On Sunday morning, in 90 degree weather, Grant Park was filled with artists, students, workers, and educators, all antiwar activists, gathered for the main protest against the NATO summit in Chicago. It was the largest demonstration, following three days of anti-NATO actions Buses brought protesters from surrounding states, as well as places as far as New York City and Portland. I saw people who I had interned with at In These Times magazine, having come from Texas and Washington DC. The Chicago left was not only represented, but so was a geographically larger community of activists. My question of day was: “We know it’s thousands, but how many thousands of people are here today?” Still, estimates vary from 2,000 to 7,000 at the height of the demonstration.
From noon to 2 pm was a rally in the park, which would be followed by a march to McCormick Place, where the NATO proceedings were going on inside. The rally was an extremely peaceful congregation that consisted of two hours of speeches, musical acts and vying for shady spots in the park’s green areas. Protesters were surprised to experience very little police presence in the park. Aside from one officer following me to a trash can and checking inside after I’d thrown away leftovers from lunch, police presence at the rally was, for the most part, unseen and unfelt.
This dynamic shifted quite suddenly as we began to march to State Street. Chicago and State Police lined our route and strictly would not let anyone pass their line. Each officer was equipped with at least six weapons and many of them suited in heavy padding, “riot gear.”
The uneasiness that was felt leading up the demonstration, like for any mass protest of this size, came not only from Chicagoans who did not partake in the event, and not only from the Chicago Police Department, but also from the protesters. In an antiwar protest, the strong majority of participants are thoroughly dedicated to non violent protest strategies. However, there has never been a movement in which every supporter was on the same page. A large contingency of anarchists were present (and welcome) at the demonstration, many of them advertising themselves as such with black bloc dress. We never know exactly what an individual might do during a protest. The difference between the uneasiness of protesters and that which surely permeated CPD is that their uneasiness came equipped with wooden batons that they did not fail to use.
Speaking at the summit a half mile from where the march ended, President Obama, himself a protester during the first Gulf War, remarked “this is what America is all about,” in reference to the protest as a manifestation of freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble. This right exists but it is severely limited in a climate of fear. There was fearfulness before the march largely because of media coverage that evoked the prospect of violence. The fearfulness persisted to pervade the march because of the militaristic looking, heavily armed police presence. Some people who oppose NATO’s war planning were dissuaded from attending for fear of trouble. A new set of city laws were pushed through by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel leading up to the NATO weekend. This classified protesters as criminals for certain forms of protest and technical violations, even if they remained non violent.
During the time I was at the protest, things remained non-violent. There were elderly people, children and the disabled. Veterans stood up and spoke of how ashamed they were to have participated in unjust wars. After I left around 4:30, however, things got rough. Even though there was no repeat of 1968 when protesters were bloodied in the streets, the cops did flex their muscles and pushed, shoved and threw people to the ground to arrest them.
Media coverage is another factor that impacts the effectiveness of a protest or the accountability of the police. If the media is openly biased in favor of the police or don’t bother to ask protesters why they are there, the viewers cannot really understand or evaluate what is going on. An important corrective is social media that can compensate for skewed mainstream reporting. I was outraged at the unapologetic bias of mainstream reporters in favor of the police. They spoke of protester as unruly, purposeless idiots opposing wonderfully professional toleration of the police. The reality is that people took time away from work, school and friends to express their views about peace and to oppose war.
The live Occupy Chicago twitter feed relayed updates about the whereabouts of protesters and reposting photos taken by protesters within minutes. Around 5:30, one protester posts that he has seen a man’s glasses get knocked of his face by a police officer and struggles to see. Occupy Chicago retweets the post, Occupy Chicago’s 30,000 followers see the post, and then the followers of everyone who retweets the post in the following hour also see the post. And with that, the movement creates the ultimate kind of insider live streaming.
It’s common for people (non protesters) to watch the live aerial footage of a protest on the local news and feel like they have a good understanding of how things went down because they saw it. This was a counter to the live streaming of mainstream media that was so shockingly coupled with fill-in-the-blanks-of-unclear-footage narration.
Overall, thousands of people, all ages and races from different backgrounds and cities, came to Chicago to say ‘no’ to war in a loud and spirited protest. One especially resonant chant was, “Whose streets? Our streets…Who’s war? Their War.” Another, reminding us of the freedoms we do exercise, “this is what a democracy looks like.” And even if the media doesn’t report it, they cannot silence it.