Report from Chicago Spring: Reflections on Where the Movement Stands
There is so much that went down in Chicago between when I arrived on April 28 and when I left on May 24 that this has been a difficult diary to write. I have covered the theater, tensions, and trade-offs in the coalitions (and there were more than one) brought together. I have shown the contrast between the 1% at the NATO Summit and the 99% at the Peoples Summit. I have commented on how the Chicago Principles notion of diversity of tactics separated in time and space created an environment for pushing the envelope of the possible. And I have reported on how the local struggles over budget cuts and deportations shown a light on some of the particular issues that arise out of the continued lavish support of imperial institutions that completed their original purpose a generation ago and continue to be in a self-confessed “identity crisis” even after a “successful” NATO Summit. I have not yet discussed how Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s insistence on this grand international gala of the 1% required the creation of a police state environment in order to carry it off or the near invisibility of the NATO Summit to ordinary Chicagoans. Later for that one.
To understand what happened, recognize that there were at least these things going on. The Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda brought together these existing groups. They held a Peoples Summit on May 12-13 at Occupy Chicago’s space at 500 West Cermak. The NATO-Free World Network for Justice and Peace brought together these existing groups. They held a Counter-Summit for Peace and Economic Justice on May 18-19 at Peoples Church, 941 West Lawrence. Both Coalitions endorsed and participated in the Iraq Veterans Against the War March for Peace and Justice on May 20 from the Petrillo Bandshell in Grant Park to Michigan Avenue and Cermak, where the IVAW held a ceremony to return military medals.
And then there was the Adbusters Tactical Briefing #25, which issued this call:
On May 1, 50,000 people from all over the world will flock to Chicago, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and #OCCUPYCHICAGO for a month. With a bit of luck, we’ll pull off the biggest multinational occupation of a summit meeting the world has ever seen.
And this time around we’re not going to put up with the kind of police repression that happened during the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago, 1968 … nor will we abide by any phony restrictions the City of Chicago may want to impose on our first amendment rights. We’ll go there with our heads held high and assemble for a month-long people’s summit … we’ll march and chant and sing and shout and exercise our right to tell our elected representatives what we want … the constitution will be our guide.
And when the G8 and NATO meet behind closed doors on May 19, we’ll be ready with our demands: a Robin Hood Tax … a ban on high frequency ‘flash’ trading … a binding climate change accord … a three strikes and you’re out law for corporate criminals … an all out initiative for a nuclear-free Middle East … whatever we decide in our general assemblies and in our global internet brainstorm – we the people will set the agenda for the next few years and demand our leaders carry it out.
And if they don’t listen … if they ignore us and put our demands on the back burner like they’ve done so many times before … then, with Gandhian ferocity, we’ll flashmob the streets, shut down stock exchanges, campuses, corporate headquarters and cities across the globe … we’ll make the price of doing business as usual too much to bear.
Of course, you have to remember that Adbusters are culture jammers. I’m not sure that there was even someone from Adbusters in Chicago, but the fact of their call and their association with the call for Occupy Wall Street caught the attention of the national media. It also put Occupy Chicago on notice that something was going to happen that could very well affect their movement in Chicago.
Occupy Chicago is a nonviolent movement, but the NATO/G8 Summit was anticipated to be a gathering of protesters against corporate globalization, which the corporate media was already characterizing as being an opportunity for property destruction by “violent black bloc anarchists”.
The corporate media was already comparing the upcoming event to the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999 and the police riot by the Chicago Police Department against anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. And they were casting rookie mayor Rahm Emanuel as the new Richard J. Daley the elder. The 1% clearly wanted the anticipation of violence to diminish the number of people who would march in the permitted protests, especially the major march by the IVAW on May 19 (later changed to May 20 when the NATO Summit dates were changed).
Occupy Chicago conducted a general assembly to determine its position with respect to a major event. The resulting position statement was the Chicago Principles:
Our solidarity will be based on respect for a political diversity within the struggle for social, economic and environmental justice. As individuals and groups, we may choose to engage in a diversity of tactics and plans of action but are committed to treating each other with respect and working towards a common goal of peace and justice.
