Marching for a world without war and poverty

Nicole Colson reports on the mobilization from around the country to send a message of resistance against the world leaders responsible for war and austerity.

Thousands march against war and austerity in Chicago as the NATO summit beginsThousands march against war and austerity in Chicago as the NATO summit begins

SOME 15,000 protesters took to the Chicago streets on a sweltering Sunday in the culmination of a week of protests against the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Despite a massive phalanx of police and state troopers, protesters gathered in ever-growing numbers in Grant Park downtown and then marched south to a spot near the McCormick Place convention center where world leaders, including Barack Obama, were gathered for the conference of the NATO military alliance.

The event capped off a week of protests and other activities designed to send a message to the global 1 percent: We're fighting for a different kind of world, one without war and poverty.

The size of the demonstration was particularly impressive given the weeks of hysteria about protesters stoked by the city--complete with the passage of a City Council ordinance earlier this year that sharply restricts the most basic free-speech rights.

The hysteria reached a fever pitch last week with the announcement that nine activists had been arrested in a raid on an apartment in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood on May 16. Three of those arrested were later charged with possessing explosives and conspiring to commit terrorism and held on $1.5 million bail each.

The city claims the men considered targeting Barack Obama's reelection headquarters and the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with Molotov cocktails--a claim that lawyers say is patently false. Instead, they point to evidence of entrapment.

"The National Lawyers Guild deplores the charges against Occupy activists in the strongest degree," said Sarah Gelsomino of the People's Law Office. "It's outrageous for the city to apply terrorism charges when it's the police who have been terrorizing activists and threatening their right to protest."

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DESPITE THE attempts to intimidate protesters with an overwhelming show of force, thousands of people turned out not only for the mass anti-NATO march on Sunday, but for events throughout the week.

On Friday, May 18, some 3,000 members of National Nurses United (NNU) and supporters rallied in Daley Plaza downtown to call for a "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions that could raise tens of billions each year in the U.S.

The NNU had to fight with the city to hold its rally--officials initially declared the activist union could not gather in Daley Plaza due to "security" concerns. But the group held its ground, along with musician and activist Tom Morello, and a sea of people turned out for the weekday demonstration. As NNU Co-president Karen Higgins told the crowd, "A better world is possible--and now we know how to pay for it.

The following day, hundreds of activists held a "Health Care Not Warfare" march to protest the city's closure of six of 12 mental health clinics run by the city's Department of Public Health. Chanting ¨They say cut back, we say fight back!¨ and ¨Fight, fight, fight, health care is a human right!¨ protesters took to the streets in the Ravenswood neighborhood before protesting in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house.

But the culmination of the anti-NATO events was Sunday's mass march.

Groups travelled from across the Midwest and beyond to protest the summit of war makers. Occupy movement activists stood shoulder to shoulder with Chicago Teachers Union members. Among the groups that worked to turn out their members were the United National Antiwar Coalition, CodePink and the Bradley Manning Support Network. There were protesters from the Pakistani community, and students demanding union rights for graduate employees and protesting student debt.

Dozens of speakers at a pre-march rally connected the issue of NATO's war to economic injustice at home and abroad, as well as the fight for a better world. Those concerns were reflected in the diverse array of signs in the crowd, including "Stop the racist hate--Muslims are welcome here" and "No to NATO and G8 warmakers--No to war and austerity."

The plight of political prisoners was also on display, with signs calling on the Obama administration to free WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning and release longtime Chicano activist Carlos Montes, who is currently on trial in Los Angeles and faces up to five years in prison for perjury and firearms charges stemming from an FBI raid on his home in May 2011.

Wearing a shirt that read "Solidarity" and carrying a sign reading "Fund moms, not bombs," protester Joe Shansky explained that he had travelled from Wisconsin with some 120 other activists:

I came out here to join in solidarity. I work for an immigrant rights group, and we've seen that a lot of the money that gets spent on these endless wars should be used here at home...We like to say that an attack on one is an attack on all, and in Wisconsin, we've seen that to the nth degree--we've seen how our current governor, Scott Walker, is in the pocket of the same big corporate interests that are behind these wars that we're here to oppose.

