As the hours go by since the events unfolded at the NATO Protest in Chicago yesterday (Sunday), I find myself completely frustrated. The amount of misinformation, bad/irresponsible/agenda driven reporting, and just incorrect accounts as to what happened has just been eating at me the entire day. So, take it for what it’s worth, but here is my account in words written by me (although I’m not a great writer), in photos taken by me, and in video taken by me (with the exception of 1). The purpose is not to take sides, although I think it’s fair to mention that I do support many of the concepts being socialized during the protests. It is instead to give you an honest account of what I saw and experienced.
I started my day on Sunday, if I’m being completely honest, just really excited to break out and use a new camera lens that I got last week. I’m learning photography and it’s the nicest lens that I’ve ever owned. Sounds geeky, I know, so I won’t go in to detail about that. Woke up, packed up the camera bag, took the dog for a walk, and headed to the Blue Line train to head down to Grant Park where the days events were to begin at noon.
Upon arriving at Grant Park (around 11:30am), I instantly began to observe the different people that were there. So many times, especially since the Occupy movements began, I’ve heard things like “They are all jobless hippies” and “Everyone one of those people need to quit protesting…the shower”. I’ve been to several events over the past months and most people ARE NOT “dirty jobless hippies with iPads and $1,000 mini cameras”. One faction of the attendees would probably equate themselves to the hippy movement however that is just one contingent. Others included veterans, teachers, union workers, small business owners, parents/families of military service personnel, students, and the list goes on and on. Generalizing the movement is used as a tool for some to marginalize it’s validity. Any person that actually chose to attend an event would see this immediately… I did!
Grant Park wasn’t terribly busy when I first arrived. I would say 300-400 people were there at that time standing near the Petrillo Music Shell, most people congregating around small musical performances that were occurring in front of the stage. There was quite a bit of chaos and disorganization regarding the sound system and the use of the microphones and often times you could hear someone talking in to a microphone about how the microphone wasn’t working. That was finally sorted out and the musical acts continued after moving on to the stage and around 12:30-1pm the crowd started to roll in.
The event at Grant Park included musical acts, speakers talking about the NATO organization, speakers talking about the organizations that they were affiliated with in addition to some people whose purpose was just to start the crowd chanting. There were also several booths providing information about organzations such as the “Veterans for Peace” and “Occupy Chicago”. Some others in attendance included African American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson Sr and military veteran Scott Olsen who had been injured during an Occupy event in Oakland after being struck in the head with a tear gas canister.
This all went on until around 2:30pm when everyone started to migrate over to the south of the Petrillo Music Shell on to East Jackson Drive and began to line up for the march which would take the group through the city and south to the end point of the march at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cermak, 2 blocks west of the NATO Summit location (McCormick Place).
The march began and is the best spot in which I can exhibit an incorrectly reported attendance figure. I heard reports beginning at 1,200 people to another report of 1,500-2,200 people, to one other report that actually made the closest to accurate statement of thousands in attendance. The last one I don’t have a problem with, but to say under 3,000 people attended and report that in the news is just utterly ridiculous and just like saying that all in attendance were dirty hippies, is a tool to marginalize the validity and support of the movement itself. Don’t take my word for it on the attendance. Here’s a video that I shot of the entire march moving by. The only editing that was done was to put a few different clips together and to speed up the footage. I increased the speed of the footage 4 times. If you were to play it in real time, it took over 22 minutes for the march to completely go by. Then I added in the raw sound, not the sped up sound. Here it is, for no other reason than to show you the numbers that were reported on average were pretty inaccurate. Keep in mind as you watch that this is a 4 lane road and the march extended across the entire width.
The march continued for about 45 minutes or so to get to the corner of Michigan Ave and Cermak where the speakers would continue with the Veterans Against The War organization. It’s important to note that the police presence was quite intimidating the entire day. This included the march route and especially when arriving at this intersection. Bicycle patrols, foot patrols, hundreds in full riot gear, horse mounted patrols, and even officers shooting photos and video from the rooftops above. While intimidating, most of those that I interacted with were very friendly, but it was very obvious that the force was portraying that they were very in control of the environment and were not going to let it get out of control.
Despite the presence, the speakers continued at this time, as one by one nearly 40 military veterans came on the stage to tell their story and to “return” the medals in which they had received during their service. Here’s a quick video of one of the speakers, Christopher May. (sp?)
Earlier, during the march, the couple of people that were with me had made the observation that to our immediate left were what appeared to be members of the “Black Bloc” group.
