NATO protest recap | Blood, disappointment and White Castle in the streets

If it bleeds, it leads. As Sunday's mostly peaceful NATO summit protest wrapped up and gave way to police–protester clashes, it was hard to avoid that age-old journalism dictum.

The man who stumbled toward me was, in truth, bleeding from the head. He said his name was Anthony and he needed help. Anthony looked to be about 25, maybe 30. Wincing, he limped over to the sidewalk just west of Michigan Avenue and Cermak Road, where the permitted NATO demonstration had just officially ended, and plopped down on the concrete, ass first. 

Shouts of "Medic! Medic!" spread through the crush of demonstrators.

Anthony's buddy, John, arrived posthaste with details. "We were trying to get away from the front line [of police] and the cop billy-clubbed him in the head," he said as Anthony's wound got bandaged. John's lips were bloody. He opened his left hand to reveal two large pieces of his front teeth. "A cop took his billy club," he said, "and rammed it right into my fucking mouth."

Several minutes later, I bumped into longtime activist Andy Thayer, the public face of the NATO march (the permit for Sunday's protest bore his name alone). He had just finished shepherding the spirited, admirably tranquil anti-war march south from Grant Park. And now, before his eyes, the demonstration he spent months planning and fighting for was descending into sporadic violence as skirmishes flared up between Chicago police and the so-called "Black Bloc," a tiny minority of agitators that would come to dominate much of the media attention. 

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who showed up to bark orders at his troops, declared the event a success; only about 45 people, of the 3,000 or so protesters, were arrested. But it's hard not to sense in Thayer a current of disappointment about the coda of violence. "I made a personal commitment to hold a non-arrestable action, and we have done that to the extent that we can," said Thayer, clearly exhausted. "If people want to stay here, it's up to them. People can do what they want. I'm not going to rag on other people who want to do direct action." And it could not have felt great to realize that, as TOC editor-in-chief Frank Sennett pointed out on Twitter, the march was woefully underattended. The total day-of turnout fell under 5,000 people (the number quoted on the permit) and was a fraction of the optimistic 10,000 (a figure once rumored by activists and media).  

Earlier in the afternoon, Black Bloc's notoriety initially seemed to stifle them; police lining the route paid special attention to the dark-clothed demonstrators, one of whom dangled a cop-baiting donut at the end of a fishing pole. (Someone eventually snatched the treat from the line.) 

The march down Michigan was quite a spectator affair. The coalition in the procession was truly diverse, embracing both a gathering of Juggalos and a confederation of actual clowns. Their slogans were worth a laugh, if not a second thought: "Unfuck the Future"; "Occupy til the Apocalypse"; "Go Drone Yourselves NATO!"; and the all encompassing "Rethink Civilization." The chant of the day had to be the eloquent, "Shit's fucked up! It's fucked up and bullshit!" At Congress, a shirtless guy in an American flag bandana lobbed his lonely disapproval of the proceedings: "Bunch of losers, ya protesters! Get educated!" As if the event were the Chicago Marathon, South Loop residents watched from fold out chairs and gawked from condo balconies, prompting protester chants encouraging participation: "Off the sidewalks and into the streets!" Several onlookers grilled out. "This is exactly what's wrong with this country," said a protester, remarking on the complicity of inaction.

Police on the scene for the march appeared bored or disinterested. "Five to nothing, top of the ninth," one officer, a White Sox fan, boasted about the Crosstown Classic that the Sox would sweep. His Cubs fan colleague just sighed: "Glad I'm not home watching."

The end rally largely consisted of a number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tossing their "global war on terrorism" medals in the general direction of McCormick Place, which was a few blocks to the east of the stage. Met by the mounted police unit, protesters began to chant, "Get those animals off those horses!" When the American flag was hoisted, cries of "Burn it!" erupted from the crowd. Vets onstage expressed regret having been cogs in the military machine they described as owned and operated by the U.S. government in cooperation with NATO. 

Once the permitted rally ended around 4pm, police sporting riot gear tried to drive the remaining herd further away from McCormick Place with billy clubs and a Robocop–like announcement ("Attention. Attention. This is the Chicago Police Department. Please continue to disperse west"). A White Castle at Wabash and Cermak began doing brisk business selling sliders from the sidewalk to the famished masses.