Tania Unzueta, an immigrant rights and LGBT rights activist, spoke to the crowd about the way in which wars and economic injustice abroad force people to leave their homes in search of a better life. As she told the crowd:

There's resistance, not only by those who have the privilege of having U.S. citizenship or legal status, but also by those of us who are perceived as vulnerable or undocumented. All over the country, there are immigrants from all sectors, organizing and saying loud and clear that we are undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic.

The march was led by a contingent of dozens of members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), many dressed in fatigues and wearing their medals. In march formation, they chanted, "No NATO, no war, we don't work for you no more!" Some IVAW members took part in a die-in and "returned" their medals in a symbolic gesture aimed at the politicians meeting in McCormick Place.

Along a lengthy march route studded with empty city buses (presumably to carry away "troublemakers") whose electronic marquees had been changed to read, "Chicago is my kind of town," former U.S. Army Col. and retired State Department official Ann Wright explained the importance of the protest against NATO:

Being here to say no to NATO is really important to me as a retired military [officer] and as a former diplomat, too. I'm seeing what the U.S. is doing using organizations like NATO to do its dirty work, its military operations all over the world. People have been injured, harmed, killed by NATO and the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan. The people want this to end, so I'm here in solidarity.

As marchers chanted "They're our brothers, they're our sisters--we support war resisters!" in the background, Wright added: "NATO is a military organization, so [having vets speak out] is important to say, military to military, that we've been there, we've done that, and it's wrong."

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THE MARCH also featured a spirited labor contingent, including several dozen Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members in their red union T-shirts. The CTU is planning for its own mass rally on May 23--and has come under fire from the city, especially Mayor Emanuel, for daring to say that they will not work a longer school day for free.

As CTU member Mary, who has been teaching for three years, explained:

We're getting ready for our own rally on May 23, and I thought it'd be a good idea to join in this rally as well. We don't want to go on strike, but hopefully we can get the support and awareness from the public and from Rahm Emanuel to understand that teachers are on board with providing students with quality education. Rahm needs to understand what kind of working conditions are fair and just--the same kind of working conditions he works under.

Melissa Rakestraw, a letter carrier and member of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 825, talked about the battle postal workers are currently fighting to keep their jobs and union alive. She attended the rally, she explained, because "I think labor needs to get out here and support all the working people and see that our government money stops funding endless foreign wars and focuses more on the problems here at home."

As Rakestraw noted, the government pleads poverty even as it spends billions on the war in Afghanistan--and it is continuing to attack the living standards of postal workers here at home:

Perhaps the most moving part of the day came as protesters--who were barred from approaching the actual location of the NATO summit--rallied near the site after the march. Afghans for Peace members spoke out against the war along with IVAW members, who presented Mary Kirkland with an American flag in memory of her son Derek, who committed suicide after multiple deployments to Iraq. Several IVAW members then cast their own medals away.

Predictably, the mainstream media focused on a handful of Black Bloc anarchists who held a tense standoff with police after the main march was over. But the antiwar voices who closed the final rally deserve more attention.

Wearing a shirt with a picture of her son under the words "victim of war," Mary Kirkland explained that Derek was sent back to Iraq for a second tour of duty in September 2009, and attempted to commit suicide six months later. He was then sent back to the U.S., where his troubles were all but ignored by the military.

Kirkland told the crowd that her son came back to the U.S. on a Monday, unsuccessfully attempted suicide on a Thursday and, finally, hung himself in his barracks on the following Friday. Yet the Department of Defense listed her son as killed in action. "They start out with lies and they continue with lies," she told the crowd, adding, "I will not be a part of that anymore."

That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Air Force veteran Erica Sloan, who threw away her own medal. As she told the crowd, "If I want to continue to live with integrity, I must get rid of this."