In the end, nobody cared. Nobody cared whether the leaders of 29 NATO nations came to Chicago, what they did or whether they had a good time doing it. Nobody cared whether their gathering was an occasion for protest, or whether any protesters showed up (or whether they had a good time). Nobody cared whether streets were blocked off, Loop offices closed, or cops were paid overtime––as long as we didn’t have to pay for it. It’s summer in Chicago, the perfect time not to care.
For most of us, NATO is a distant memory from history class, a vestige of World War II, formed by a handful of western nations to counteract the expansion of the Soviet Union. It served a useful purpose in the Cold War, and still serves the purpose of giving the United States cover for our military operations in Afghanistan and Libya. But as its ranks have grown after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is less of a military alliance and more of a club––a club of congenial, mostly male world leaders checking in to see that they are all on the same page.
Stay Strong, Spend Less
Before adjourning, the NATO leaders issued a 65-point declaration affirming their support of all the programs they have going, including a “leaner, more effective and affordable” command structure at its new Brussels headquarters. On the one brewing issue of the day, Afghanistan, they not surprisingly fell in step with the American withdrawal plan President Obama presented at the far more relevant G8 meeting at Camp David. Otherwise the world leaders did pretty much what all conventioneers do, huddle in side meetings all day, and party at night.
For the attending foreign press, there wasn’t much news leaking out of McCormick Place, so they went for the next best thing, demonstrations in the street––and my guess is they were sorely disappointed.
The Robin Hood Rally
You could have shot a cannon down the Blue Line and not hit anything when I boarded the CTA train Friday morning to attend the first “big” one, a Nurses United rally in Daley Plaza billed as the “Robin Hood Rally.” And the crowd didn’t get much thicker when I stepped out. Empty CTA buses ringed the plaza, and police lined both sides of the surrounding streets. But there were only about 400 nurses gathered around a small podium, and maybe an equal number of reporters and onlookers. The nurses were milling about in red T-shirts and felt green caps to show their support for a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions, the proceeds of which would go to fund schools, education, health clinics and other social safety net programs. What that has to do with NATO escapes me, but they were very enthusiastic.
When I arrived, they were rehearsing a flash mob dance they planned to stage during the rally. On cue, the loudspeakers blared out Martha and the Vandella’s 1964 hit “Dancing in the Streets” and the nurses all stepped left, stepped right, and stepped forward raising their hands in the air. It appeared that most of them were singing a song from their younger days, and there were times when the Robin Hood Rally seemed more like a Red Robin team building exercise, but the speeches were earnest and honest, a welcome sign that ‘60s activism is alive and well, though aging.
In the crowd, Kay McVay swayed to the music holding her “Heal America-Tax Wall Street” sign and wearing sunglasses etched with a peace symbol. McVay is the president emeritus of the California Nurses Association. She said she bought the glasses in 1959 when she was organizing with Caesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Union in California. I asked if she wore them at the 1968 convention here, and she admitted she missed it. She was running a health care clinic in Watts she established after the assassination of Martin Luther King, she said.
McVay allowed she has spent the last two decades organizing nurses in California. Now that she is retired, she has time to travel. The NATO protest in Chicago seemed like the perfect way to merge her adventurous spirit with a cause, so she signed up for the bus trip. “We couldn’t ask for better weather, could we?” she asked.
Lots of Media, Lots of Ways
By the time the rally started, the crowd had swelled to over 1,000––the official police estimate––but probably less that the 2,000 the Sun-Times reported. It was impossible to tell. There were so many undercover police, reporters, gawkers and “citizen journalists” wielding camcorders and snapping pictures on their iPhones that they may have outnumbered the protestors.
The Chicago newspapers had predicted as many as 50,000 protestors might come in for the NATO protests, and they geared up accordingly. The Chicago Tribune, especially, blanketed whatever demonstrations there were, filling their “Breaking News” website with updates almost every ten minutes. TV stations, and particularly news radio, broadcast from the front and back of protest marches with half a dozen people on the scene, and Twitter chatter from reporters was constant. (My own contribution: “I’ve seen livelier demonstrations on a cooking show.”) The coverage was so intense even President Obama noted it in his closing remarks, chiding Chicago reporters that major newspapers in other cities buried the protests deep into their stories, if they were mentioned at all.
On the fringes of the rally, there was a younger, rougher element, maybe 400 or 500 in all, spoiling for a fight. Some wore bandanas over their face (a few had clown noses). When the rally ended––with the crowd struggling to sing along on all the verses of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land”––the nurses climbed back on their buses and went home. The others started marching down Dearborn Street, but the police masterfully turned them aside. At every intersection, police opened a path for them to march in a new direction (but never actually toward anything) and two hours later, a straggling few called it quits at the Michigan Avenue bridge.
A New Chicago Hero
The protests would continue Saturday with a demonstration outside Mayor Emanuel’s House and a larger march in the Loop. By Sunday, the NATO protest organizers could legitimately claim 5,000 people attended a Grant Park rally. (Still in all, only a tenth of the crowds they predicted.) The shot down Wabash Street of the crowd marching to McCormick Place was duly impressive, but once they got there––or as far as police would let them––anti-war veterans threw away their medals from Afghanistan and Iraq, the crowd cheered, and most of them left. Those that remained butted up against a wall of Chicago police, five deep, and that’s where they stayed for the next two hours.
I watched the Sunday standoff on TV. The three network stations all carried it live, sending out endless minutes of nothing happening in breathless reports, but the crowd only seemed to dwindle more. CBS 2 News had a camera lodged in the front row zooming in and out on the bored faces of the cops. NBC’s Phil Rogers waded in between to interview a protest leader on his cell phone while his cameraman shot down on him from a rooftop. And through it all, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy stood by his troops––”leading from the front,” he told reporters––to make sure nothing happened. His calm gave Chicago a new hero (in marked contrast to the image left by Chicago police in 1968). When the confrontation came to an end, a couple dozen protestors were arrested, and most were released without charges the next day. If you were one of them, you had to want to get busted pretty bad.
All in all, it turned out to be just another lovely weekend in Chicago. NATO came and NATO went, leaving our fair city none the worse for the wear. Mayor Emanuel gets a feather in his cap for hosting it––and a $1.3 billion boost in international tourism for Chicago from the glowing stories he hopes journalists will write about it. If it comes, let’s hope some of that goes to the Robin Hood ladies for their many good causes.