For those that don’t know, “Black Bloc” gets it’s name from a method of protest started in the 1980s in which all members dress in a similar fashion including black clothing, scarves, ski masks etc, often completely concealing their identities for the purpose of looking like a single unit and showing solidarity. Unfortunately, since the late 1990s the group has taken on a very negative persona in which they don’t believe a protest is complete without some sort of vandalism or violent act.
About 20 minutes before the speakers ended, my friends and I saw a single file line of this group walking along the North side of the intersection and form a line along the West side of the intersection which was opposite of the 4 level deep police line on the East side.
Old Photo from Google Maps (street view at Michigan Ave and Cermak) and edited (badly) to illustrate the placement of the things.
When the speakers ended the MC stated that to make sure everyone was able to disperse as easily as possible, everyone should move to the west, and honestly it appeared that most people were complying with that. This is when the Black Bloc group began to chant “Don’t go west, NATO is East” and began to push the intersection full of people toward the police line and eventually making their way toward the front.
Unfortunately they didn’t make it to the front before the number of people sandwiched between them and the police began to be forced in to the police line. At this point things began to escalate. I moved to the Northeast corner of the intersection and began to watch the police begin to exert force in the opposite direction toward the west in to the crowd.
At this point my video shows only an outside perspective from a few feet away, but here’s a quick inside view that I found on youtube.
At this point bus loads of police in riot gear filled the streets and began to slowly pick apart and disperse the immediate area. For this main intersection it took a little over an hour, which during that time included many injuries and a number of arrests, which according to most news agencies totaled between 60-75.
By now, I had started making my way back to the north on Michigan Avenue and walking away from the event. I was tired, sunburned, had a camera bag on my back for 5 hours at this point, and was just hungry and ready to head out.
All in all, I thought it was a very upsetting end to an otherwise peaceful day. Thousands of people showed up to speak their mind about an issue and were able to do so peacefully; however, a small group had something else in mind and unfortunately those 75 or so people got 90% of the news coverage while the remaining thousands are left to hear about how the protests and the protesters are a negative thing.
Do I agree with the level of aggressiveness in the actions of the police? NO! I’ve also never been in their situation or tasked with their job so I don’t know how I’d react. I would hope that in that role I would have the ability to exhibit restraint until the last possible second, and if I did have to react with force I would be able to do so in a discernible fashion and not just target anyone within reach. But then again, all this is an ideal and I can’t speak to that experience with certainty.
Could the day have ended in a peaceful manner? Absolutely! 99% of those in attendance were leaving the area. They said what they needed to say, participated in a community of people with common ideas, and in some cases learned about ideas of which they were not aware of before.
I’ve read comments about the Chicago Police Department “kicking ass” or “kicking ass and taking names”. Guess what guys, it’s not about kicking ass. If you believe that your actions were warranted and they were initiated with the intent of keeping those in attendance safe (as well as protecting yourself and your colleagues) then great. If not, then the actions should be reviewed and fixed. “Kicking dirty hippy ass” isn’t exactly the calling card of a successful day in the department is it? It doesn’t make you powerful. Also, it’s not an excuse to fight someone just because at that point you legally have the authority to do so. I’d be interested in knowing the answer to this question. Would the police department have let the group remain in that location peacefully for a couple of more hours just as an example. Would it have hurt anything? Was there really an eminent security risk that required people to be dispersed from the area at 4:30pm? Would 5:30pm have been any different?
Then turning to the other side of things. Black Bloc, do you honestly think that this protest would have been less successful if there was no violence? And if you do believe that then I have a suggestion for you. Instead of walking to the back of the intersection and pushing everyone else in to the police line, take your ass up to the front of the line! Then you can have a personal conversation between yourselves and the police that doesn’t involve a group of other people who at that time just couldn’t get out of the way. Civil disobedience can be conducted as a nonviolent resistance to an entity or power and to think that this is not the case shows immaturity or just a general lack of respect for your cause. Your desire and acceptance for violent activity does not make you more passionate about your cause either, and especially in this case it performed a disservice to the movement. That’s exhibited in great example by the media coverage. 90% of the media coverage was about how the march ended in violence, while 10% was about the peaceful gathering of people to protest the summit. Now I can already hear the comments saying “well that’s the corrupt corporate media for ya”. Ok, maybe so. But if you know that’s the media reaction then why fulfill the prophecy?
Then again, all of what I have just written is my own personal experience and thoughts regarding the days events, so TAKE IT FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH.