Chicago’s Placid NATO Summit Protests

Organizers produced a timid—and overwhelmingly white—showing at the summit. And the press covered it like it was World War III. James Warren reports.

05.21.12 10:50 PM ET

Given the apocalyptic visions Chicagoans had of protests at the NATO summit—visions dispelled neither by protest organizers nor Mayor Rahm Emanuel—what played out was anemic and startlingly homogenous.

The modest size and demographics of the assembled were striking. They were largely white, middle class, and college educated. You were hard-pressed to find any African-American, Latino, or Asian-American demonstrators in President Obama’s hometown, one of the world’s most diverse metropolises.

If protest organizers argued that the great issues of our time were the subjects at hand—war, jobs, and social justice—the call to rally in Chicago fell flat. The big winner was Emanuel and his cops, with the losers the protest leaders whose presummit hyperbole wasn’t matched by their execution.

“This was really seen as a ‘white boys thing’ in minority communities,” said Ron Grossman, a historian-turned-journalist who was in Chicago for the historic protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and covered the latest NATO protests for the Chicago Tribune.

Unlike the 1968 protests, where opposition to the Vietnam War was a driving force, there was nothing similar this time. That's why Grossman pointed to the legacy of Saul Alinsky, the legendary Chicago community organizer who died in 1972 but influenced generations of organizers, including Obama himself after he arrived here in 1985.

“He said you can’t organize a group over an abstraction like world peace. You have to have what community members view as a specific, attainable goal. This gathering never found a specific ‘we want this done now’ issue that could engage people.”

The most orchestrated gathering on opening day Sunday’s opening of the NATO session assembled at a lakefront bandshell about a mile away. When local-news helicopters showed the scene, you might have assumed there was a mediocre but free summer concert below, with a group of perhaps 4,000.

A few hours later, the event’s few moments of scary untidiness played out, resulting in arrests of about 45 demonstrators and injuries to several police. No surprise, the local media covered this fracas as if were the lead-up to World War III, replete with video of demonstrators feigning distress and clearly sporting fake blood. Most of those arrested were released in time to go clubbing, if they so desired, with gratitude shown to their captors.

“Thank you, Sergeant Mahoney, so much, for taking care of us, man,” said one protester after she was released. She informed the media that those who went through this particular precinct house after being arrested were treated well, given food and medical care, if needed.

The decision to move the G8 summit to Camp David, Md., from here also played a part in the underwhelming protests, suggested Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer and author. “Rahm, or somebody else, played it smart [in having it moved]. The G8 was about joblessness, and that might have started a riot.”

Don Rose, a well-known political commentator and liberal activist, agreed. “In large part it was due to the G8 being taken away,” he said—adding that the NATO gathering will be a historical footnote at best.

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“There was a pretty miserable failure of outreach,” said Mike Flannery, the savviest political reporter in Chicago, who works for the Fox station WFLD. He was “flabbergasted” by the modest numbers, the lack of diversity, and a mish-mash of protest issues ranging from the war in Afghanistan to the closing of Chicago mental health clinics.

But what played out also reflected a detailed and thoughtful set of pre-summit negotiations involving the Emanuel administration and representatives of protesters, including the ACLU of Illinois.

Harvey Grossman (no relation to journalist Ron Grossman), the ACLU’s longtime legal director, started sitting down with the city after it made some early missteps and prompted controversy. Those included ratcheting up various fines and putting one key venue off limits, quickly setting a poor and adversarial early tone.

But Emanuel, ever the dealmaker, would modulate his position and place a high priority on free speech concerns even as he sought to avoid embarrassment by being tough during the highest risk-reward weekend of his first year in office.

Ultimately, the city would not agree to set aside a protest area very close to the actual summit. But important other concessions evidenced flexibility, said Harvey Grossman. They included the routes for marchers, a willingness to countenance civil disobedience, and the disclosure of many police procedures, including not using detentions in a preventive fashion (meaning not keeping those arrested locked up all weekend).

“I give them credit,” said Grossman, a frequent critic of Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley. “They got off on the wrong tone but ultimately got onto the right message of facilitating lawful speech. This was not characteristic of the prior administration. They adhered to their representations.”

Suspicion of Chicago police is deep, especially in minority communities, and with ample historical justifications. But they probably deserve praise this time, and possibly an historical analogy of their own.

“There was one point on Sunday that they formed what really was a revival of a Greek phalanx,” said Ron Grossman, the former history teacher. “They were lined up with their [riot] masks over their face, left arms holding a shield, the right holding a baton, and were five or six layers deep. They moved their shields and baton as a unit. It’s how the Greeks won their wars in antiquity.”

Yes, they showed generally impressive calm and discipline as kids insulted and dared them. But they were fortunate that there were not many more. Given their numbers and impact, the summit protesters might have just as well been pitching pebbles into nearby Lake Michigan.

As the summit was concluding Monday afternoon, there was a meager demonstration in front of Obama’s reelection headquarters with a recurring chant whose creative centerpiece was, “F--k Obama.”

Some protesters seemed bleary-eyed and perhaps not just from lack of sleep. The summit leaders were soon heading to their jets, and protesters to buses, trains and cars, everybody tapped out.