On May 20-21, 2012, the NATO summit descended upon Chicago with the full weight of the global military industrial complex. The cloistered glitz of the NATO summit and the publicized gore of the anti-NATO protests left an indelible mark on those who participated in these events. However, for most Chicagoans, NATO simply represented one more annoyance in an already grinding daily commute. In the wake of NATO, Chicagoans sprang back into their daily routine with the ferocity of ants rebuilding a demolished anthill. The NATO summit was, to most, unremarkable.
Now, one month after the event, police have stowed away their riot gear and cleaned their bloodied batons. Throngs of weary but resolute demonstrators have found their way home to a soft bed and clean clothes. The literal and figurative wounds inflicted in Chicago have begun to heal, but the gnawing issues that gave rise to these demonstrations remain. What have we learned?
8. Occupy protesters are just people.
Since its inception, the Occupy Movement has been repeatedly dismissed, mocked and assaulted. Occupy participants have been characterized paradoxically as either fringe, radical and dangerous, or lazy, pathetic and ineffectual. The reality is that the vast majority of the individuals who attend Occupy events are painfully normal Americans (even though some don bandanas or Guy Fawkes masks). At any given event you will encounter students, teachers, nurses, postal workers, small business owners, baristas, steel workers, artists, musicians, psychologists, graphic designers, property managers, waiters, retail workers and IT professionals. The political views of this coalition of Americans are diverse. They express a range of ideological positions that complicate traditional notions of right and left. However, one trait they universally share is compassion for fellow human beings and the view that all social struggles are globally interconnected.
9. Politicians do not understand Occupy.
For almost a year, politicians have been befuddled by the Occupy movement. Most have simply ignored it. Its horizontal structure, non-partisan stance, unorthodox coalitions, and creative tactics have made it impossible for either political party to co-opt the movement or its message(s). Republican presidential nominees have derided Occupy while President Obama has tried to adopt some of its language. Channeling its ethos in his references to a "fair shot" and an "economy that works for everyone," President Obama misses the point. Occupy is about action and not rhetoric. Congress has refused to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Congress created a healthcare plan that funnels Americans into a broken for-profit healthcare system. Congress has not prosecuted a single individual for the financial collapse of 2008. The momentum behind Occupy will continue to grow as policies harmful to the 99 percent are enacted.
10. The anti-NATO demonstrations were a success.
First, the demonstrations laid bare the formidable structures of power within which all Americans operate. In "Building, dwelling, thinking," Heidegger explains that "[a] boundary is not that at which something stops but... the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing." This was precisely the case in Chicago. Freedom of speech feels alive and well in American culture until individuals begin to exercise it. Once exercised, the boundaries begin to appear. The boundaries began in Chicago with restrictive ordinances passed by the City Council. Next, demonstrators were required to submit costly permits and disclose their march routes. Later, free speech was relegated to demarcated protest zones far away from the world leaders attending the NATO summits. Finally, those bold enough to withstand mockery and fear mongering had to march bounded by walls of police armed with guns and batons. Freedom of speech exists, but the anti-NATO demonstrations revealed the degree to which it is highly constrained in twenty-first century America.
Second, the demonstrations energized the Occupy movement across the country and internationally. Morale was improved. The nascent sense of solidarity and empowerment begun by the Occupy movement last fall was reborn through the focus on the NATO summit. Although the anti-NATO protests were spurred on by the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty agenda, a diverse constituency worked together to organize and execute a wide array of actions in the week leading up to the NATO summit. Community groups and individuals who once felt isolated in their particular struggles discovered newfound support locally and globally. A new and powerful community has been created.
Third, more effective use of technology enhanced communication and cooperation between various Occupy and non-Occupy groups. Organizing the anti-NATO demonstrations demanded new and innovative means of information sharing. Occupy Chicago created the dynamic Chicago Spring website which housed details about the demonstrations and contained a live Twitter feed. Facebook events were created to invite specific individuals and groups to upcoming actions. Social media sites served as real-time communication hubs. Press conferences were held regularly, and expanded use of livestreaming technology offered the outside world a real-time glimpse into the week's events.
Finally, the demonstrations drew attention to NATO's role in the world. Even though much of the media attention surrounding the demonstrations focused on incidents of violence, enough coverage seeped through to raise the average American's awareness of NATO and its role in ongoing international conflict. A new generation of youth who did not grow up in the shadow of the Cold War are beginning to ask questions about NATO, and the demonstrations offered them potent answers.
Follow Mark Cassello on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markcassello