THE ANARCHISTS left their rocks at home and police kept their tear gas in the Long Range Acoustic Device, so the inevitable clashes May 20 between unarmed young demonstrators intent on marching on the NATO summit and riot-ready robo cops with baseball bats were Chicago-ugly: up close and personal.
But the recent anti-G8/NATO actions were significant not only because of the sheer guts and stamina of the young people on the skirmish lines of militarized Chicago, who bravely held their ground in the streets, but also because the overall mobilization marked the first major antiwar demonstrations in the country since Obama was elected president in 2008, and because the alignment of peace and justice groups with Occupy Wall Street and organized labor is a clear step forward toward building a larger and more powerful mass social movement.
I arrived in Chicago on May 11 and spent the next 10 days running the streets, attending on average two direct actions a day for seven days, documenting what I saw with photographs and written reports, and analyzing them from the perspective of a Catholic Worker and community organizer.
Protests began on May 14--when eight people were arrested during a protest against the war in Afghanistan at Obama's national campaign headquarters. For the next seven days, dozens of people on the streets turned into hundreds, then thousands, then more than 10,000.
By Friday, May 18, more than 3,000 unionized nurses and supporters rallied in Daley Plaza to demand a Medicare-for-all health care system and a financial speculation tax on Wall Street banks and financial firms.
On May 29, more than 1,000 Occupy Chicago supporters marched on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house and rallied outside his front door. On May 20, the first day of the NATO summit, more than 15,000 veterans and people from all walks of life marched to demand an end to the corporate G8/NATO agenda.
But the May 18 nurses rally and May 20 coalition march were more permitted parades than direct action street protests that truly challenged corporate political power. The first major confrontation of the week happened on May 15, when about 100 anti-capitalists nonviolently shut down southern parts of Halsted Street by marching without a permit, despite the best efforts of 40 bicycle cops.
Immediately after the May 18 National Nurses United rally, more than 500 young people shut down parts of the downtown Loop by taking to the streets in a display of mass nonviolent civil disobedience.
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THESE UNPERMITTED street marches were tactically innovative because they continued to build on the Occupy Wall Street model of seizing and holding public space, taking symbolic pacifist action to the level of real nonviolent resistance.
By Saturday night, the size of the young crowds marching in the street without a permit had doubled, and more than 1,000 people shut down parts of the downtown Loop, eventually occupying Michigan Avenue. Although the Chicago police were somewhat effective in controlling protesters' movements, they failed to clear the streets, and when they attempted to kettle protesters, the young crowd was able use its critical mass to push through the police lines several times.
Sunday, May 20, was different because it was the first day of the NATO summit, and the city was a temporary police state, with thousands of police walking the streets armed to the teeth with riot gear. The city had refused demonstrators a permit that was within sight and sound of the NATO summit location at McCormick Place, and when several hundred people broke away from the end of the closing rally and tried to peacefully march the remaining three blocks east to the convention center, police began cracking skulls.
Later that night, hundreds of people successfully massed outside the Art Institute where Michelle Obama was hosting an evening event for the wives of all the NATO dignitaries. On May 21, the last day of the NATO summit, Boeing shut down its national corporate headquarters in downtown Chicago to avoid protests, and up to 200 demonstrators celebrated in the streets before walking to Obama's campaign office.
The strong showing by tens of thousands of people on the streets of Chicago was important because it credibly established the legitimacy of a small, but resurgent social movement on the left, as well as the continued relevance and fighting spirit of Occupy Wall Street.
The mobilization also resulted in tangible victories--from forcing the G8 summit to move to Camp David to stealing the media spotlight away from the international negotiations, to shutting down Boeing for a day.
It's up to organizers across the country to use the momentum and lessons learned to continue to build an activist base among the 99 percent in our local communities, and to look to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions later in the summer for more opportunities to build a broad-based and united front against the corporate 1 percent.
David Goodner, Iowa