Politics for a Smarter World
On May 20-21, 2012, the NATO summit descended upon Chicago with the full weight of the global military industrial complex. The cloistered glitz of the NATO summit and the publicized gore of the anti-NATO protests left an indelible mark on those who participated in these events. However, for most Chicagoans, NATO simply represented one more annoyance in an already grinding daily commute. In the wake of NATO, Chicagoans sprang back into their daily routine with the ferocity of ants rebuilding a demolished anthill. The NATO summit was, to most, unremarkable.
Now, almost two weeks after the event, police have stowed away their riot gear and cleaned their bloodied batons. Throngs of weary but resolute demonstrators have found their way home to a soft bed and clean clothes. The literal and figurative wounds inflicted in Chicago have begun to heal, but the gnawing issues that gave rise to these demonstrations remain. What have we learned?
1. NATO kills people—lots of them.
NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is the world’s largest military alliance and is hailed for its capacity to promote security and stability throughout the world. However, NATO air strikes have consistently murdered innocent people. Afghan officials reported that an air strike on Saturday, May 26, 2012 killed eight civilians, including children. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that NATO air strikes have killed 72 Libyan civilians. NATO officials downplay these killings by cloaking them in euphemistic language. Deadly aerial bombing raids are called “air strikes.” The unintentional killing of civilians is described as an “incident” or “accident.” This language is insidious. Spilling milk on the kitchen floor is an incident. A fender bender in a parking lot is an accident. The habitual slaughter of innocent civilians is murder even when veiled in the rhetoric of peace and liberty. Demonstrators marched against NATO to argue that the “security” it offers is questionable at best and comes at too high a price in lives and money.
2. America spends too much on war.
America outspends its military competitors by a ridiculous margin. Last year, the United States accounted for 41 percent of global military expenditures while China and Russia accounted for only 8.2 percent and 4.1 percent respectively. Similarly, military spending comprises over half of America’s discretionary budget. Moreover, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has come at an inconceivable cost, $3.7 trillion according to some. While America invested vast sums in its military excursions, China invested in its infrastructure and its people. In 2011, China spent twice as much on education as on military spending. Its military budget was $91.5 billion while its educational budget was $189 billion. By contrast, in 2013, the United States will spend twelve times more on the military than it does on education. The United States has budgeted $677.7 billion for military operations and a paltry $55.7 billion for education. Meanwhile, America’s economy falters as students struggle to repay over $1 trillion in student loan debt. To say America’s priorities are misplaced is a gross understatement. A murky confection of reassuring rhetoric about protecting the homeland and dogmatic insistence on military intervention is bankrupting the nation and its people. Demonstrators at the NATO summits derided excessive military spending and chanted, “Money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation.”
3. Chicago lost money on NATO.
The bills from the NATO summit are still arriving. The Emanuel administration repeatedly claimed that the visually stunning, hyper-militarized summit would be fully funded with money from the federal government and private donors. It also claimed that the summit would give a $128 million boost to the city economy. Chicagoans have been skeptical of these claims, and some argue that the summit was a financial bust. With roads closed, buses rerouted, and public encouraged to leave town, businesses were deserted. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that revenues were down as much as 65 percent at some restaurants. Famed chef Rick Bayless’s normally bustling restaurants located far north of the NATO summit had a 15 to 20 percent sales decrease. In addition, many workers lost wages because their places of employment told them to stay home. Finally, Chicagoans are understandably wary about the ultimate price taxpayers will pay for the $36.5 million in private donations that offset the cost of the summit. A series of questionable deals between government officials and corporations have left taxpayers in a lurch. Most famously, Mayor Daley’s long-term lease of the city’s parking meters to a private corporation has been financially disastrous. Mayor Emanuel and Governor Quinn’s tax breaks for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Sears have contributed to a growing budget deficit that has led to drastic cuts to Medicaid. Emanuel’s opaque infrastructure trust and contracts for speed cameras and bicycle sharing reek of costly collusion. Demonstrators at the NATO summit lambasted Mayor Emanuel for prioritizing this event over the financial interests and wellbeing of Chicago citizens.