As we plan our actions and tactics, we will take care to maintain appropriate separations of time and space between divergent tactics.
We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption, limiting our action to “free speech zones,” and violence, or attempts to divide our movement through the conscious creation of divisions regarding tactics, organization, strategies, and alliances.
Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
The discussion of a statement of non-violence got very involved with what exactly violence was up against a state that used forcible arrests to evict protesters from tents and people from their homes. When non-violent direct action is construed by the authorities as violence, what exactly would a statement of non-violent permit or prohibit? The result was a very difficult semantic compromise that emphasized the separation in time and space of more risky tactics from less risky tactics.
The first conclusion that one can make about Chicago Spring is that all of the diverse coalition, regardless of the differences in their tactical philosophies, did in fact observe the Chicago Principles, whether from principle or necessity. The second is that the diversity is between permitted and unpermitted events, scheduled and unscheduled events, and planned locations or running maneuvers (“taking the streets”). The third is that the Chicago Police Department’s strategy was to exercise a great deal of restraint at permitted, scheduled events at planned locations (even while they jerked organizers around wit respect to the permits, schedule, and location) and come down with heavy force on unpermitted and unscheduled events and running maneuvers that challenged police control of the space.
This meant that it was the Chicago Police Department and corporate security officers who shut down the businesses and institutions shut down during the protests of the Chicago Spring. Bank security officers locked doors when they saw an organized group of folks attired like the stereotype of a “black bloc” coming toward the door. Boeing had its employees work from home on the day of the Shut Down Boeing protest. In addition, the drama of a police state was visible for a month in the Chicago Loop as CPD bicycle patrols got in shape to outrun protesters and practiced maneuvers, as DHS Federal Protective Services vehicles were parked various places over the Loop. And on the days of the NATO Summit, four CPD officers (looking very bored) were stationed on every El platform out to the nearby residential neighborhoods.
The protests, in short, got sucked into the police-protest Kabuki that the corporate media loves to cover because it ignores the issues that the protesters were raising about what NATO nations are doing to other people and about the whole logic for the continued existence of NATO. And the CPD made sure that it never seriously lost control of the streets.
The coalitions around the two counter-summits were a lot of the same folks who had been in the anti-war and anti-globalization movements for decades. The list of endorsers will provide the distinctions and overlaps between the two events. The events themselves each were two days of speeches, lectures billed as “workshops”, and headliner personalities whose plenary talks were somehow privileged over that of other people. It followed the pattern of leftwing conferences of a couple of generations and eschewed the open discussion patterns of the Occupy movement. Old ideas would be rehashed, old news rehighlighted, old passions stirred up, and old acquaintances brought up to date. No new ideas or tactics. Lefty papers to be distributed, books and buttons to be sold, and long-formulated ideas to be propagandized. Old ideological controversies refought. And folks wondering aloud why there were so few there given the crisis in the country–the perpetual complaint of the left since World War II.
When it came down to it, the actual work of putting together the Peoples Summit and the large May 20 march on McCormick Place was done by a small group of persistent organizers who were struggling with the logistics of dealing with an event that was turning out much larger than they had the practical capability of handling. One need look only at the issues of housing, food, and program between the large events to see how much the organizers scrambled to accommodate growing numbers of activists arriving from the rest of the country.
Early on, one of the counter-summits provided a guide to nearby hotels to folks planning to attend the counter-summit. Forty-five years ago that would have been a routine and adequate response. In 2012, it is economic nonsense. A late message to folks coming suggested a couchsurfing site, as if the thousands of people coming to Chicago could be accommodated at the last minute through the generosity of the couchsurfing movement, especially problematic given the extensive press coverage of the “dangerous people” who were coming to cause trouble in Chicago. Camping is forbidden in the entire City of Chicago, especially camping on the beaches (although the City did tolerate the occupation of a beach at the point at which the housing situation might have become unmanageable). The churches that opened their doors to protesters had hours that excluded overnight sleeping. Adbusters had called to bring a tent, but where was one to pitch it?
