In late May 2012, the NATO Summit thunders through the city of Chicago. Early Wednesday morning in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, one hundred and fifty rag-tag, passionate revolutionaries board three buses. In standard Occupy fashion, we are two hours late and loosely but organically organized. The ride to Chicago, Illinois is a long one, stretched out because the bus overheats. The seats are cramped, the toilet smells, but snacks are mostly plentiful if not varied.
Early Friday morning, we arrive in Chicago after a long night of drunken feverish excitement for what for many of us was our first mass protest. The buses drop us off at a park near Lake Michigan. Sleepily we get off the bus and grab our belongings.
As soon as we hit the streets of Chicago, we are recognized - sleeping bags in tow, bandannas wrapped around our necks. “These are the protesters..” are the faint whispers of passer-byes.
Our first stop is the convergence - our hang-out spot, a church on Wellington Ave whose beliefs incorporate support for direct action, non-violent civil disobedience, and equality. It is a vibrant space, filled with energy and welcoming hearts. Blank cardboard pieces are strewn around the room, waiting for the right revolutionary to stumble upon it and design a subversive message. Mic-checks about jail support and breakfast echo on the walls.
After we store our stuff, we walk back over to the park to wait for yet another bus to pick us up to take us to the first action, a march and rally for the Nurses’ Union in support of the Robin Hood Tax. The Nurses’ Union has told us we must attend in exchange for the return trip home. In a strange twist of fate the bus never shows up, so we end up missing the march and take public transit to the rally at Daley Plaza. After that first morning, other than at the rallies, we never see or talk to anyone from the Nurses’ Union. Not sure if it is intentional or if we just fell through the cracks of organizing.
When we arrive at Daley Plaza, hundreds of people mingle around with colorful signs or creative costumes, sometimes handing out leaflets and propaganda. The nurses are dressed up as Robin Hood with glittering green eye masks and red shirts. The rally sports all the usual features: Stage, speakers, famous performer, and innocuous chants. After the rally ends, hundreds take the streets spontaneously. The police surround us, and follow us but allow us to march to one of the bridges. The march is energized; there are new faces in the crowd: Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Portland, Oakland - the list goes on. It is a melee of angry radical activists. At the bridge the first act of resistance occurs, someone climbs onto one the bridge towers to pull down a banner advertising the NATO Summit. It rips 3/4s of the way down. Police immediately rush to the scene. Officers are yelling for people to move and get out of the way, as they try to find the man responsible for what they deem as property damage. The march disperses slightly, and then continues farther down. Chants of “aah-… anti-… anti-capitalista” ring through the streets of Chi town. It winds through the financial district, and stops at the Federal Reserve Bank, the original space for the Occupy Chicago encampment. It never lasted very long, Chicago is not a friendly place for activists. Today the march decides to take the space again to make it a temporary autonomous zone [TAZ], a simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of space, a reclamation of the private. As is usual, the group circles together and sits down. One by one, people get up to declare why they Occupy. Voices ring with the pain of capitalism, the hope for a better future, and passionate revelries. The cops stand ready on the outskirts of the gathering. They block others from entering, and prowl around us as enforcers of private property, private property which we have dared to re-imagine as ours. Police vans continue to pour in, and hundreds stand guard. We finish the speak-out, the march continues but we break off to head to a bathroom and food.
At the Harold’s Chicken Shack, even without our gear, we are immediately identified as NATO protesters. A woman speaks with one of our comrades for awhile, and then asks to take our picture. She thanks us for what we do. As usual the idolatry is strange because we don’t do what we do for others, we do it for ourselves in hopes that everyone will join. We don’t want to be admired, thanked, or glorified, we just want to live in a different, better world and we want everyone to feel as inspired and as empowered to create exactly that. We let her take a picture though.
We also bump into a fellow Occupier from down South, who had just arrived to the city. He, too, immediately spots us. We share several chicken wing dinners, and then walk over to Millennium Park where the march had ended. At Millennium Park the scene is typical - the TAZ formation has begun: people lounging around in groups, talking and laughing; a larger group with drums, dancing and singing. It reminds me immediately of the encampment. Soon a truck pulls up, a woman mic-checks that the food is ready and immediately people rush to help set-up. After food is served, an announcement is made about the hotel strike across the streets, and several groups rush over to stand in solidarity with the workers. Others stick around to have a General Assembly. We leave for the convergence to retrieve our belongings, as the space closes at 10pm.
We don’t spend too much time at the church though, rather we head out to the park by the lake to sleep. It is early during the night, only about 9pm, so we find a spot pretty quickly underneath the willow trees. We spread out our tarp, smoke a bowl, and fall right to sleep.
