Monday, May 21, 2012

The NATO Protests in Chicago

Well, NATO is over, and the city of Chicago survived. In fact, we all survived so well that there is almost a sense of “Is that it?” in the air. Maybe that’s because of things the media didn’t report, which makes it all seem like less of a big deal than it really was.  Or maybe it's because the city is still standing, no worse for the wear, and a lot less protestors came than anyone thought.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I scoped out a couple of the protest rallies over the past few days, including what was supposed to be the “big one” on Sunday. It may seem strange that I attended such a rally, since I’m not a protestor type at all, and I'm also really conservative.  Why did I go? Primarily curiosity. I’ve never been to any type of a protest rally or march, even for a position I support.  They never really seemed like my kind of thing.  (And after going, I have confirmation that they aren't.)  Overall, I don’t see the point in marching down a street yelling out chants and slogans; it seems like a waste of time, and somewhat zombie-like.  But I figured this was kind of a once in a lifetime event.  The news was going on about how big this protest was supposed to be, and NATO was here, so I figured why not?  I was a little nervous about going downtown, given all the security, but in the end I figured that nothing was going to happen in the middle of the day. 

Sunday’s rally was at Grant Park, in the Petrillo Music Shell. I’ve been here before – for Lollapalooza and other events. The Loop was eerily silent and empty.  A lot of streets were shut off, and while there were still tourists and people milling around, it almost felt like "the calm before the storm," or some other cliche.  In the Loop, there were at least three police officers on the platform at each Brown Line el stop, which didn't completely help my feeling that something bad might happen.  Then again, seeing so many cops also made me feel safer, so there was a big dichotomy going on. 

I entered the park off Jackson Avenue. Just beyond Columbus, the north side of the street was lined with booths, that continued into the stage area. Booths, you say? Yes, information booths – from nearly every radical fringe group in existence. There were people supporting socialism, communism, Marxism, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Israel, Bradley Manning, Che, various political prisoners, illegal immigration, healthcare, wind power, eliminating coal, no wars, vegan lifestyles, unions, transit, Code Pink, Occupy Chicago, lifting the embargo on Cuba, you name it. Even the Hare Krishnas were there. The booth area by that entrance was by far the most crowded area of the park.  There were also some people gathered on the opposite side of Jackson Street with flags.

Once I made it through the entrance area, there was plenty of room to wander around. There was a mix of people of all different ages and races. Some looked radical, others looked like anyone else you might encounter on the street, others looked like your grandma or grandpa. There were some children, but not a huge amount.  Some people were in costumes (Renaissance type was common), others were in all black, some wore handkerchiefs over their faces. The atmosphere was festive.  If you ignored the huge "Socialism" type banners and the people speaking over the loudspeakers to their "comrades," you might think you were at any normal festival.  Everyone seemed jovial and in good spirits. Many people were taking photographs.  Everyone I spoke to was polite and kind. Bizarrely, several socialist groups approached me and tried to sell me their newspaper for $1. Go capitalism?

I hear that bands were playing on the stage from around 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., but I didn’t arrive until about 12:30 p.m. By this point, over 40 people were allowed to stand up and state their piece, on behalf of their group.  I stood for a little while watching, but then decided to sit down in the grass. It was an incredibly hot day, over 90 degrees. There were almost too many loudspeakers in the area – some of the women who spoke were yelling and screaming directly into the microphone ("Down With Imperialism!"), which was not kind to the ear drums, and I wasn’t even sitting close to the loudspeakers. The lady from Occupy El Barrio was the worst.  To me, every position felt radical, but that’s likely because I am very conservative. (I don’t, however, take any issue with people who oppose the wars. That’s a position I can understand, even if I don’t always necessarily agree.)  Nearly every speaker referred to the crowd as “brothers,” “sisters,” or “comrades” which always creeps me out to hear.  There was much talk of “solidarity” and “destroying imperialism.” One speaker quoted Che Guevera. That’s the kind of event it was. Gathering of the fringe.  Many of the speakers – even though yelling at times – had a certain lifelessness to their voices, as they got the crowd to chant with them. 

I watched until around 1:30 p.m., then began making my way out of the area, not only because I was starving, but because I wanted to clear out before the march began. Although I later heard that some arrests were made at the rally, I didn’t see anything there that gave me any concern as far as my safety. I’ve seen estimates that there were 15,000-20,000 people there. Not even close, in my opinion. While I’m not great at estimating numbers of people, the area actually felt somewhat empty except right along Jackson Street. The area in front of the stage was nearly bare. Others, like me, were scattered sitting on the grass. There was no danger of getting caught up in a crowd, at any rate. I would estimate there was maybe 5,000-7,000 there, at the very most. By the time I left, many had started to line up for the 2:00 p.m. march. As I walked west on Jackson, I wasn’t alone. Quite a few people were filtering out prior to the march. The intersection of Columbus and Jackson was packed with police officers – hundreds lined up. More were walking toward the area and getting off buses. I’ve never seen so many police officers in one place in my life. Most appeared to be wearing bullet proof vests.

