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10 Takeaways From the Anti-NATO Demonstrations, Part 3

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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, almost two weeks 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?

6. All media coverage failed.
Hundreds, if not thousands of reporters, photographers, bloggers, documentary filmmakers and livestreamers tripped over each other as they tried to report on the demonstrations. But no one got it right.

First, some reporting was simply inaccurate. The most egregious example was the underreporting of the size of the protest march on Sunday, May 20, 2012. The Chicago Tribune reported that the march drew a crowd of between 1,800 and 2,200 demonstrators. Time repeated these counts, and deprecatingly remarked that the organizers claimed that "10,000 people showed up." Most media outlets settled on a figure of 2,500 demonstrators. Most who attended the march attest that at least 10,000 people participated.

Second, reporting tended to privilege spectacle over substance. Images of blue-helmeted phalanxes of police officers tussling with demonstrators dominated coverage. Bloodied heads and chipped teeth proved irresistible fodder for mainstream news outlets and for protesters alike. For the mainstream media, these images vindicated predictions about inevitable violence. For the demonstrators, these images were proof positive of police brutality and the attempt to suppress free speech. In either case, this frenzy drown out subtler and more important moments of the week of demonstrations: A female officer placed her arm gently around an "anarchist" as they marched side-by-side in Ravenswood. Two-tour Iraq veteran John Anderson delivered a heart wrenching plea for public mental health care in Horner park. A woman held her cherub faced daughter while she articulated concerns about America's dependence on oil. A father explained the history of NATO to his son and daughter in the shade of Grant Park. Such moments are the underreported heart of the anti-NATO demonstrations.

Third, reporting allured with false promises of totality. Journalists made a sincere effort to copiously document the week's events. AP reporters feverishly phoned firsthand accounts to writers who arranged these details into a coherent narrative. Students from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism sprinted with recorders and eagerly interviewed attendees and bystanders. Citizen journalists wielded iPads and smartphones, balanced SLR cameras on long poles, and harnessed cyborg-like multimedia contraptions to their shoulders. Updates streamed forth with the fury of a tsunami. Live blogs, status updates, tweets, and livestream video touted total, immediate, and unfiltered access. But such access is an illusion.

Media consumers feel as if they have been eyewitnesses to an event, but this fragmented and endless stream of data is merely an inscrutable trove. Active media consumers sift through this trove. They mine blogs, tweets, and video for the latest developments. However, the fragments they find, even when thoughtfully assembled, can only reveal a distorted representation. Like Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the media consumer only sees the surfaces that someone has chosen for him or her to see. The situation of the passive media consumer is even more dire. He or she has abdicated all responsibility for gathering information about current events. These individuals experience news haphazardly in the midst of an already distracted daily routine. They may read the scrolling headlines of a cable news network while waiting for a sandwich. They may glimpse a headline as they check their email. Worse, these individuals assume that the narratives presented to them are accurate and complete. Consequently, their understanding of any event is necessarily more inchoate. In either case, the producers of media and its consumers fail.

Lastly, journalism even at its finest, is an ineffective means to convey the intangible. NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel might agree that objective reporting cannot express the all-consuming sensory experience of reporting from a war zone. Photos of people marching in demonstration cannot convey their jubilant solidarity. A written quotation, even when carefully contextualized, can never replicate a speaker's passion or explain an audience's complex emotional response to the speaker's words. As humans we rely on the arts to illuminate such experiences. But even the arts -- poetry, drama, painting, film, music, and dance -- only offer us a shadow of the sublime. The NATO demonstrations were an historic and sublime event. What was depicted in media accounts (including this one) cannot do the events justice.

7. The 99 percent fought each other.
A handful of police and protesters clashed near the end of an otherwise peaceful march on Sunday, May 20, 2012. I watched as a knuckleheaded protester confronted an officer and attempted to push through the police line surrounding the march. The officer shoved the protester back into the crowd. The crowd responded by pushing back at the officers, and someone threw an empty water bottle. Other officers broke from their line and rushed into the melee. Soon chaos ensued. A short time later, a group of protesters broke off from the march and were cornered by Chicago police. The heavily padded and well-armed police worked over the unarmed crowd with their batons. Police injured a number of individuals; many of whom were simply attempting to escape the violence.