Fear and Resistance in Chicago: The People’s Summit and NATO Week of Action

Protests in Chicago (Credit: Chicago Indymedia)
Protests in Chicago (Credit: Chicago Indymedia)

Also see this related report from Matt Dineen: From the Streets of Chicago Spring: May Day and Beyond

CHICAGO—“They are saying that the world leaders are coming to Chicago to meet next weekend, but I have news for them: The leaders are right here.”

This declaration by Pat Hunt, an organizer with the Coalition Against NATO and G8 (CANG8) and Code Pink, kicked off the People’s Summit on Saturday May 12th. One week before NATO arrived here, this counter-summit was held in the same south side warehouse that Occupy Chicago has called home since January. Hunt’s welcoming remarks were part of the summit’s opening plenary, “NATO/G8: Their Agenda of War and Austerity,” which featured local and national peace and justice activists.

The People’s Summit: An antidote to fear

“The People’s Summit was put together to provide an alternative vision,” Hunt later explained in an interview. “We’re tired of the fear.”

I arrived in Chicago from Philadelphia on April 30th, in time for the May Day march. During this time here I can personally attest to the fear that has been created around the impending NATO meeting—the first in the United States held outside of Washington, D.C. In the weeks leading up to this alternative summit, jointly organized by Occupy Chicago and CANG8 as part of Chicago Spring, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s machine has been engaged in a systematic campaign of fear. The message to the citizens of this city has been: “Stay home. Be scared.”

This propaganda campaign successfully redirected righteous anger and frustration toward the NATO summit itself onto local activists and out-of-town protesters. With the assistance of ever-willing corporate media outlets, a climate of fear has been manufactured in which, for instance, people who work in downtown offices have received memos to dress casually during the week of the summit to avoid violent attacks by “black bloc anarchists” and other agitators. Meanwhile some companies have instructed employees to work from home the Friday before and on Monday, the second day of the summit, to avoid downtown all together. There has been nonstop conversation during this time about heightened security measures, street closures, and other inconveniences caused, again, not by NATO, but by those protesting NATO’s policies.

This is, in a large part, to justify the millions of dollars the city of Chicago has allocated for security during the military alliance’s summit. Throughout the weekend of the People’s Summit, crucial connections were made regarding the inequities of the city’s funding priorities. As the whole region anticipates the arrival of NATO delegates, Mayor Emanuel has been enacting austerity measures, cutting public services in order to balance his budget. His proposal to close down half of the city’s 12 mental health centers is just one of the most recent, and contentious, examples of this policy.

“The Occupy movement around the country has been focusing on local struggles,” Zoe Sigman of Occupy Chicago’s labor working group told summit participants during Saturday’s closing plenary. They have been at the forefront of the movement to save the clinics, helping initiate an occupation of the Woodlawn clinic in solidarity with patients there in April.

In one workshop, facilitated by members of the American Friends Service Committee Chicago office, the global policies of militarism and austerity imposed by NATO and the G8 were placed in a local context. Entitled “Confronting the Crimes of the Global 1% and their Private Army,” the workshop helped explain how the privatization of services, from Libya to Chicago, serves to consolidate the interests of the wealthy and powerful. They explained that within this system, atrocity is “not an unexpected event,” and went on to connect the terrorizing of neighborhoods across the Middle East through NATO drones attacks to the police shootings of people of color in Chicago. In each case, those responsible for the atrocities have not been held accountable, so one of the most important tasks of our movements, they emphasized, must be to seek justice for the victims of these policies.

“We have to accept our own power,” advised former army reserve colonel Ann Wright in claiming a collective victory in the G8’s last minute retreat to Camp David. She also told the crowd that Chicago will be on display this week for the “citizens of the world” to see that there is resistance here too. “We will look NATO in the eyes and say: Get out of town!”

This fearless attitude was inspiring, especially coming from someone who, after three decades, left the system out of opposition to the Iraq War. Meanwhile, the culture of fear permeated this city during the week leading up to the NATO summit; fear of bag searches and being asked for ID and endless delays on public transportation. People who live and work in the city were faced to navigate a militarized reality as a no-fly zone and “red zone” were employed just before the delegates arrived.

“Changing the world requires collective struggle,” wrote the organizers in explaining the goals of the People’s Summit. “But it also requires a collective process of discovery, debate and dialogue about how to organize that struggle.”