I walked up to Al’s and got an italian beef sandwich (this is a must if you ever visit Chicago!), then found a bench at the corner of State and Jackson to sit down and watch the march pass. I waited for quite awhile, and heard them well before I saw anyone. Police surrounded the march, from the beginning, to lined up along the sides, to the end. There was a huge, open topped double decker red bus at the beginning where some members of the press were perched, videoing. It’s a funny thing in this day and age of technology to watch something like this. Over half the people marching were taking pictures and video, some with huge, professional cameras. (Amateur journalists?) I began to wonder – what were protests like before it felt like the point of the protest was to simply record it for posterity? What did people do when they actually focused on the protest versus focused on their phones? I got the impression that many people were there just so they could record themselves as being there, rather than that they actually supported “some” position. It’s a strange thing. At any rate, as they flooded by me on Jackson Street, the police tried to corral them into the street. Many ignored them and ran along the sidewalk or cut through the alley to try to move faster. (It moved very, very slowly.) There were babies in strollers, elderly people, and people in motorized scooters. A number of protestors had chosen to cover their faces with bandannas. Due to the number of issues people were protesting, it went by quickly in a blur of color, banners, and chants. I couldn’t understand most of the chanting due to the crowd noise. (Props to Occupy Chicago for the loudspeaker – I could clearly hear you.) There was nothing cohesive about it.

I watched, then went shopping for a little while on State Street, happily finding out that a DSW opened last Thursday. On my way home on the Brown Line, a group of police officers got on. I asked one of them how things were going. He looked exhausted, and just shook his head. I told him that it seemed like they had everything under control. (It really did – there were cops everywhere downtown.) He told me I shouldn’t believe everything I saw, and that things had been really bad the night before. He said protestors were throwing bricks, and that one police officer got hit in the head. He said they expected worse to come, and that their only goal was to keep the protestors contained. You can see that when you watch the footage on the news. I thanked him and told him I felt sorry for them all having to wear all that gear in the heat.

Later on after I got home, I turned on the news, and sure enough, out of the thousands that marched there were some who wanted to cause trouble. After the march ended, they were supposed to leave. Many refused, even after the police officers told them to disperse several times. In my opinion, when you refuse to listen to the police, you are asking to be arrested. The protestors stood in a line, face to face with a line of cops. What were they doing? Why wouldn’t they leave? What was the point they were trying to make? Who knows. These are the people who believe the First Amendment gives them the right to lie down in the street and block it for hours for all of the other people who are trying to pass. These are the people who thought they had the right all weekend to march around wherever they wanted without permits. On Friday evening they marched with permits, snarling traffic on the north side. All day on Saturday they marched without permits, again inconveniencing people, then Sunday the same thing until late at night. Why? Although the majority of the people that participated obviously didn’t want to cause trouble, it’s amazing to me that people would come to a city with what seems to be the sole intent to cause trouble. However, the police kept them all under control. I don’t believe the protestor’s claims that only the police were violent. (These are the same people who, over the weekend have asserted that a protestor died, that police were handing out poisoned water, and that various apartments where protestors were staying had been raided, even though none of this was true.) You can see in the footage that the protestors are taunting and instigating the police officers. You can see some of them touching the police officers. Many of them seem to be what my mom would call “little assholes.” I would add the word “entitled.”

I guess maybe some people do this for fun – go to protest rallies and marches. I can’t see getting arrested for any of these causes. Why not do something productive? Support a candidate who supports your views. Start a business. Write a blog about how you feel. Hell, write a book. Getting arrested doesn’t stick it to Boeing, President Obama, or anyone else you oppose. It just makes your life more difficult. You get to sit in jail for however many hours, have to get an attorney, go to court, possibly have a record. To what end? One guest commentator on CNN last night (at least I think it was CNN) made the comment that most of the people inside NATO probably had no idea what was going on with the protest. They would only see it if they turned on the television set. Do you think President Obama cares that Joe Schmo from Portland, Oregon got arrested protesting NATO? I seriously doubt it. Actually, it’s astounding to me that only 60 something people got arrested in the past few days. If anything, that tells you how much the Chicago police let these people get away with. Or else, it tells you that there weren’t very many protestors. I suppose other people who have problems with our society have other things to do, like work or take care of their families.

At any rate, NATO is over, and Chicago is still standing.  Let's hope I can get home from work without encountering a band of wayward protestors.

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