On Saturday night, a white Chicago police van tried to drive through a crowd of protesters, marching west on Jackson Boulevard. The protesters swarmed the van, banging on its side. The van accelerated. The protestors slashed its tires. The van didn’t stop.
One protestor—a dude with no shirt but very quick feet—didn’t get out of the way of the “pig van,” as one Occupier called it.
The protester pavement surfed down the street.
“Medic, medic,” another member of the crowd yelled.
It appeared (from my vantage point, at least, about ten feet away) that someone had been injured in the incident.
The medics — Occupiers who volunteer to treat the various injuries endured during extended confrontation with local authorities — formed a circle around the injured person. Photographers, many of them activists themselves, moved into take pictures. They were greeted with screams: “Get the fuck away, no pictures, no pictures.”
Those trying to take photos pointed out that, in part, this is what a free press in a democracy looks like. That didn’t go over very well, and more profanity ensued. Ten minutes later, a member of Occupy Chicago told me that the injured protester had been arrested.
Up until the major confrontations the next afternoon, the van incident had been one of the more dramatic clashes of the weekend. And as I’d seen in rallies and riots from Gaza to Baghdad to Kabul, when a crowd gathers and violence is in the air, principles and humanity have a way of rapidly evaporating.
The march moved on, eventually going south, late into the night and deep into the city, a vocal and lively group of Anarchists taking the lead.
Before going any further, let me make some obvious points about the three days I’ve spent at marches around Chicago and inside the NATO Summit itself.
They are two separate worlds, the global elite and the protesters. Strangely, the only true connective tissue between these universes is the massive security presence—the thousands of cops, DHS agents, Secret Service, and other well armed men in riot gear—who are there to protect one from the other. The protesters and the summit attendees share a common bond in being surrounded by body armor, snipers, and barricades.
The overwhelming message of the protest was to stop spending money on waging war, and, to stop killing people during war. The majority of the protesters were very peaceful, with peace the central part of their agenda.
This, of course, can’t be said for a small portion of those taking to the streets, who get as much of kick out of the violence as any of the soldiers and cops they protest.
That this predilection for violent action might be a necessity is one of the hotly contested topics of debate within the Occupy movement.
The act of confrontation — the role that those who are prepared to agitate and provoke police; or, who are just willing to not obey police commands — has played a key part in the movement’s rise to prominence.
The brutality of the police response to what were sometimes deliberate provocations — caught on iPhones and videos and LiveStream — captures media attention. By participating in civil disobedience and outright violent confrontation, the protesters (who often feel their mere presence is provocation, but occasionally do toss sticks and water bottles) hope to end up revealing the extent that American authorities are prepared to go to prevent dissent and to keep people off the streets.
That was Saturday night. The NATO Summit began the next morning.
On Sunday morning, I picked up my official NATO Summit press credentials, went through an extensive security check from my hotel (dogs, metal detectors, Secret Service, all in the The Hyatt Regency, where most of the NATO media is staying) and boarded a bus to McCormack Place, the massive conference center where most of the summit is taking place.
Both the trip there and the trip back seemed designed to keep the chaos at bay, out of sight and out of mind, with roads closed down to secretly slip us by the potentially angry people in the streets. If Chicago residents were going to get annoyed by the traffic, and NATO protesters annoyed by the heavy handed police tactics, the global elite weren’t going to be bothered by any of it.
Compared to the reality of the Chicago streets — the heat, the smells, a sense of manic purpose — the cavernous McCormack place felt very sterile. World leaders faces were broadcast on big screens, played in endless loops exchanging pleasantries. (Example: “It is great to be back in Chicago,” says NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. “Welcome each and everyone of you to my hometown, “ says President Barack Obama.)
The international press corps covering NATO must be one of the most boring collectives of journalists ever assembled. They seem very keen on not missing any press releases handed out at the NATO media desk.
The summit itself is mostly a symbolic affair — we nations gather together and affirm our commitment to one another. In Afghanistan’s case this is no longer true, however: the commitment is really to get out of our commitments as quickly as possible.
Increasingly, too, these NATO summits (the last one was in Lisbon in 2010) have become venues for the desperate attempt to prove NATO’s relevance. (“WHY NATO MATTERS” appears to be the subtext of much of the advertising and promotional material that NATO hands out during these gatherings.)
In as much as there is news at these gatherings — besides the news of very powerful people coming to the same place at the same time — it happened at a press briefing with Brigadier General John Allen, the current commander of the war in Afghanistan.
Allen went out of his way to say that the fighting would continue for at least and half more years, probably longer.
“So there is no end of combat before the end of 2014,” Allen said, after an awkward series of questions where he had to pretend he agreed with President Obama’s plan to start withdrawing troops. (Allen had, in the past, opposed the withdrawal.)
(Allen also noted that our Afghan allies in recent months, arrested at least 160 Afghans within the security forces who had planned on killing American and NATO soldiers who were training—he called this a “good news story.”)
The protests weren’t taken very seriously inside, and why would they be? When mentioned, delegates and journalists dismissed them, tut-tutting the more violent tactics the protesters were taking, untroubled by the reality that they represented the world’s most powerful war machines in an alliance created to maintain the balance of nuclear terror.
By the end of the afternoon, the hundreds of protesters trying to march to the summit could not get within shouting distance—they were kept blocks away. I left in the media shuttle bus, and didn’t see or hear any of them. They were invisible from the well guarded Hyatt Regency as well. I had to walk a half a mile away to find them, still protesting, late into Sunday night.
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