Saying No to NATO

Photo: Jim Luken

 By Jim Luken

No Meetup this week, but your intrepid boy-reporter has special story from the City by the Lake.

Last fall, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was about to hit its stride, I found myself visiting relatives in Chicago.  On line, I located Occupy Chicago, then rode a friend’s old bike some 13 miles to the Windy City’s version of Zuccotti  Park, dozens gathered  on a crowded street corner outside the Federal Reserve Bank in the downtown financial district.  Everyone there seemed on fire to be part of this incredible (sudden), anti-capitalist revolution.

As a 67 year-old, lifelong, anti-war activist, I immediately caught the Occupy Chicago fever.  Online, I also learned that Cincinnati had its own fired-up Occupy group, and I couldn’t wait to get back and join with my townsfolk in putting it to “the Man.”

But before I left Chicago, I learned of a major event which would be happening in Chicago in May. A huge NATO meeting, paired with a G8 financial summit had been planned  for the same  week in  May of 2012. I said to myself, “I can’t miss that.”

So I booked my Megabus tickets as early as possible, and here I am, ten bucks to Chicago, ten to get back home.  When the Obama administration realized that this dovetailing of events was creating quite a stir within the Occupy communities, as well as among other activist groups, it quietly pulled the G8 out of Chicago and planted it in the obscure confines of the Presidential retreat house at Camp David in Maryland.

So we demonstrators will have only half the fun that we might have had. But, being here in Chicago in the midst of NATO hoopla, I knew it would still be a ton of fun, plus a modicum of risk, vis-à-vis Chicago’s finest. Because, unlike the famous demonstrations at the Democratic convention in 1968, the cops and the Homeland Security brown shirts are prepared, we are told. No matter. In 1968, the chant was “The whole world is watching. “ On May 20, 2012, thanks to social networking and instant communications, that will be the literal truth.

On Wednesday, May 16, Occupy Chicago had organized an anti- foreclosure event called, “Housing is a Right.” When I arrived at the Chicago Fed at 10 am, there seemed to be more reporters and TV people than there were demonstrators. That changed quickly. By 10:15 there were sixty of us preparing to march. I walked along the curb and around the corner in order to count the cops. There were 32 of them, almost all on bicycles.  And there were others. A black helicopter droned directly above the intersection. The buildings are so tall at this intersection that the chopper looked like a big hornet buzzing at the end of a tunnel. It remained stationary in that one little pocket of daylight.

By the time the march began there were more than a hundred of us. We walked to the outside of a Citibank office where a man was sitting in a large overstuffed chair, on an oriental carpet right in the middle of the sidewalk. He shouted, “This bank forced me out of my home, so now I am moving into the bank.”

Then we marched to Daly Plaza, Chicago’s equivalent of Fountain Square. There is a pool of dancing waters and-n lieu of a statue the huge rusted-iron sculpture of an Afghan Hound, the famous Picasso work that had irritated many Chicagoans when it was installed, but now it is as much a part of the downtown scene, beloved by natives and visitors alike.

Above Daley Plaza and two hundred protestors, two black helicopters hover, the noise more deafening because here they can fly so much closer to the crowd.  Several of the media focus on a counter-demonstrator, a middle class guy who claims that one of the women protestors punched him in the jaw. I talked to another woman who had watched the alleged “attack.”  The guy, she said, had been screaming at the protestors, and the woman had flashed the guy the bird. “She may have touched his nose, “ the onlooker said, “but he wasn’t struck by anyone. I was right there.”

A stage had been set up there in the plaza, with 200 chairs in front of it. Several actors did a short street-theater skit about evictions, but the helicopters drowned out most of what was being said. Finally the crowd was sang a rousing version of “These homes are your homes. These homes are our homes,” to the familiar Pete Seeger tune.

On Thursday, the 17th, we were urged to bring our bikes to the “Mass for environmentally sustainable Transportation. I rode my cousins 30 year-old 5 speed thirteen miles through the middle of Chicago from my base in Evanston.  There were about sixty of us on bikes, led by a three-wheeled bike pulling a 7’ long trailer sporting a powerful speaker system.  A musician sat in the trailer near the speakers and played a series of rousing protest songs as our bikes drifted through the downtown streets. I have never felt more peacefully in tune with a demonstration and its purpose.

