Days after getting my master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, I arrived in Chicago yesterday morning for a family vacation and promptly felt like the dumbest journalist alive.
I've been following the Occupy Wall Street movement since it started last September, and covered it for the Georgia Straight and Herizons. As a social justice activist from Vancouver, witnessing the birth of Occupy while living in New York this year was an exhilarating (and because of police brutality, a sometimes horrifying) experience.
Stumbling across NATO protests - and Peter MacKay
But I've been so frazzled and sleep-deprived lately, trying to graduate and prepare to move to Hong Kong where I'll work as a reporter, that even the empty roads and rows of police vans all over downtown Chicago didn't make me clue in. I figured Chicago was just a lifeless, over-policed city.
It was my dad who first discovered that our vacation was coinciding with the NATO Summit and the accompanying anti-NATO peace protests. While we waited outside a restaurant for a table, he sauntered over to a police officer, playfully punched him on the shoulder and said, "Hey, how come your buddies went to get pancakes and left you outside?"
The officer smiled, asked my dad where he was from (the Hawaiian shirt was a tourist giveaway) and told him that he had picked a bad weekend to visit Chicago.
I barely tasted my breakfast while I was frantically browsing the Internet trying to get up to speed on the protests that had been happening for the past week. They have been small-scale so far with little reports of use of force from police or protesters, but there was a big march and rally planned for Sunday when the NATO Summit would start at the McCormick Place Convention Center. Police estimated that 10,000 protesters would converge in the city.
In between bites of steak and eggs, my dad pointed to his right and said, "Oh look, there's Canada's defense minister."
Peter MacKay was walking out of the pancake restaurant with his wife. I ran out of the restaurant ahead of them, snapped a photo and posted it on Twitter. Their bodyguard took no notice of me. With my flower-print pencil skirt, wedge heels and Hello Kitty stickers on my iPhone, I looked like neither a protester nor a journalist.
Protests and police repression
Good thing those heels were sturdy Aerosoles. A few hours later, I was sprinting down Jackson Boulevard to keep up with the protesters' march to Daley Plaza. It was an impromptu demonstration against the arrest of protesters and police attempts to smear protesters as suspected terrorists.
Protesters carried signs saying, 'NATO=WWIII,' 'NATO is Evil' and 'Power to the People,' and they sang, 'Solidarity Forever.' The march began with barely 100 people but grew to about 500 by the time they arrived at Daley Plaza.
In the plaza, grim-faced protesters held a moment of silence for their "brothers and sisters in jail." By Saturday, a dozen anti-NATO protesters had been arrested for minor charges such as trespassing and three protesters had been charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism after police found molotov cocktail supplies in their possession (Their lawyers insist that the ingredients police seized were in fact beer-brewing supplies).
I talked to Emma Kaplan, an anti-war activist, about why she was taking part in the anti-NATO protests.
"We're here to show that the majority of the public does not support NATO's interventions in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan," she said. "We are exercising our right to peaceful assembly and calling for the release of wrongfully detained protesters."
And 20-year-old Laney Baney, who had driven here with friends from Occupy Buffalo, wanted to help "open up critical dialogue about NATO actions."
"NATO thinks they can do whatever they want. But we're here to tell them that is not the case," he said, while holding a big pink rose to his chin.
After the demonstration at Daley Plaza, protesters marched zigzagging all over downtown, continuing a pattern of the last few days. Volunteer medics with red crosses taped to their shirts worked to make sure the crowd stayed spaced out to avoid trampling, and reminded marchers to stay hydrated.
Not having done any preparation beforehand, I experienced the protests as the average participant would. I got my information through word of mouth, on Twitter and through text alerts (you can sign up by texting @NATOACTION to the number 23559). Even if I had done more research, it wouldn't have been that helpful anyways because the protest plans were generally quite loose and marchers would turn every which way depending on where police had set up blockades.
At dinner, I told my parents that I would keep reporting on the protests but told them not to worry. The Chicago police (all 3,100 of them, plus hundreds of officers from other cities) were restrained so far, and each protester I spoke to emphasized that they had no plans to resort to violence. It was a far cry from the Toronto G8 protests in 2010.
Later that night, I was very dismayed to see reports that police were beating protesters and journalists, and that a police van had intentionally driven into protesters.
But still, I was hopeful that the protests the next day would be peaceful. On Sunday morning, when I walked to Grant Park with my family, I watched the protesters stream in and set up on the stage. The atmosphere was really positive and surprisingly laidback. People were lounging in the shade, making signs, and walking around handing out leaflets. Costumed protesters were even posing for photos with tourists. With the rows of blue porta-potties and the musicians warming up the crowd on stage, a passerby could have easily mistaken the protest for an outdoor rock concert.
I talked to 11-year-old Alita Kaiser, who had just arrived at the protest from Milwaukee with her grandmother, and was carrying a huge American flag that was twice her height.
"I support the NATO protests because I think war is bad," she said resolutely. "I'm happy though to see communities come together to try to reach their goals to end wars."
And the communities that did come together were very diverse. I talked to socialists, environmentalists, activists that had been protesting war since Vietnam, artists, nurses, students and Hindu monks. But unlike other Occupy-associated protests, I didn't think their messages were all jumbled up. Protesters clearly connected their varied causes to the theme of ending war and NATO actions.
Anti-war soldiers throw back their medals
At 2pm, protesters started to march toward McCormick Place Convention Center, where President Obama was hosting the NATO Summit after having wrapped up the G8 meeting in Camp David.
Speakers addressed the crowd and the most powerful moments of the day happened when Iraq and Afghanistan veterans went up on stage to speak and to throw their service medals toward McCormick Place.
"These medals once made me feel good," said Iraq war veteran Scott Olson. "I came back to reality. I don't like these anymore."
Police remained restrained and the mood stayed very positive until after the speeches ended. Police suddenly ordered protesters to disperse, but some officers blocked people trying to leave. People started charging away in all directions, and I began to hear reports of protesters and journalists being injured.
At that point, I knew I'd be worrying my parents sick so I snuck away from the crowd and joined my family at the upscale shops on North Michigan Avenue, pacing around Macy's while following developments on my cell phone and on Twitter.
Later that evening, hundreds of protesters had stationed themselves outside the Chicago Art Institute, where Michelle Obama was having dinner with spouses of NATO leaders, and marches were taking place all over "The Loop" in downtown and at Belmont and Western, where protesters continued to challenge the arrests of fellow marchers.
I'm typing up this report at 2am and my phone is lighting up with reports from protesters saying that police are "arresting everyone," that they're "bleeding, scared, running," and looking for friends they had become separated from.
I'm flying back home to Vancouver in a few hours, and I hope that all the peace activists I've met this weekend will stay safe and that the Chicago Police Department will reconsider their tactics.
Organizers are encouraging witnesses to report arrests and abuses to the National Lawyers Guil representing Occupy Chicago protesters. The National Lawyers Guild hotline is 312-913-0039. You can follow updates on the NATO protests @OccupyChicago
Joanna Chiu is an independent journalist and editor, and the founder of WAM! (Women, Action & the Media) Vancouver chapter. You can follow her reporting @joannachiu.
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