We wake up to a maintenance worker advising us to be careful since we are camped right next to a driving range. As we open our eyes and regain our senses, we realize that not only are we surrounded by golf balls but also other fellow comrades, all sleeping underneath willow trees. It is an amazing serene sight. It is Saturday morning, the day before NATO. We plan to go to two actions - a healthcare rally that would culminate in a march to Mayor Rahm’s house and an Anti-Capitalist evening march which would start at the Haymarket Square memorial.
The healthcare rally is jovial, as are most union actions. The rally is much like the previous day’s one - speakers connected with various organizations talking passionately about the issues. Within half an hour, we proceed to march in the sticky humid Chicago weather. The march is long, but in high spirits. A mix of militant and liberal chants fill the muggy skies: ”1,2,3. I declare a class war. 4,5,6. Tax the rich and arm the poor”; “Get up, get down, there’s a revolution in this town”; “Healthcare, not warfare. FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT”; and of course our favorite “Aaah, anti-, anti-capitalista.” A bicycle powered cart pulls along a small sound system that blasts Lennon’s “Imagine.” We arrive at Rahm’s house and situate ourselves on his street. Chicago police in full riot gear line the front of his house and some of his neighbors’. A speak-out follows. I sit next to a police van on which someone had written “pigs on wheels.” It is fitting - the blend of acts of resistance with standard complicit protesting. What did a rally - a permitted rally, from what I could tell, do? Did Rahm even really live here in this quiet suburb of Chicago? Or was this just his home for the public to protest? If you’re a politician in America you have to have one. Then again what did writing “pigs on wheels” do? Or ripping down a NATO banner? Other than let me know that others are out there, and that we are the resistance and we are growing?
After the rally, we take the train back to the convergence to get ready to head out to the anti-capitalist march. We arrive 15 minutes late to the march, surprised to learn that it had already left. We hear that the people are restless and angry. We run down the street, scurrying past police vans, police cars, and police buses that now surround the area to catch up with the march. Sirens can be heard, and someone is saying that the march has already been split. It is a favorite tactic of the police, kettle one part of the march to keep numbers low. But our comrades break through police lines and join with the other march. It is an exhilarating show of people power which winds underneath the Loop which is the railway of Chicago. It is fast-paced, serious, and angry. Hundreds are here because we are angry not just at NATO, not just at government legislation, but at the whole damn capitalist state. “1,2,3. I declare a class war. 4,5,6. Kill the rich and smash the state”; “Da-Dance for that anarchy”; “1,2. Fuck the bourgeoisie. 3,4. Fuck the bourgeoisie” ring through the streets of downtown Chicago, reflecting our collective anger. Like usual, the police state monitors us closely. At all times hundreds of police in vans, in cars, in buses, on bicycles and on horses are everywhere. Several times we are completely surrounded, only to break through lines at the expense of comrades who are injured by swinging batons or bikes. We wind through intersections and give high 5’s to passing motorists who cheer us on and video tape us with their phones. Everywhere we go, curious on-lookers linger around with their electronic devices ready. To stand up for your rights in the United States is a spectacle. We are either hated, loved, or admired. Either way, you want to take a picture of us - the movement of the people you are too afraid to join.
The march stops at Millennium Park again. Mood is different than from last night. Everyone is agitated. Pigs on horses line one side of the street. The horses look frightened. Buses filled with cops drive up near the park. A half an hour break ensues and then the march begins again. We leave to go back to the convergence as it’s getting close to 10pm, but we hear later that one of the police vans hit some of protesters. In Oakland, they mass arrest to disperse a crowd. In Chicago, they chose brutality as a method of dispersal. Either way, the police state has a time limit on how long you can exercise your freedom to assemble and protest.
That night we head to the willow trees again, nervous and excited for the next day.
Sunday emerges with a gust of hot sticky air and a blazing sun. I am edgy, and we mobilize early to head to the large “No NATO” Rally and March. The rally starts at Grant Park this time. It is a repeat of the other days - speeches galore, famous names dropped, the struggle of past activists remembered. The difference is that today there are thousands in the park. Hundreds of different groups with various banners, clothing, costumes, and messages. No one likes NATO, whether you are part of a liberal reformist women’s group or a member of the Socialist Worker. After about an hour or so, we are called to mobilize the march. Veterans for Peace leads the contingent, as at the end of the march they plan to throw away their medals. Part of the march utilizes the Black Bloc tactic, with several hundred protesters masked up and wearing all black. The Bloc marches together with the police closely following its actions. The Bloc is not afraid of the police though. The Bloc is not an organized group, we march in solidarity with each other, in solidarity with others, but also with the full knowledge that we are here to do direct action, not just to symbolically protest.