Our destination was the Canadian Embassy in Chicago. As we pulled into the downtown cull-de-sac, we were delighted to see a 100-foot-long “pipeline” snaking up the street.  The pipeline was formed by a series of large black trash bags, taped together and supported internally by about 20 hula-hoops.  Written on the pipeline were the words we began chanting: “No Pipeline. No Tar Sands. One planet. One Fight. “

Then about twenty of the non-biking protestors, stripped down to shorts and bikinis, participated in a die-in. The manner of their death was horrible. Plastic freezer bags filled with yucky brown oil was poured on all the participants. It really looked horrible. Some of the “oil” splashed on us bystanders. Then I noticed a young woman licking the oil from her face. They had made the oil out of chocolate and butterscotch syrup. 10 dead syrupy protestors lay sprawled on the pavement outside the Canadian Embassy, Canada being the home of the infamous Tar Sands Petroleum Extraction Process.

On Friday, I went to an event sponsored by a large nursing organization. The nurses were advocating for  “a Robin Hood tax” on all Wall Street trading transactions.  Such a tax would bring in billions over time, which obviously would “steal from the rich” traders and investors for a change. All the nurses were dressed in red Robin Hood outfits, with pointy green caps. Cute . . . as well as effective. Then there was a march through downtown, 1000 angry protestors moving from one street to the next railing at the hundreds of police who shadowed us (on bicycles mostly) every step of the way. “Show me what a police state looks like, the leaders yelled. “This is what a police state looks like,” we demonstrators responded.

The NATO meetings began formally on Sunday.  And the big protest event was scheduled for most of the day. In the morning heat, musicians and activist speakers were featured at the Petrillo  band shell in Grant Park. Then at noon the various groups and thousands of individuals massed for a long walk south on Michigan Avenue.

The Veterans Against the War(s) march was led by 50 veterans from all branches of the services, including the National Guard. We walked about four miles South toward McCormick Place, the convention area on the Lakeshore where the NATO delegates were holding  their meetings, applauding themselves—no doubt—on how their drone-based killing regimens were working out, (and had worked out) in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

By my guestimation, there were 25-50,000 people on the march, and what seem like twice as many cops. The police had been instructed, and the march leaders had been informed, that the event would be stopped a half-dozen blocks away from the NATO Summit. At a major intersection, the Veteran demonstrators climbed onto a stage and each one briefly explained who he/she was, and why he/she was throwing his/her various service medals in the direction of the NATO Summit. It was a tearful time; I was moved to tears.   After each speech—many of which were confessional or apologetic, the veteran turned around and through his/her medal (or medals) down the street toward the lake.

When the veterans were finished, taps was played. The folks around me were visibly affected by this passionate display of a different kind of patriotism, this dedication to personal ethics and to the veterans having chosen to take responsibility for terrible things that had happened to them and to the people whom they were” liberating” in the name of serving what they had all come to realize was the “Empire.”

After taps, the veteran—emcee encouraged the many thousands to disperse and head west, in the direction away from the Convention Center (and the NATO summit) that had brought so many of us to the “city of big shoulders.”

But the day wasn’t finished. Members of the anarchist group, Black Bloc, were ready to do their thing, which is always to confront the police. About 75 of them moved eastward. Cops in riot gear, including twenty mounted police blocked their paths.  There were skirmishes and arrests. Some heads were bloodied. And for those of us who didn’t disperse, and who faced the riot police, a great deal of anger. (Later news reports mentioned 46 arrests).

Black, blue, and brown-helmeted riot police and firefighters moved in from all directions. Hundreds and hundreds of them. We were pushed toward the sidewalks and told to leave or face arrest. The police loudspeaker informed us that we could be “injured” during the arrest process. Finally, discretion got the better of whatever valor I had exhibited by staying so long.

Somewhat sadly, I walked away from the largest and most energetic protest I had participated in since the anti-war protests (Iraq) in New York City, 2003. I walked past a dozen city busses, waiting nearby, ready in the case of massive arrests. The signs on the front of the busses were digitally flashing the words, “ Chicago is…my kind of town.”

I’m old, but the irony was not lost on me. As I walked toward my subway station I passed hundreds more cops. So much over-kill for a virtually peaceful demonstration. Each time I approached one or several police, I sang loudly the words I remembered from that famous Chicago song.  “…You see people who, smile at you…,” etc.  Some smiled. Many scowled. But I was singing out the truth: Chicago is indeed “ my kind of town.”