One of the creepiest things about the No NATO protests in Chicago in late May had to be the city buses. Not the fact that the CPD used them to transport their paramilitary forces across town, but that instead of the LED signs on the front displaying a destination, they read: CHICAGO IS / MY KIND OF TOWN. They just flashed it over and over again. Chicagoans I spoke with had never seen that before.
Certainly some city official somewhere along the way must have realized the freshman-level literary implications of such a message. Presumably the assumed speaker of the utterance is a NATO delegate, or maybe a power-worshipping authoritarian. Either way, a bus full of up-armored commandos flying through the city under a banner of CHICAGO IS/ MY KIND OF TOWN serves as a wonderful symbol the entire disconnected weekend. All outward facing signs attempted to reassure folks that all was fine with the world, while just out of sight lies the full coercive power of the state, ready to spring at a moment’s notice.
The first headline I saw on a Chicago newsstand was a Sun Times haymaker, the kind of tabloid cover that reeks of desperation. The word “NATO” was spelled vertically, each letter beginning a word, like how elementary school children write poems. The line read, “Now Arrives The Ordeal” – which is as offensive with regards to politics as it is with regards to grammar. The Sun Times epitomizes the state-serving media disposition that political dissent is either A) ineffectual and so what’s the point, or B) disruptive in an ineffectual way, so what’s the point. The No NATO protest was simply an “ordeal,” exactly the kind of dismissive language one uses to describe a temper-tantrum. Absent from the establishment media discussion – but not from independent journalists covering the action – was any acknowledgement of the incredible planned actions that happened all weekend.
The highlight of the protests, of course, was the ceremonial returning of military medals by War on Terror veterans by throwing their medals in the direction of the building where the NATO summit was being held. Over 40 vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and occupations took to the stage to tell an estimated 15,000 people why they no longer believed in the military in which they once served.
The ceremony began with a member of Afghans for Peace, who, addressing the NATO delegates thousands of yards away behind any number of closed doors, said:
For what you’ve done to my country, I’m enraged. For what you’ve done to my people, I’m disgusted. For what you’ve done to these veterans, I’m heart-broken.
At another time, a member of Afghans for Peace said two years ago she didn’t know if she could work with NATO veterans, but after spending time together they were able to begin the process of reconciliation.
The ceremony began not with a veteran, but with the mother of a veteran. Mary Kirkland was onstage to speak about her son, Derek, who was deployed multiple times to Iraq. During some initial microphone trouble, various crowd members shouted out, “we love you Mary!”. The techs fixed the sound, and when Mary held the microphone to her mouth and the words, “mic check” rang out loud and clear the crowd erupted in cheers. She said that Derek had been sent to Iraq in June 2007, and after an extension he was forced to stay for 15 months. He came home for a year, “tried to live a normal life”, but was sent back September 9th, 2009. When Mary said that date you could hear her voice drop.
Six months into his tour he tried to commit suicide, over there, in Iraq. They sent him to the hospital in Germany. After about a week and a half he got back to the United States. He was stationed in Fort Lewis […] He got back on a Monday, they kept him overnight at the hospital, he met with a psychiatrist who deemed him after two suicide attempts [Mary didn’t explicitly reference the other attempt – JK] to be a low-to-moderate risk for suicide. They gave him some more medication, had him sign up for alcohol and drug classes. He tried to commit suicide the following Thursday by cutting himself and taking pills with alcohol. He wasn’t successful on the Thursday but he was successful on the Friday when he hung himself.
Even though you know where the story is going, when she finally said it the crowd stood stunned and numb. She went on to say that he hung himself in a barracks, alone, and that it was illegal for the army to put him in a barracks by himself. Even more sickening, on the day she buried her son she picked up a newspaper to read the Department of Defense say Derek was killed in combat and the family declined to comment. In a statement almost zen-like in its simplicity, Mary said, “They start out with lies and then continue the lies.”
After Mary left the stage to thunderous applause, it was the vets’ turn. Jesse Myerson’s excellent report for Truth-Out highlighted several of personal stories that stood out, but here a couple more.
David Van Dam, who was in the Navy and is a war resistor, said he “got an other than honorable discharge, and I want to say their policies are other than honorable. I’m honorable, and all the GI resistors who refuse to fight in unjust wars are honorable. This is is solidarity with all the GI resistors of unjust wars.”
Mark Strudas, of Chesterton Indiana, said, “This is a good conduct medal.” He then laughed darkly and threw the medal on the ground.
Shauna, who didn’t state her last name, said, “I was a nuclear[,] biological [and] chemical weapons specialist for a war that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.”
The most explicitly radical sentiment came from former Marine Vince Emanuele, who said,
First and foremost, this is for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Second of all, this is for our real forefathers. I’m talking about the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. I’m taking about the Black Panthers. I’m talking about the Civil Rights movement. I’m talking about Unions. I’m talking about our Socialist brothers and sisters, our communist brothers and sisters, our anarchist brothers and sisters. And lastly, our enemies are not 7,000 miles from home – they sit in boardrooms, they are CEOs.
Needless to say the crowd went nuts.
After the vets finished and left the area, a group of about 30 protesters linked arms and began moving towards the line of cops who, as Myerson put it, “more resembled commandos occupying a war-torn country than officers of the law in a supposedly liberal American city.” As the bloc, some clad in black, some not, reached the cop line, the officers pushed back, and then began swinging wildly. There were cameras everywhere, and when the melee started more photographers rushed towards it to get a shot. My sister Molly and I stepped back to survey the scene, at which point the line of CPD near us began shoving the crowd backwards, yelling “move” and “move back” – just like the NYPD has done to me and many others, most recently on May Day – despite the lack of provocation in that area.