The day of action began in the late morning at the Petrillo Band Shell in Grant Park. One of the Black Bloc bandanistas defended his chosen aggressive tactics. "We're the ones that stand up and say, 'Fuck the police,'" he told me. "We're the ones that have balls."

Among the speakers giving passionate addresses from the Petrillo stage was Zoe Sigmund of Occupy Chicago. She said it was her Bridgeport home that police raided last Wednesday, leading to the arrests of nine and terrorism-related charges for three out-of-town twentysomethings. "These people were all my friends, people like you and me, people here to protest. This campaign of terror is not over….I'm scared. I don't have a safe place to stay at night because there is no safe place to stay….People keep asking me, 'Was it true?' What they should be asking, what they should be questioning is the ease with which the police get away with terrorism. As tempting as it is to direct my fury at the police, I keep struggling to remind myself that they were not independent agents acting with a personal vendetta. It is in the mayor's and the president's best interest to persuade us from resisting the war machine."

Jesse Jackson milled about the park, waiting to give his own anti-NATO speech. When I asked the Rev about Obama bringing NATO to Chicago, he didn't seem pleased with the President. "The war in Afghanistan is not winding down. President Obama met with [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai today to keep it going until 2014. Can we afford $2 billion to $4 billion dollars a week in Afghanistan? I think not, as we fire teachers and librarians, close healthcare facilities. We cannot afford Afghanistan."

A couple of other activist relics, Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, stood on the side of the Petrillo stage ushering speakers on and off. How do they, as former leaders of the notoriously violent Weather Underground group, view Black Bloc? Ayers was more forthcoming than Dohrn about expressing some qualified admiration.

TOC: Can today's permitted rally be effective in getting its anti-NATO message across, even if the headlines end up being all about flare-ups with police and Black Bloc?

Ayers: There's room for a lot of different tactics. It's not a tactical problem. The problem is how do we mobilize people to oppose this war. You can be very condemnatory of the Black Bloc if you want to and you can pretend that you're a nonviolent person, but you're only pretending. Nonviolence requires direct action. Martin Luther King wasn't sitting on a couch saying, "I won't hurt anybody." No, he was actually in the street confronting and exposing the violence that was there. This is a very violent city. It's a city that's characterized by violence. Rahm Emanuel has helped organize that violence. He's helped militarize the police and militarize the culture. Why at the Cubs–Sox game last night did [NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen] throw out the first pitch? What the hell is that? Why didn't they have the Reverend Jesse Jackson throw out the first pitch? He's a Chicagoan. Why not? Well, because he's controversial. Head of NATO? No controversy there. We all drink the Kool-Aid and we think that's normal. You know when you're waiting to get on an airplane and they say military can board first? You say, "That's cool." Why is that cool? Why can't teachers board first? Why can't nurses? Because service means fighting. The moral force of nonviolent direct action is a very powerful force and should be employed whenever possible. But when we look at something like the [6th October] Bridge in Cairo [during last year's clashes between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak forces], we look at people who are fighting back. And the next day we see the army with their guns go to the other side—that's an incredible moment! It's not a moment to say, Oh, they did something we could never do. 

You're not someone who has been opposed to using force to make a point.

I'm not sure what you mean. Honestly. [During the Vietnam War] it was a time where 6,000 innocent people were being murdered every week—what exactly was the right thing to do? You're making a judgment on 45 years ago and trying to transpose it to today. I think it's a very different moment. But I do think that one of the differences is that we actually thought we could end the war. Now, masses of people feel the war is wrong, immoral, illegal, it's wasting our resources—yet [people wonder] how do you stop it? Mayor Emanuel spent millions to militarize our city while closing mental health centers to save a nickel—and why? Because Black Bloc might take off [and cause some property damage]? That's insanity. I don't see the problem. I do see a problem with these [NATO] guys in their suits riding into town in their limousines while they make us feel like we're living in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

So you believe force should sometimes be met with force?

It's complicated. Look—the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Should force have been met with force there? It would be nice if the world came in neat little boxes called "good" and "bad." Or "good people" and "the Black Bloc." The world isn't like that.