The planned protest for NATO ends near McCormick Plaza, the location for the dignitaries’ meeting, at which Veterans throw away their medals. It is a beautiful procession, with thousands in the streets. The veterans’ ceremony is equally touching - how it must it feel to realize that you have fought for a lie; that you have risked your life to help a small group of corrupt individuals amass more wealth; that you have killed to the delight of the imperialists. Yet, what does the ceremony accomplish? Does Obama or the other war-mongering kings care that soldiers are disillusioned? Maybe they will when soldiers start pointing their guns the other way, but until then, a ceremony is not resistance. Resistance is disobedience, resistance is not asking for permission to protest, resistance is taking that one extra step to say “NO”, not just with your lips but with your entire body knowing that injury may come.
When the Veterans’ ceremony ends, we let out a cry to “Shut down NATO,” as the organizers of the march urge everyone to disperse. We had traveled to Chicago to resist, we will not disperse. McCormick Plaza is right ahead of us, across the lines of police. The sun beams down on us, as scouts scurry around to try and figure out the best way to continue the march. Eventually, we decide to push forward against the police line. We take the steps forward to challenge the police state to step aside and allow us to get to our destination - the NATO Summit. NATO is our enemy, not the police. However the police stand in our way because they are here to protect the interests of the war mongers. They serve and protect the empire, not the people. When we, the people, demand justice and peace because we know that the ills of the world are not right, we are beaten. Thus as we move forward, the police grab our front line, drag them down, raise their batons and start to strike. Screams, panic, and anger boils in the Chicago Sunday heat. We pull people out and away from the police, while others are grabbed and cuffed. From those who are saved, blood streams from their noses, their temples, and their hair. Openings are made to allow those who are hurt to escape and receive medical attention. The police show no mercy and continue their brutal beatings. The people attempt to retreat, defeated, and tear through a barricade separating the sidewalk and street so as to not get crushed by the police. The front lines break up, as people are treated for wounds and injuries and others scream at the officers for the excessive use of force. The police state has shown its power, has shown its true colors, has clearly illustrated their role in our communities. The rest is a blur of police harassment. Clearly they have won, they announce over the bullhorn that we must disperse. Some of our comrades are missing so we stay by the battle scene to look for them, but eventually take the train back to the convergence.
Later that night, we find each other and our way back to downtown Chicago, where the marches have continued. The police do not stop their aggression. More are met with batons, some are snatched, and others slammed with bicycles. But the people do not give up, we continue to follow the trail of the NATO dignitaries, finding them again at the Art Institute. The intersection after a skirmish becomes then another TAZ. After securing the space, the people decide to hold a General Assembly to decide on next steps. Some want to continue to stand in front of the Art Institute, to reclaim space as we do, to have conversations with each other, to get to know each other now that we have marched together. Others want to take streets again, to find the dignitaries at their hotels, to get away from the oppressive police presence at the intersection. One man gets on stack to say he had seen the live stream and had arrived at downtown just to march. Finally the heed to march is louder and we mobilize again. It is the end of the weekend and the streets are ours. The police follow us with their sirens, and try to intimidate us with their numbers and weapons. They form lines at intersections and derail our march from its original destination: the hotels of the dignitaries. But we keep on in the streets, eventually looping up back towards the financial district. Tired, and wet as it had started to rain, we decide to head back to the convergence. Another march is planned in the morning to celebrate the preemptive shutting down of Boeing. But the night march, we hear continued, illustrating the resilience of the people.
The next day’s actions again show us how important it is to reclaim space and to construct TAZ. On Sunday, we take the streets, we take the intersections in front of Boeing, in front of banks, and in front of Obama’s headquarters as we chant, “1. Fuck Obama 2. Fuck Obama 3. Obama is a fucking traitor.” At Obama’s headquarters, we set up our final TAZ. Food is given out, joints are smoked, drums are set up; the people dance because they can. We don’t rally, we don’t have a stage, we don’t have speakers, we just do what we do best, be us.
Not sure if that’s enough, but also not sure if rallies, permitted marches, ceremonies, vigils, lobbying, writing to your legislator, petitioning is all that effective. Our goal was to shut down NATO. But what does shutting down NATO even mean? Do we want to scare our rulers? Do we want to show our naked fearlessness? Or do we want real structural change in the ways our communities are organized? While I want to say yes to all three, I know the last may be the key. The strategy emerges as two pronged: we must show the world the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the state. We must show how the state protects the system of capitalism, how it protects and listens to corporate interests, how it is constructed specifically for that purpose, with an incidental Bill of Rights. Then we must illustrate what a different world would look like. We must illustrate how a world organically organized would be filled with love, with food, with music, with dancing, with singing, with conversations, with laughter, and with community.
In the 1970s, Howard Zinn described revolution as an art: “it requires the courage not only of resistance, but of imagination.” In each TAZ, we create, we create another world outside of this one. It is how we begin to change the minds and hearts of people because a revolution at its core rests in the cultural shift of the people. To win, we must continue to resist - which means not asking the state for permission to protest - and we must continue to build the world we want to see. To win, this must happen everywhere. It is time for us to lose our chains and be free together.