupy has taken up with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. They also maintain a “labor outreach committee,” which has made significant gains in attracting rank-and-file support from the local teachers union, amalgamated transit union and postal worker union, according to Perrotta. She further explained that the group is planning to kick off its “Chicago Spring” with a mass action on April 7th. They will also point to May 1st, the international workers’ holiday, as a chance to support the local immigrant community, which has taken on an increasingly active role in organizing actions for that day in recent years.
May Day is also meant to be when the Adbusters’ month-long encampment begins. When asked if there were any plans to entertain that call to action, Occupy Chicago organizer Babur Balos said: “As far as Adbusters goes . . . we support them, but we haven’t set up any plans yet for a camp.” He emphasized that “May 1st in Chicago is more of a union and immigrant type of movement, so we are going to focus on that.” Perrotta also said that Occupy Chicago is more concentrated on its April 7th action, in addition to May 1st and another event on May 12th, than tackling another encampment attempt. When asked about any corroboration with the magazine, she said “”We are in direct contact with Adbusters. We are excited for anyone to help us promote our plans, but our focus is more on our neighborhood organizations.” Neither Perrolta or Balos had harsh words for Adbusters, despite reports that some in the movement were resentful about the call going out without the magazine first consulting anyone on the ground in Chicago.
In the end, organizers seem to have overcome any animosity about the tact of Adbusters’ briefing, while embracing the value of the garnered publicity. To a large extent, the magazine inspired Occupy Wall Street with its September 17th call to action. However, it did not do the drudgework of erecting the camp, enduring the oft-brutal crackdowns, sleeping through the increasingly chilly nights, and navigating the range of everyday logistics and planning inherent to such a major undertaking. Likewise, the magazine will not be organizing things in Chicago. That job will be done by the hundreds of people who have actively engaged themselves in the process already, by participating in GA’s, “mic-checking” aldermen and the mayor, fighting City Hall on the new protest ordinance, and organizing resistance at the neighborhood level. They will pave the way for thousands more that will arrive through the month of May to swell the numbers of protesters in the city as a human counterbalance to the NATO/G8 1% agenda. While the power elite make their destructive plans inside, the American people will be constructing a better world on the outside.