“Occupy might just be the name we’ve put on a great groundswell of popular outrage and a rebirth of civil society too deep, too broad, to be a movement. A movement is an ocean wave: this is the whole tide turning from Cairo to Moscow to Athens to Santiago to Chicago.” —Rebecca Solnit, February 21, 2012
On May 22nd, the day after the NATO summit concluded, the Chicago Tribune’s leading headline read: “Chicago keeps its cool.” Reading these four words at the airport before flying back to the east coast, I couldn’t help but laugh in disgust. Images of police repression from the past week raced through my mind; of unwarranted house raids and arrests, infiltration of activist groups, and violence against protesters in the streets. With the ghost of 1968 occupying the city’s collective consciousness throughout the month of May, NATO certainly could have been worse. But even if it is true that Chicago did not completely devolve into the chaotic melee of the Democratic National Convention over four decades before, suggesting that the militarized “Global Crossroads” managed to “keep its cool” still seemed dishonest.
Standing there in the airport terminal trying to put this whole experience into perspective, I also thought of the dozens of military veterans who courageously returned their medals of honor from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. In opposition to NATO policies that have devastated these two countries, each of the veterans took turns hurling these medals toward McCormick Place where the delegates were meeting. Then I thought about the 17 busloads of Occupiers from the east and west coasts who traveled countless hours and miles just to have their voices heard in Chicago. Not all of those who traveled from out of town, though, were able to have their voices heard during the NATO summit; some of whom remain imprisoned to this day. Mostly I was thinking about the current state and trajectory of this movement of movements known as Occupy, which had such a strong presence there all weekend, and throughout the month. I thought about its vast challenges, as well as its unknown, but seemingly infinite possibilities ahead.
Confronting a War of Entrapment
“Now, years later, I still have trouble when I think about Chicago (1968). That week at the Convention changed everything I’d ever taken for granted about this country and my place in it…Every time I tried to tell somebody what happened in Chicago I began crying, and it took me years to understand why…” – Hunter S. Thompson
The first of the challenges for Occupy is the systematic state repression against the movement. From the NYPD’s early crackdown on Occupy Wall Street to the coordinated effort of mayors, along with federal agencies, across the country to contain and dismantle the encampments in the Fall, this has been an obstacle since day one. Since the Spring began, the state has further intensified its level of repression against Occupy.
On May 1st, coverage of the nationwide May Day general strike actions was obscured by an alleged bomb plot by Occupy Cleveland members who were apprehended by the FBI. It has now become clear that this was a case of entrapment and a harbinger of the state’s latest strategy: the manufacture of terrorism charges to demonize and defeat Occupy activists.
“Right in the nick of time, just like in the movies,” Rick Perlstein responded in a Rolling Stonereport on ‘How FBI Entrapment Is Inventing Terrorists.’ “The authorities couldn’t have more effectively made the Occupy movement look like a danger to the republic if they had scripted it. Maybe that’s because, more or less, they did.”
Just over two weeks after Cleveland, we saw this tactic employed again in Chicago against the NATO 3. After a late night raid on May 17, Brian Church, Jared Chase, and Brent Betterly were arrested and charged with, “conspiring to commit domestic terrorism during the NATO summit” and “plotting to attack President Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters, the Chicago mayor’s home and police stations.” Six other activists arrested in the house raid were eventually released after 48 hours but the NATO 3, who all traveled from out of town, have remained behind bars and are being held on $1.5 million bail.
“We believe these are fabricated charges that are based on police informants and provocateurs,” argued Michael Deutsch of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), representing the NATO 3.
The day before the NATO summit began, Deutsch spoke outside his clients’ hearing at the Circuit Court of Cook County: “This is a common pattern for people protesting. We know there were two police informants who infiltrated the group and we believe they’re the ones who provoked this and they’re the ones who had the illegal activity and the illegal materials. That’s our understanding.”
Despite the tireless efforts of the NLG and others, the charges of foiled “terror” plot, just as in Cleveland on May Day, served to steal the headlines and help the city justify the millions of dollars it allocated for security during the meetings. On Saturday, as protesters geared up for the march against NATO, there was a solidarity march for those arrested in the raid, keeping spirits high.
Longer term, this “ war of entrapment” will prove to be one of the greatest challenges as Occupy moves forward. This “pattern of repression” that Green is the New Red author Will Potter illustrates has been escalating against radical activists in the United States throughout the past decade. This includes the FBI entrapment of activists leading up to the Republican National Convention (RNC) in 2008, in which similar “terrorism” charges were filed against organizers, “later reduced to a misdemeanor,” according to Potter.