The gathering was planned as part of Chicago Spring, before the G8 summit was moved to Camp David. With workshops ranging from health care to racial profiling, independent media and immigrant justice to the Arab Spring and job crisis in the United States, connections were made across this multiplicity of issues. Occupy Chicago joined CANG8, a grassroots coalition against war and poverty, in the same spirit as the World Social Forum; to articulate a vision for a new kind of society.

For some involved with the Occupy movement, however, the intersection between the G8’s economic policies and NATO’s military domination was not obvious. During a workshop by CANG8 organizers on “The Strategic Aim in Opposing NATO in Chicago,” Joe Iosbaker talked about the Occupy the Midwest conference held in St. Louis in just after the White House announced that the G8 was no longer meeting in Chicago the same weekend as NATO. “People outside of Chicago wanted to cancel the protest,” Iosbaker said. But then the Occupy Chicago activists there, who had participated in the months of local organizing and consciousness-raising here explained to them that NATO is the military arm of the 1% and that they are part of the same system. This connection immediately clicked with the rest of the room and everyone was back on board. Iosbaker, a veteran organizer, joked, “My work here is done.”

NATO Week of Action: The collective struggle begins

After the People’s Summit, Occupy Chicago and its allies began gearing up for a week of collective struggle. Each day leading up to the NATO summit, a different action was planned around a specific issue. Each of them put local movements in broader political context. As the week of action announcement put it: “In the spirit of the Chicago Spring, you and your community will be able to act upon particular yet interrelated themes of social justice everyday… The ten days of action have been designed to highlight problems that affect the world by highlighting how they affect our city and illustrate the connection between our struggles and the commonality of our fight. See you in Chicago.”

The issues featured throughout the week of action included transportation, education, immigration, housing, the environment, and healthcare. The most visible of the events took place on Friday May 18th, the day that the G8 summit began in Camp David. The focus of this day was austerity, an issue that was amplified by the National Nurses United’s (NNU) call for a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street banks.

The NNU march and rally received extra media attention after the mayor’s office decided to revoke its permit, which had been granted months prior. The city claimed that the rally would have to be moved from Daley Plaza in the heart of downtown to another location because of the addition of nationally-known musician Tom Morello to the bill and a larger crowd. The NNU was determined not to have their message muffled by a less visible location and the ACLU helped them successfully win this fight with the city through a federal lawsuit. The only concession was that the musical performance had to be cut down to 30 minutes.

“They’ve given me a half hour to rouse the crowd,” said the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist after the agreement had been finalized. “We’re going there to have our voices heard!”

The rally was big, thanks in part to an additional number of supporters who arrived the night before and earlier that morning on buses from the east and west coasts. The group 99% Solidarity provided these buses for free to Occupiers in cities from New York to Los Angeles, some stopping in cities and towns in between to pick folks up, all converging in Chicago. They even provided free meals on each bus.

When I arrived downtown Friday afternoon, a middle-aged woman from Portland asked how to get to Daley Plaza and said that she was part of Occupy Portland and had travelled all the way from Oregon with 50 other people thanks to 99% Solidarity. The buses stuck around all weekend through the end of the NATO summit Monday evening.

After Tom Morello’s performance at the NNU rally against austerity, a march of about 1,000 protestors began snaking through the Loop with a heavy police presence surrounding it on all sides. It would eventually morph into a number of smaller spontaneous marches that would go on late into the night.

As the weekend arrived, and many Chicagoans began to flee their homes, or remain inside of them, the tension between resistance and fear continued to oscillate and, at times, escalate. The police entrapment, unwarranted raid and subsequent filing of false terrorism charges against three activists visiting from out of town caught headlines, but only served to unite the resistance.

On Saturday, the day before the NATO summit began, a massive and unpermitted solidarity march for the “NATO 3” wound through the city late into the night and resulted in a number of arrests by heavy-handed police. Occupy Chicago’s Zoe Sigman, who lives at the house that was raided in the city’s Bridgeport neighborhood, but was not home the night of the arrests, summarized this moment: “They raided our home to make us afraid. They raided our home, so we couldn’t do the important job we’re doing.”

As NATO delegates began arriving in Chicago that night, the resistance was just beginning.

Also see this related report from Matt Dineen: From the Streets of Chicago Spring: May Day and Beyond

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 second in his series about Chicago Spring.