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Home » Interviews » NATO Protests End with a Whimper, Not A Bang!

NATO Protests End with a Whimper, Not A Bang!

Protesters gathered in Grant Park on Sunday, May 20th, 2012.

I’ve just spent the last four days following protesters through the streets of Chicago. My feet, despite wearing my good walking shoes, are like bloody stumps. The problem was the inability to use the ell or buses, because you could not carry a bag that was bigger than 14” or deeper than 4”. Since I don’t own a purse that small, I’ve been walking.

Later, I considered the fact that I have a bicycle here and could have used it. Usually, I am fearful of all the Chicago traffic. There has BEEN no Chicago traffic to speak of, as the city is like a ghost town. Many South Loop merchants actually boarded up their plate glass windows as though a hurricane were coming.

My new friend, Jonathan Morris, sitting in the middle of an empty Lake Shore Drive, looking south.

The hurricane did not materialize. It was more a rainy day. The protesters did come, but so did the cops. There were more police in the city of Chicago—-10,000, I was told—than at any time in history. The entire state of Illinois sent policemen with special training (3 months of special training) to assist Rahm Emanuel’s troops in quelling any riots. The last thing that was wanted was another black eye for the city of Chicago like that incurred during the Democratic National Convention of 1968.

I still remember watching the DNC on my hospital television set, having just given birth to my oldest child.  It was unbelievable! On top of that, commentators Gore Vidal (liberal) and William F. Buckley (conservative) got into verbal fisticuffs that deteriorated into physical fisticuffs, with both men rolling around on the studio floor. (“Listen, you God-damned queer, you say that one more time and I’ll punch you in the face!” to which Vidal responded by calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and they were off to the races.)

Jesse Jackson, preparing to speak at the Petrillo Band Shell on Sunday, May 20th.

No such excitement this time around in Chicago. I muse on the demonstrations of my youth and my misspent adulthood, and I wonder what the difference is. I have some theories, which I will share here:


1)      Back in the 60s, the demonstrators were primarily college-aged youth. Why? The draft, of course. Not many of my male classmates were too thrilled about the concept of going off to Southeast Asia to fight the Vietnam War. I couldn’t have agreed with them more, so I, too, drew blood, signed my name on a long roll in protest, and marched to the steps of Old Capitol in Iowa City to “protest.” However, the REAL City of Protests was Berkeley, where I attended in 1965, the hey-day of Mario Savio. I had to smile when I revisited the campus a few years back to find a statue of Mario, who is now deceased. Back in the day, they were hauling Mario off to jail with great regularity. Both campuses (Iowa City and Berkeley) learned that it is too easy to break out bookstore windows during a riot. The Republicans learned this during the Republican National Convention of 2008 when demonstrators, despite heavy security, ran through the streets breaking out windows. So, is it any wonder that some local South Loop merchants just closed up shop, boarded up their windows, and stayed home?


2)      In the days of my youth, there was ONE thing being protested: i.e., the war in Vietnam. How many of us remember the chants of “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” and the “Hell, no! We won’t go!” sentiments? In Chicago in 2012, it’s hard to tell who is protesting what. Of course, there are those who simply don’t like NATO. Then there are signs that declare “Bring ‘Em Home!” (anti-war). Then there was a woman protesting evictions. Another woman, clad all in pink, was trying to secure signatures to run on the Green Party ticket.

The Storm Troopers Await.


Yet another country heard from: veterans of both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, who were out in force and planning on returning medals earned during a dramatic set-to with the police that took place on Sunday about 4 p.m. at the juncture of Michigan and Cermak Streets, a 2 and ½ mile walk from Grant Park’s Petrillo Band Shell, where the festivities kicked off at 10:30 a.m. with Tom Morello (lead guitarist of “Rage Against the Machine”) playing. It was too bad that the sound system was defective, because Morello was recently voted the 26thbest guitarist of all time by “Rolling Stone” magazine, but only played for about 20 minutes. I enjoyed the time in the park, as Haskell Wexler, Oscar-winning cinematographer (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) was in the park with a female camerawoman, whom he introduced as being a “very good filmmaker.” Haskell should know! It was a thrill to meet this icon, the last cinematographer to receive an Oscar for a black-and-white film and still going strong at 90 years young. (I was beginning to feel sorry for myself for being so old until I ran into Haskell.)

Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, age 90, was in Grant Park interviewing protesters. Haskell was the last person to win an Oscar for black-and-white cinematography. He was the cinematographer for both "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."


I struck up a conversation with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. There were three men present who showed me the map of the protest march route:  the bespectacled Billy Kelly; the bearded Ron Arm, who served in ‘Nam in ’68 and ’69; and Bill Homans, aka “Watermelon Slim.”

Left to right: Billy Kelly, Bill Homans (aka "Watermelon Slim") and Ron Arm ('Nam, 68-69).


Bill, who was leaning heavily on a cane, told me he grew up North Carolina and Oklahoma and Mississippi, but now lives in Clarksville, about 75 miles southwest of Memphis. He has recorded 12 records, singing the blues, as Watermelon Slim, and his plan this night was to sing at Simone’s on 18th Street around 6 p.m. The veterans shared with me that the city had provided them with a stage set up in the back of a flat-bed truck. This would be their impromptu stage where medals from veterans who fought in our nation’s wars would be returned in protest. Some of the medals were coming from expatriates who fled the Afghanistan War. (Obviously, they would not be there in person.) When asked how many medals, in all, would be returned, the answer was 35.