4. You were supposed to stay home.
A perfect storm of propaganda to suppress turnout preceded the NATO demonstrations. First, media coverage encouraged the public to stay home. News outlets repeated warnings about potential violence, traffic delays, and police preparation. Chicago radio personalities deployed long-standing stereotypes about demonstrators to cast the protests as socially unacceptable. Even the traditionally benign Roe Conn of WLS-AM 890 incessantly mocked protesters and stoked fear about the upcoming events.
Second, law enforcement created a hostile, militarized environment that intimidated the public. Twenty Department of Homeland Security SUVs encircled Daley Plaza. White vans bulging with SWAT teams raced through the streets. Blackhawk helicopters hovered overhead. Officers wearing padded riot gear from head to toe lined the streets. Two futuristic LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Devices) units were positioned on city streets. Trucks with pole-mounted cameras surveilled the public near Buckingham Fountain. All of this, according to Superintendent Garry McCarthy, was simply to protect individuals’ first amendment rights. It was clear that these security measures intimidated many and actually curtailed freedom of expression.
Lastly, one day before the summit, a foiled “terrorist plot” was used as the final means to discredit the message of the demonstrations and to suppress attendance. Brian Church, Jared Chase, and Brent Betterly (the NATO 3) are being held on charges of “conspiracy to commit terrorism.” Police allege that they were preparing Molotov cocktails to be thrown at targets including Obama’s campaign headquarters, Rahm Emanuel’s house, police stations, and squad cars. Sarah Gelsomino, an attorney for the three men, argues that these individuals are victims of a pattern in which “city and various levels of law enforcement manufacture crimes” ahead of special security events. Attorneys for the defendants claim that undercover officers using the names “Mo” and “Gloves” befriended the activists, devised the plot, and furnished the incendiary devices purportedly seized in the raid of the Bridgeport apartment.
The case against the NATO 3 seems flimsy at best. The idea that tech savvy 20-somethings formulated a plot to lob “Molotov cocktails” at Obama’s concrete campaign headquarters is laughable. In fact, the scheme seems lifted from the plot of a 1976 Kojak episode. Had prosecutors alleged that these three were using iPads to launch a coordinated cyber-assault on the communication infrastructure of the Chicago police, this story may have been almost believable. Second, some argue that their arrests came in retaliation for posting a video of their traffic stop by Chicago police one week earlier. The widely circulated YouTube video concludes with a man alleged to be a Chicago police officer stating, “We’ll come look for you, each and every one of you.”
Overall, whether through coincidence or coercion, many people who could have potentially witnessed the demonstrations, and perhaps took part, chose to stay home.
5. The protesters did more than march.
Despite efforts to reduce turnout, thousands of individuals attended a series of fun and successful actions leading up to the NATO summit. Here is a small sampling of the positive and non-violent events:
Students, parents, the Chicago Teacher’s Union, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and Occupy Chicago held an art celebration to protest the relentless slashing of arts funding to urban schools. Dyett High School on Chicago’s South Side has no art teacher and no art program. Occupy activists pointed to a “global agenda of war and austerity” that can raise millions to fund events such as the NATO summit, but “not for mental health clinics and art programs.”
Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction and Occupy Chicago demanded that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart institute a one-year moratorium on all “profit-oriented evictions and foreclosures.” Demonstrators and victims of foreclosures marched to Daley Plaza where they petitioned Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Members of the Mental Health Movement marched to Rahm Emanuel’s home and demanded that the city reopen six shuttered public mental health facilities. They further demanded that other public assets not be handed over to private, for-profit operators in June. The Mental Health Movement has been fighting these closures for years, and on April 12, 2012, nearly fifty individuals locked themselves inside the clinic to protest the closures.
National Nurses United rallied in Daley Plaza for the “Robin Hood Tax.” This .5 percent tax on electronic trades would be used to fund health care for low-income individuals. Thousands of nurses rallied in Daley Plaza. They laughed at a “mock” NATO meeting that lampooned world leaders. They cheered for Shen Tong, a Chinese exile who was one of the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and who is now an Occupy supporter. They sang along with a rousing concert by Tom Morello, famed guitarist of Rage Against the Machine.