Those around me shouted, “we can’t move back, there’s nowhere to go.” The police continued to shove us with their batons, until a few protesters toward the back of the crowd toppled a CPD barricade to escape. Street medics created an on-the-fly triage center in an alley next to a chain-store pizza restaurant. I witnessed several protesters bleeding from the head being lead to the alley and attended to by the medics. One was a photographer who I later learned said he didn’t remember any of the incident. Another was a hulking young man who two smaller medics could barely walk to the end of the block. I later saw him being loaded into an ambulance, face covered by his T-shirt, covered in rusty blood.
Around this time protesters began handing out earplugs. CPD had stationed the LRAD sound-cannon around the corner on Michigan and were issuing dispersal orders through it. Molly and I had bought earplugs in anticipation of the LRAD, which we promptly put in. It’s extremely bizarre being in a crowd where everyone has plugs in their ears. In the presence of probable state violence, those members of society most desperate to form new communities and new ways of communicating are forced to shut themselves off from one another. In late capitalism, even those who try to fight against alienation become atomized, leaning towards each other, wiping sweat and blood from their face saying, “huh?!”
After 30 minutes of stand-off, Molly and I walked a block to Harold’s Chicken to recharge. The pleasant woman behind the bullet-proof glass told us she was out of water, except for the display bottle, which was hot.
“I’ll take it,” Molly said. Several other journalists were there charging their phones.
I walked outside and after taking about 20 steps on Wabash I saw a kid, maybe 18, darting through the adjacent parking lot. He reminded me of Midge – the baby kitten my partner Charlotte and I just adopted – zig-zagging through my living room. He made to the sidewalk, at which point he was thrown to the ground by an officer. Three more piled on and were then surrounded by another dozen.
The police drag-walked him to an ambulance, where an EMT looked over him. I wasn’t able to find out what happened in the minutes immediately before he started running.
Shortly after that incident I checked Twitter and saw numerous reports about a bride and groom whose wedding photos had been “crashed” by NATO protesters. The tepid human interest story revolves around a couple going downtown to take wedding photos and having some brief and inconsequential run-in with passing protesters, but it serves as a perfect example of what the media is capable of covering and how they distort the issues to serve the powerful.
An NBC story would later report, “[the bride] was frazzled, but not injured,” which is an interesting way to report the news – ie, reporting what didn’t happen. In fact, there where all kinds of things that didn’t happen to her. “[The bride] was frazzled, but didn’t escape in a hot air balloon.” “[The bride] was frazzled, but didn’t meet British film star Clive Owen.” The catalog of events that didn’t happen to her is endless, and yet the local TV affiliate chose to tell their viewers and readers, she wasn’t “injured.” In this not-so-subtle way, media outlets both confirm and perpetuate the toxic stereotype that those who resist imperial wars are distrustful, violent criminals from whom you were lucky to escape unhurt.
Police conduct away from the action was the most troubling and invisible, and it hung over the entire week like a drone. Pre-emptive arrests mirrored the NYPD’s actions prior to May Day. The NATO 3 became the NATO 5 as the state doled out more “terrorism”-related charges. Police infiltrators and criminal informants are nothing new, but after the NATO 3 raid in Bridgeport and the flimsy case in Cleveland, entrapment seems to be a favorite for police. The FBI has long created and then foiled so-called terrorist plots involving Muslims – now activists are being similarly targeted.
The media, however, was falling over themselves with praise for the CPD. As Kevin Gosztola reported for FireDogLake, the AP ran a story under the headline, “Chicago police get high marks for NATO protests.” And Reuters editors wrote, “Chicago police erase 1968 stain at last with NATO summit.” Local radio station WBEZ flattered CPD superintendent Garry McCarthy by calling him a “general,” and asking him about his “next battle.”
One of the other highly questionable events was when Tim Pool and Luke Rudkowski, both popular livestream journalists, were stopped in their car with three other journalists on Saturday night. The CPD approached the vehicle with guns drawn, and 12 other police vehicles in the immediate vicinity. After being handcuffed and search the journalists were allowed to go, but not before Rudkowski’s video documentation of the event was deleted.
The chilling effect these incidents have – along with targeted arrests of activists – is profound. Organizers often talk about being tailed by undercover cops. Some of it is likely paranoia, some of it accurate observation. A reliable New York activist recently tweeted out that an unnamed friend of hers was recently arrested and taken to the 1st precinct in Manhattan. Inside he saw a “bulletin board w all our pictures, and diagrams of … who interacts with who, etc…. He says the board covered an entire wall. Pix from Facebook, screenshots from livestream, twitter, etc”
On Friday, four days after I got home from Chicago, a Village Voice journalist and I spoke with members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They’re preparing a report describing, among other things, the freedom that citizens in member states (including the US) have regarding their ability to peaceably assemble. They told us that after the US they were going to Croatia and I was genuinely curious about how the two states would stack up.
The media continues to sound the death knell of Occupy and mindlessly praise the authorities, as militant crackdowns on encampments and marches remain mystified in the public consciousness. Even as Jamie Dimon is scheduled to appear before Congress to explain JPMorgan Chase’s $3bn and growing abysmal bet, even as Morgan Stanley faces increased scrutiny regarding the Facebook IPO, even as Quebec explodes in the sound of hundreds of thousands of pots and pans, and as Greece and Spain threaten to send the whole world into chaos, the American media still refuses to see the message and instead ridicules a strawman messenger. That’s why the “climate of fear”, as Gosztola called it, around the protest was so pernicious. Without the alternate narratives that independent journalists create, all we’re left with is the story of an unhappy bride – not the story of decades of unchecked imperialism.