Slim said, “I’m 63 and I’m breaking down. I enlisted. My dad fought the Nazis and I knew it was not a matter of if, but of when I’d go (to Vietnam). I enlisted as a truck driver, because I really didn’t want to kill anyone. When I came back, I had a lot of survivor guilt, but I’m not going to take any money from the government. There are young people with their whole lives ahead of them that are coming back in worse shape than I’m in now. I’ve finally got a little house of my own and a woman…although we don’t live together. I’m doing all right.”

When I shared with Slim that I was older than he is, he gallantly declared that to be impossible.

ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) Observers.


Next, I caught sight of a sign that declared that we should all “Rise Up!” Yet the bearer of this sign, Taylor Nimey from Seattle who had come with 10 other Occupy Seattle people, was sitting on the grass smoking a cigarette, which struck me as ironic. I sat down next to him and a young (18 years old, a sophomore at DePaul) journalism student asked if she could speak with us about what we were there protesting. I quickly told her I was not really a protester (although I have been), but was a journalist, as she is training to be. (I spent a fair amount of time telling her she needed a “Plan B” in order to survive financially).

Our bright-eyed bushy-tailed young interviewer asked Taylor some questions and he declared that the protest was, “Definitely a great gathering of people around the world.”

Tom Morrell, lead guitarist for "Rage Against the Machine," who lives in the Chicago suburbs and was named the 26th best guitarist of all time by "Rolling Stone" magazine.

The young interviewer asked, “What do they represent?”

Taylor actually started to make some sense, pontificating about how “money doesn’t do anything but feed greed’ and that the government “Should listen to the people and start making changes to their policies.”

Taylor’s answers prompted me to ask him if he had gone to college, and he had, in fact, attended a junior college in Washington state.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked him.

“I work for the post office,” he shared.

I wondered if Taylor was aware that he was working FOR the very government he was protesting AGAINST. And then he came out with his Big Bright Idea: “anarchist communes.” O………….K……….

Moving on, I spoke with Kenneth Justus, who had been on Michigan Avenue the night before in a strange get-up. There he was again, only this time dressed as a court jester. I began to think that Kenneth is or was a professional protester.

Protester Kenneth Justus.

As someone who attended Berkeley back when Mario Savio was leading protests (now, he’s dead and there’s a statue dedicated to him on campus) and the Free Speech movement was just getting started (1965), I’ve seen some protests.

As someone who ran alongside the protesters in St. Paul as they broke out windows (despite the George W. Bush attempts to heavily fortify the city and also staff it with storm troopers), I did not find the NATO

Kenneth Justus on Sunday, May 20th.

demonstrations to be very intense, very well-organized or very effective. Some of the people leading certain groups were from out-of-town and would take wrong turns. The police were not letting the protesters cross the bridge and disrupt the Miracle Mile (one protester whose first name was “Taylor” was arrested for pushing a bicycle policeman’s bike against his chest, and I wondered if it was the “Rise Up” Seattle Taylor). I also witnessed demonstrations in Denver at the DNC in 2008 and also at rallies for George W. Bush and John McCain, and there was none of the enthusiastic vigor or over-the-top violence. This was undoubtedly viewed as a good thing by the PTB. Nobody wanted Chicago to come off as a town full of over-zealous storm troopers who would just as soon bash your head in as look at you, as they did in 1968. I am among that number, so I am not upset that there were so few real “moments” during the past 3 days of the NATO summit.

Grant Park, May 20th, 2012.

The only problem was that my reports from the front made everything sound so tame and well-behaved that the world, watching the few who were arrested or carted away (the technique being to cut the trouble-maker from the pack and get them away quickly, in a surgical strike), especially my very nice editor in Denver for Yahoo, couldn’t quite figure out how it was that I was seeing such a very different series of events.

I can’t figure it out, either. I think that more mature people do not take the risks that

Lawyer observers.

young people took in the 60’s, when it was their life on the line. I think that the “mix” of causes contributed to the disorganization and the failure to have an overriding cause. Yes, people are angry that the policies of our government seem to be widening the gap between the rich and the poor, and the poor are definitely paramount amongst the Occupiers. If you were to see how they must exist to occupy, you would understand that Occupying is not a pursuit for sissies (like me) who love their creature comforts. How many among us would willingly go without a shower or a bath or washed hair or brushed teeth for days on end? Not many, I’m sure.


The one “big news” story that came out of the NATO summit was the plot to use Molotov cocktails on Obama’s headquarters and to shoot an arrow through Rahm Emanuel’s house window. The 3 brainiacs who thought this up were not from Chicago.


They were also not students. One was 27; one was 25; one was 20. Only the 20-year-old sounds like he fell in with the wrong crowd. The others sounded like professional trouble-makers. One, in fact, quit his job as a cook to “occupy” in a variety of cities. There was also talk of a 37-year-old unemployed social worker who was arrested and of a Wisconsin man who was driving around Canal Street with rounds of live ammunition on the back seat of his car.


This group of young people was excited to have their picture taken on the closed down Columbus Drive.

Tomorrow, it’s all over and the city will return to normal. So much for my strolls through Grant Park after dark, alone. It was truly safe there this past 3 days because most of the police on duty were lolling around there. I saw a uniformed officer using his cell phone to take pictures of a man walking his 2 little dogs (terriers). I said, to my companion: “There ya’ go. Your tax dollars at work!”


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1 Comment

  1. Stacey

    This is a great article that really shows how much you saw! thanks for filling me in!

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