In easily the most moving event of the entire week, forty five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars returned their medals in a heartfelt ceremony. The ceremony concluded the large anti-NATO march on Sunday, May 20, 2012. The veterans included Scott Olsen, an Iraq War veteran who was injured by a police projectile last fall at an Occupy Oakland event.
6. All media coverage failed.
Hundreds, if not thousands of reporters, photographers, bloggers, documentary filmmakers, and livestreamers tripped over each other as they tried to report on the demonstrations. But no one got it right.
First, some reporting was simply inaccurate. The most egregious example was the underreporting of the size of the protest march on Sunday, May 20, 2012. The Chicago Tribune reported that the march drew a crowd of between 1,800 and 2,200 demonstrators. Time repeated these counts, and deprecatingly remarked that the organizers claimed that “10,000 people showed up.” Most media outlets settled on a figure of 2,500 demonstrators. Most who attended the march attest that at least 10,000 people participated.
Second, reporting tended to privilege spectacle over substance. Images of blue-helmeted phalanxes of police officers tussling with demonstrators dominated coverage. Bloodied heads and chipped teeth proved irresistible fodder for mainstream news outlets and for protesters alike. For the mainstream media, these images vindicated predictions about inevitable violence. For the demonstrators, these images were proof positive of police brutality and the attempt to suppress free speech. In either case, this frenzy drown out subtler and more important moments of the week of demonstrations: A female officer placed her arm gently around an “anarchist” as they marched side-by-side in Ravenswood. Two-tour Iraq veteran John Anderson delivered a heart wrenching plea for public mental health care in Horner park. A woman held her cherub faced daughter while she articulated concerns about America’s dependence on oil. A father explained the history of NATO to his son and daughter in the shade of Grant Park. Such moments are the underreported heart of the anti-NATO demonstrations.
Third, reporting allured with false promises of totality. Journalists made a sincere effort to copiously document the week’s events. AP reporters feverishly phoned firsthand accounts to writers who arranged these details into a coherent narrative. Students from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism sprinted with recorders and eagerly interviewed attendees and bystanders. Citizen journalists wielded iPads and smartphones, balanced SLR cameras on long poles, and harnessed cyborg-like multimedia contraptions to their shoulders. Updates streamed forth with the fury of a tsunami. Live blogs, status updates, tweets, and livestream video touted total, immediate, and unfiltered access. But such access is an illusion.
Media consumers feel as if they have been eyewitnesses to an event, but this fragmented and endless stream of data is merely an inscrutable trove. Active media consumers sift through this trove. They mine blogs, tweets, and video for the latest developments. However, the fragments they find, even when thoughtfully assembled, can only reveal a distorted representation. Like Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the media consumer only sees the surfaces that someone has chosen for him or her to see. The situation of the passive media consumer is even more dire. He or she has abdicated all responsibility for gathering information about current events. These individuals experience news haphazardly in the midst of an already distracted daily routine. They may read the scrolling headlines of a cable news network while waiting for a sandwich. They may glimpse a headline as they check their email. Worse, these individuals assume that the narratives presented to them are accurate and complete. Consequently, their understanding of any event is necessarily more inchoate. In either case, the producers of media and its consumers fail.
Lastly, journalism even at its finest, is an ineffective means to convey the intangible. NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel might agree that objective reporting cannot express the all-consuming sensory experience of reporting from a war zone. Photos of people marching in demonstration cannot convey their jubilant solidarity. A written quotation, even when carefully contextualized, can never replicate a speaker’s passion or explain an audience’s complex emotional response to the speaker’s words. As humans we rely on the arts to illuminate such experiences. But even the arts—poetry, drama, painting, film, music, and dance—only offer us a shadow of the sublime. The NATO demonstrations were an historic and sublime event. What was depicted in media accounts (including this one) cannot do the events justice.