As the summer of 2012 approaches and Occupy activists begin gearing up to demonstrate against this election year’s national conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, it will be important to focus on political education around this phenomenon and to remain vigilant. It will also be essential for social movements to support the courageous work of progressive legal groups like the National Lawyers Guild and also independent investigative journalists whose work has helped illuminate this systematic, and illegal, government repression. Movements must also continue to support the people targeted by these tactics, for even as they are released from prison after the evidence against them erodes into fabrication, they will likely remain traumatized by the terror of the state. We cannot leave them behind in this struggle.
Beyond Chicago Spring toward a Global Summer
“Surely the only possible answer to the tired question of where Occupy should go from here is: everywhere. I keep being asked what Occupy should do next, but it’s already doing it. It is everywhere.” —Rebecca Solnit, February 21, 2012
One of the most significant developments of this month in Chicago was the role that Occupy, led by organizers from Occupy Chicago, played in reinvigorating the antiwar movement. The massive march against NATO on May 20th came out of several months of organizing by the Coalition Against NATO/G8 Poverty and War Agenda (CANG8) which include a number of people involved with Occupy. From the initial battle with Mayor Emmanuel’s office earlier in the year to obtain a permit to community outreach and education efforts, CANG8 harnessed the energy and excitement of the 99% Fall uprisings and fulfilled the expectations of a Spring resurgence. These factors made #noNATO an historic national, and even international, protest for peace and justice—the first of its size in the Obama era.
Beyond inspiring and organizing large numbers in the streets throughout the NATO summit, the Chicago Spring effectively drew connections between global poverty and local austerity, bloated military budgets and the decimation of social services. This encouraged Occupy to confront the ways in which militarism and empire relate to economic inequality while reigniting an antiwar movement in this new age of drones and secret kill lists. From the march against the defense contractor Boeing’s Chicago headquarters on May 21st to the protest in front of the Chicago“Mayor 1%’s” house against the city’s closure of health clinics, these connections were made powerfully and articulately.
Beyond Chicago Spring, we can see the ways in which Occupy is giving new life to movements across the Left in the United States. Even the White House’s last minute decision to move the G8 summit, originally planned for Chicago the two days before NATO, to the fortified bunkers of Camp David in Maryland could not stop the mobilization of thousands of Occupiers from across the country and world. Even as corporate media suggest on a daily basis that the movement is dead, the anti-NATO protests were an illustration that the Left has been strengthened by Occupy and, to some degree, unified in a common struggle against the policies and power of the 1%.
You can see this everywhere. From labor and academic conferences called “ Solidarity for the 99%” and “Occupy the System” to nurses rallying against austerity, Occupy has politicized people who have never been active in their lives and also inspired burned out activists to re-engage. It has started conversations that were not possible last summer and injected creativity and relevance to political debate and action. Of course the movement has had many serious internal problems, such as sexual assault and racism during the encampments, and the challenges it faces to stay relevant and effective are innumerable; but everywhere you look people are still occupying in various new ways. Every day in towns and cities all over the “basic message” that Slavoj Žižek identified in his October 2011 speech at Occupy Wall Street is being amplified to the world: “We are allowed to think about alternatives.”
And the tide truly is turning globally. While I was in Chicago a growing student movement in Quebec exploded into the mass revolt now known as the Maple Spring. Beginning in February as a student strike against debt after a proposed tuition increase of 75% was announced, the province has seen an unprecedented social mobilization during the past month in solidarity with the students. Montreal-based artist and activist Norman Nawrocki described it as “something that has never been witnessed here before. Old, young, politicized or not, in Montreal, and outside the metropolis, something is stirring people’s minds and hearts. Something big…”
As the government in Quebec attempted to contain the uprising by criminalizing dissent and free speech, even more people have come out into the street for “casserole” marches, banging pots and pans. In solidarity with the striking students, Occupy Wall Street organizers began holding similar marches in New York which has inspired other cities across the U.S. to do the same, addressing the issue of crushing student debt here.
Meanwhile thousands were marching to block the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany’s Blockupy to protest “untamed capitalism” just as students in Chile, demanding free education, and Mexico, against media misrepresentation, were staging their own revolts. This was, and is, happening across the world, including in Egypt where the occupation of Tahrir Square brought down a dictator over a year ago. These latest demonstrations, as Democracy Now! recently reported, were in response to the military-led government’s ongoing corruption, repression, and its failure to bring former Mubarak officials and family members to justice. The Egyptian revolution, along with the Indigados of Spain last May, helped plant some of the seeds of Occupy Wall Street, of our “Tahrir moment.”
So what is in store for these movements in the US and across the world? Is this the dawning of a global summer? That is up to us.
As Rebecca Solnit wrote earlier this year: “What happens now depends on vigorous participation, including yours, in thinking aloud together about who we are, what we want, and how we get there, and then acting upon it. Go occupy the possibilities and don’t stop pedaling.”
Also see these related reports from Matt Dineen:
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia where he staffs at the Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore. He is also a graduate student at Goddard College. This article is the third in his series about Chicago Spring.