Very little of the American public saw the grand summitry on display at the NATO Summit in Chicago; rather, much of the public perception came from a CNN news reel showing Chicago police surrounding a few protestors and beating them repeatedly with batons. Despite the implicit violence shown in the repeating images, the protests were largely peaceful, if perhaps ineffective in advancing Occupy’s cause.
The protestors had originally planned to gather in Chicago to demonstrate against both the G8 meeting and the NATO Summit, scheduled consecutively. After the G8 was moved to Camp David for security reasons, the hackitivst collective Anonymous called for 50,000 people to descend upon the Windy City, to defy and overwhelm the “police state” while advocating for anti-capitalist beliefs.
According to slogans and articles released by the Occupy movement, the G8 was the target of protest because of the group’s stated goal in meeting: regulating and restoring the global economy. Previous decisions by the G8 have been blamed for the austerity policies currently affecting the European Union, particularly Greece, that Occupy argues disproportionately affects the least economically fortunate. NATO is the military arm of a system of elites calling the shots in economic policy-making organizations such as the G8, and therefore is the “One Percent’s” means of enforcement. While the U.S. military is considered to be working under civilian oversight, NATO’s operational structure works in conjunction with the political elites, who are bought and paid for by vested corporate and financial interests. Therefore NATO answers not to the desire of the people, but runs the Great Games of the elite.
While this was the overriding sentiment of the #noNATO protests, the demonstrations themselves seemed to suffer from a lack of focus and an inability to communicate effectively with outsiders. Rather than the 50,000 activists called for by Anonymous, the larger estimates for crowd size during the Summit weekend reached between 4000 and a little over 10,000 people, despite the free buses offered to activists around the country. In the two days before the Summit began, gatherings that had earlier promised on Twitter to include a General Assembly turned into a few people milling about as the protestors dispersed, eventually leaving behind a few groups either training in crowd management measures or holding a drum circle. Individual points of contention abounded; I observed “Free Bradley Manning” stickers, signs protesting the student loan crisis, hats signaling the demand for a Robin Hood Tax, and many more. Curious Chicagoans who came to observe and learn more about the Occupy movement and its message seemed disappointed at the result.
The Sunday protests were meant to be a catalyst for more sustained protests and anti-war action to be carried on after the Summit. The marches came as close to McCormick Place – where the NATO leaders were meeting – as they could. There, they held a ceremony in which several decorated war veterans, including Occupy Oakland’s wounded Scott Olsen, returned their medals.
@OccupyChicago, an official Occupy Twitter account, tweeted from the event: “’These medals are a symbol of control. I will not hold on to these lies of heroism.’ – War Veterans.”
As the veterans were laying down their medals, security forces began to break up the crowd from the back. Eventually, the situation turned into a standoff, as security forces held a line between the protestors and McCormick Place. Members of the Black Bloc, reportedly largely consisting of self-identified anarchists, led the standoff, and reports from local Chicago outlets stated that the violence had begun when members of the Black Bloc sought to push their way through the police line and antagonized the security forces.
However, it should be understood that those taking part in the Black Bloc went into the protests looking to antagonize. The Twitter account @OWSTactical, which seems to have a broader view of the movement but focused on Chicago during the NATO Summit, made this point clear:
“Our militancy is best understood as taking a pittance of the violence of the #policestate and #capitalism and hurling it back on them.”
“We are #BlackBloc. We show our colors in #solidarity. We wear masks because we are #Anonymous. And we don’t like having our pictures taken.”
“Every #OWS march is an #anticapitalist march.” (In response to user @CarrieM213.)
The choice to mark “solidarity” with a hashtag (which allows messages on Twitter to be grouped together into a stream, creating a dialogue on the topic) seems to show the development of a mindset within the Occupy movement (or at least parts of it) that it is the supporters of Occupy against the world. This belief is also seen in some of the rhetoric developing in Occupy protests: a city’s use of police to keep calm during protests is depicted as evidence of a growing police state; the threat to the growing power of the One Percent’s corporate empire from Occupy will lead political elites to destroy everyone, just to save their power and profits; the belief that the only way to address these problems is through advocating for the downfall of capitalism and working toward the creation of a brave new world, and that the escalation of violence should be tied to the rising resistance of the police state.
While all these concerns may have grounding in the experience of the Occupiers during different protests, almost all of them will fail to resonate with anyone outside the movement. This is especially true when these ideas are presented in the context of a protest, surrounded on every side by lines of security forces. In the United States, police forces have been viewed as trustworthy and vitally important in these kinds of situations by the middle class – exactly the demographic Occupy must target if its ideas are to reach widespread implementation. In the conflict of ideas, Occupy will lose if it is forced to spread its ideas through unrest and broad, unfocused strokes of kinetic action.
The movement is beginning to recognize within itself that it is at a crossroads. It should realize that targeted movements, such as Occupy Our Homes and Occupy the Farm, will be more effective at influencing public discourse than media-grabbing protests. However, in the meantime, the protests have been effective at motivating followers – protests and sit-ins numbering nearly 10,000 people have continued throughout Chicago in the week following the NATO Summit.
For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:
NATO‐China Cooperation: Opportunities and Challenges
NATO Reform: Key Principles
The End of ‘Growth with Equity’?