7. The 99% fought each other.
A handful of police and protesters clashed near the end of an otherwise peaceful march on Sunday, May 20, 2012. I watched as a knuckleheaded protester confronted an officer and attempted to push through the police line surrounding the march. The officer shoved the protester back into the crowd. The crowd responded by pushing back at the officers, and someone threw an empty water bottle. Other officers broke from their line and rushed into the melee. Soon chaos ensued. A short time later, a group of protesters broke off from the march and were cornered by Chicago police. The heavily padded and well-armed police worked over the unarmed crowd with their batons. Police injured a number of individuals; many of whom were simply attempting to escape the violence.
8. Occupy protesters are just people.
Since its inception, the Occupy Movement has been repeatedly dismissed, mocked, and assaulted. Occupy participants have been characterized paradoxically as either as fringe, radical, and dangerous or lazy, pathetic, and ineffectual. The reality is that the vast majority of the individuals who attend Occupy events are painfully normal Americans (even though some don bandanas or Guy Fawkes masks). At any given event you will encounter students, teachers, nurses, postal workers, small business owners, baristas, steel workers, artists, musicians, psychologists, graphic designers, property managers, waiters, retail workers, and IT professionals. The political views of this coalition of Americans are diverse. They express a range of ideological positions that complicate traditional notions of right and left. However, one trait they universally share is compassion for fellow human beings and the view that all social struggles are globally interconnected.
9. Politicians do not understand Occupy.
For almost a year, politicians have been befuddled by the Occupy movement. Most have simply ignored it. Its horizontal structure, non-partisan stance, unorthodox coalitions, and creative tactics have made it impossible for either political party to co-opt the movement or its message(s). Republican presidential nominees have derided Occupy while President Obama has tried to adopt some of its language. Channeling its ethos in his references to a “fair shot” and an “economy that works for everyone,” President Obama misses the point. Occupy is about action and not rhetoric. Congress has refused to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Congress created a healthcare plan that funnels Americans into a broken for-profit healthcare system. Congress has not prosecuted a single individual for the financial collapse of 2008. The momentum behind Occupy will continue to grow as policies harmful to the 99 percent are enacted.
10. The anti-NATO demonstrations were a success.
First, the demonstrations laid bare the formidable structures of power within which all Americans operate. In “Building, dwelling, thinking,” Heidegger explains that “[a] boundary is not that at which something stops but . . . the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.” This was precisely the case in Chicago. Freedom of speech feels alive and well in American culture until individuals begin to exercise it. Once exercised, the boundaries begin to appear. The boundaries began in Chicago with restrictive ordinances passed by the City Council. Next, demonstrators were required to submit costly permits and disclose their march routes. Later, free speech was relegated to demarcated protest zones far away from the world leaders attending the NATO summits. Finally, those bold enough to withstand mockery and fear mongering had to march bounded by walls of police armed with guns and batons. Freedom of speech exists, but the anti-NATO demonstrations revealed the degree to which it is highly constrained in twenty-first century America.
Second, the demonstrations energized the Occupy movement across the country and internationally. Morale was improved. The nascent sense of solidarity and empowerment begun by the Occupy movement last fall was reborn through the focus on the NATO summit. Although the anti-NATO protests were spurred on by the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty agenda, a diverse constituency worked together to organize and execute a wide array of actions in the week leading up to the NATO summit. Community groups and individuals who once felt isolated in their particular struggles discovered newfound support locally and globally. A new and powerful community has been created.
Third, more effective use of technology enhanced communication and cooperation between various Occupy and non-Occupy groups. Organizing the anti-NATO demonstrations demanded new and innovative means of information sharing. Occupy Chicago created the dynamic Chicago Spring website which housed details about the demonstrations and contained a live Twitter feed. Facebook events were created to invite specific individuals and groups to upcoming actions. Social media sites served as real-time communication hubs. Press conferences were held regularly, and expanded use of livestreaming technology offered the outside world a real-time glimpse into the week’s events.
Finally, the demonstrations drew attention to NATO’s role in the world. Even though much of the media attention surrounding the demonstrations focused on incidents of violence, enough coverage seeped through to raise the average American’s awareness of NATO and its role in ongoing international conflict. A new generation of youth who did not grow up in the shadow of the Cold War are beginning to ask questions about NATO, and the demonstrations offered them potent answers.
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