The Seeds of Change collective of Food Not Bombs (Food Not NATO) successfully catered the Peoples Summit and Occupy Chicago general assemblies. But they did not have the resources to adequately cater the various convergence spaces set up in advance of the major march on May 20. There were just too many people showing up in that last week. And too few of them were being involved as volunteers enabling the logistics of the protests; that was considered by too many as a responsibility for the Chicago folks.
The idea of outsiders increasing the numbers at protests of local issues was one of the benefits of being in the national spotlight, but programming how that was to occur was another organizational and logistical issue. Chicago has multiple long-term protests of Rahm Emanuel’s austerity budget going on — education, mental health, health care and other city services. These protests are planned locally and independently, involve folks who benefited from the city services, the labor unions representing the staff, and people from the local community. Occupy Chicago tracks them, includes them in a coalition and encourages folks to go build the numbers on the days of protest. A similar relationship exists for the eviction defense movement, the prison reform movement, protests against police brutality, and a variety of issues that affect the Latino community. To involve the increasing number of folks coming in for the NATO protests, the Occupy Chicago coalition kept a calendar of local actions so that there was one action highlighted on each day of the “Week of Action” leading up to the NATO Summit on May 19 and 20. Other groups planned events around the theme of a day’s action — anti-deportation, eviction defense, opposition to tar sands energy development, opposition to closure of schools or mental health clinics to provide teach-ins, films, and discussions about these issues. Several groups published comprehensive calendars of events. As it unfolded, the week of action protests gathered momentum that was capped by the Iraq Veterans against the War march on May 20. And created the basis for a revitalized Occupy Chicago emerging from its winter quarters.
Whenever the conversation about a protest turns to outsiders, the next jump expected is for it to be taken up with a conversation about black blocs coming in. “Black blocs” have become for the Occupy movement and the current round of more conventional protests the current media’s counterpart of the “outside agitators” narrative during the Civil Rights Movement. It has in fact become a red herring that obscures some of the structural facts about the current movements opposing income inequality broadly and and capitalism specifically.
The movement that exists today is not really a mass movement in the sense that the labor, socialist, and communist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were mass movements. The movement today is a complex network of groups of individuals who can trust each other and a larger fluid movement of people who make certain assumptions about solidarity and trust. Like most networks, there are smaller and larger units of mutual trust. The philosophically anarchist network has given its nomenclature to the movement, regardless of whether groups are philosophically anarchist or not. There are affinity groups of folks who trust each other under almost all circumstances and there are blocs of affinity groups that take on certain tasks within the movement. The most helpful bloc at most protests are the street medics, who provide what amounts to battlefield first aid and triage to protesters who are victims of police brutality. Other blocs act to take public space in a way that others can safely lay claim as the public to their streets, their parks, and their public buildings. As the structure of the movement develops, other blocs will find their niche.
Daniel Edward Massoglia makes this point in his article about the May 20 marches in the Occupied Chicago Tribune:
What isn’t stupid, and is much more interesting, is all the other functions a black bloc may perform, and the almost complete lack of attention paid to them in all but the most sympathetic of sources. As I see it, the essence of a bloc is solidarity. You have solidarity because your neighbor does. You put your ass on the line because no one will leave you behind, because they will grab you if you are taken by police and you will do the same. You are protected in your anonymity, invincible in your mind, and dangerous (to Power) in your daring. There is no fear, no weakness, and no division, and in that is strength.
To modify a truism, “with great power, comes great jubilation.” More often than not, I found the most energetic and enjoyable sections of the marches to be blocs. I experienced few moments more memorable than a mass of people in black spontaneously chanting “Dance for that Anarchy, dance for that Anarchy. Dance for that Anarchy, d-dance for that Anarchy!” We danced! Even my workers’-state-loving self danced. That glee, while devoid of concrete reminders of NATO’s astronomical costs in both dollars and lives ruined, was an essential part of my first summit. I would not and could not imagine it any other way.
At one point on an heavily blocced-up anti-capitalist march, I was asked by a slightly shell-shocked mainstream media reporter: “Do you know where we’re going?” “No,” I responded. “That’s the beauty of it.”
What I wish I’d added: “They’ve slowly taken our liberties away. This, though, they can’t stop.” I wish I’d added it because it’s true, and because it’s maybe the best argument for black blocs. When a march is led by the leaderless, it is unstoppable. Movements without leaders cannot be beheaded; a march with a black bloc is not stopped by one arrest, or ten, and not by the horses charging up the other side of Michigan Ave., either, because there’s probably a group of anarchists holding them off.
Why is it so lively? Is it the simple satisfaction of knowing that your very existence threatens the state? The joy of group cohesion? The exhilarating mixture of danger and unpredictability? Any is a good answer, I think, but the point is: It’s not boring. And while all should feel free to rally and publish until the cows come home, the revolution won’t come with a permit or a printing press—it will come with defiant people who excite until there is no choice but to join. Look at the manifencours in Montreal—when they were told 50 people comprised a riot, they responded, “here’s 500 thousand.”
It can be said, and accurately, that blocs are devoid of politics. This is true, though, only at the most superficial and reactionary level. The signs read red and black instead of “Reinstate Glass Steagall,” yes, but the critique of the broken capitalist system is there, whether or not it is explicitly stated. And why must it be?
It is also not mentioned often enough that blocs are not devoid of compassion. I have read countless lamentations about the violence associated with black blocs, but precious few about the care. Many of those so called “troublemakers,” are the same people protecting marchers or spooning food to released arrestees at 6am. Despite their name, the story is never black and white.
On the morning after the “Fuck the Police” march in Bridgeport, an action reportedly organized by a bloc from outside Chicago who had no idea of the culture of the communities in whose name they were claiming the public pedestrian access to the streets, I saw the smashed plate-glass windows of a community bank in Bridgeport and heard two small businessmen waiting in line wondering why “they hit small businesses.” There was no known association between the two events. Somebody had acted as a smashie. Were they a police provocateur building an excuse for a later string of raids? Were they a random hooligan who just chose a random night to do their thing? Were they a clueless anti-capitalist with no knowledge of what exactly the words “community bank” mean? That was not clear. But they were a smashie. And it is the smashies that draw the attention of the corporate media like shit draws flies. And it is the narrative about the potential of smashies hiding in protests that is used to justify the massive police presence seen by the Chicago Police Department over the duration of the protest. This is the stereotype of “violence.”
A self-professed philosophical anarchist (I have to use that term to make clear his position) argued that the powers that be (his term was “the state”) consider as violent: marching without a permit, not stopping your forward march at a police line, taking public streets currently commanded by vehicles, or even failing to respond to an illegal police order. And your “violence” justifies a policeman “enforcing the law” by hitting you over the head with a billy-club, grabbing you and slamming you to the pavement, or meeting you with a phalanx of a hundred officers with zip-cuffs. The powers that be consider a large group of people marching in the streets without their written permission to be a “riot” regardless of the behavior of those people.
Chicago was and still is seen as a test event for the protests surely to come at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte NC and the Republican National Convention in Tampa FL. That probably is not a helpful view. The powers-that-be will likely use some variation of what they think they learned in Chicago to cope with “the potential for violence” at those conventions. And the media will be widely broadcasting the anticipation of “numbers of violent protesters” or “black blocs” or “the possibility of terrorists hiding among peaceful protesters”.
The Occupy movements in Tampa (and Florida) and Charlotte (and North Carolina) have a lot of work to accomplish in three months if the anticipated protests at the conventions are going to build the momentum for change in the political culture of the US. The logistics challenges themselves are monumental, even in situations without the harassment of bureaucrats and the police. Having enough people to provide a deterrent to police brutality is another issue. In Chicago, organizers could not depend on the presence of organized labor (even in the Mayday March) to swell the numbers and increase safety. There were notable exceptions; National Nurses United conducted the rally for the Robin Hood tax. Neither Florida nor North Carolina are strong labor states.
I must acknowledge the many folks — Walkupiers, the CANG8 folks, street medics, Occupy Chicago, the Mental Health Movement occupiers at Woodlawn and Northwest, the wellness center folks, Seeds for Change, and various individual crusties, punks, and black blockers — who helped this geezer find his way in the complex events surrounding the NATO Summit. And the generosity of my family, local friends, and FDLers who financially enabled this journey. Thank you all.