Chicago, Illinois — I had spent the morning with my two year old granddaughter, chalking the sidewalk in front of our three story flat with apolitical drawings. But shortly before noon I realized that I should attend the big anti-NATO demo. At the end of our block I boarded a southbound Ravenswood train. I transferred to the Redline subway at Belmont and soon to detrained beneath the Loop. I knew the march was to begin at the Petrillo bandshell, so I decided to stroll through the Daley Jr. boondoggle known as Millennium Park. For a beautiful spring day, the tourists were somewhat sparse.
No one knew what exactly NATO would bring to the city aside from street closures and parking bans. But many folks must have decided not to take any chances. Believe it or not, Chicago is something of a midwestern tourist attraction. But this weekend business was not good unless you were catering a NATO delegation.
For weeks, Rahm Emanuel, our new mayor, had been assuring us that there would be plenty of security thus ensuring at least a moderate level of trepidation. Riders on the Metro South line (former Illinois Central) that passes through McCormick Place (where the conferences were held) were forbidden from carrying backpacks or suitcases on board. Lakeshore Drive, a major downtown thoroughfare, had been closed for several days. The mayor was not taking any chances.
When I arrived at the bandshell several thousand people were milling around listening to the speakers, handing out flyers and placards, looking for friends, etc. After 10 or 15 minutes in the hot sun I decided to seek some shade under the nearby honey locust trees. The sound system was good. There were dozens of porta-potties and even some food and water available. It was a well-organized event.
The crowd was mostly young (that is, under 30) with even a few toddlers and parents with strollers. But 10-20% were members of my age cohort (over 60). Not long after finding my shady spot I realized that the woman standing a few feet away looked familiar. Older, heavier, worse teeth, but I tentatively called out her name. She recognized me. She put out her hand, but I went for the hug. More than 35 years ago we were both brakemen (brakepersons?) for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. I had hired out just before the Socialist Workers Party had gotten eight or ten of their members on at the C&NW. Tina introduced me to her companion and he asked if I had been in the Socialist Workers Party. I replied that I hadn't been, but probably should have joined. Tina rejoined that it was a shame I hadn't, since following the split I would have single-handedly doubled the membership of Socialist Action. The lamentable splintering of the Left revisited.
Tina explained that I had rented apartments to three different comrades and I replied that perhaps I had been of some use to the Party. After a few minutes of pleasantries, she left to seek some friends in the gay and lesbian movement. I recall that she had been a public school teacher after leaving the railroad. Her car had been firebombed, probably on account of her lesbian student activism. She took a disability pension.
Near a circle of dancing, chanting Hare Krishnas, I sat against a tree, enjoying the day, listening to the various speakers address the congregation. The final speaker was the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Say what you will about him, he is a rabble-rousing preacher. When he finished, the marchers gathered on nearby Jackson Boulevard. As the temperature was nearing 90 degrees, I clung to my shade tree and ended up near the end of march, sandwiched between a well-dressed group of Pakistanis decrying the drone attacks and the EZLN (Zapatistas) contingent whose Spanish banner was incomprehensible to me. A very pregnant yet energetic woman was vigorously chanting nearby. She surely did not expect any trouble.
Off we went, west on Jackson to State Street turning south at the John Marshall Law School from which my son had graduated several years ago, incurring six-figure indebtedness. I wondered how many of the marchers were reeling beneath the load of their student loans. (I believe the United States total now exceeds $1 trillion.) For NATO wars and conferences they can find the money, for education you must pay through the nose!
We continued south on State Street passed the cartoonish neoclassical new library named after the only Chicago Mayor deserving of public respect, Harold Washington. The racists on the city council fought him relentlessly. His untimely heart attack was their salvation.
The curbs were lined with Illinois State police. (Rahm Emanuel had called the governor for reinforcements.) There were also well-wishers (?) armed with their cellphone cameras. At Harrison Street we turned back east to Michigan Avenue. We passed the Conrad Hilton and the statue made famous across the street during the 1968 convention — but no one climbs up to wave any red flags today.
There were more police than spectators lining the March and some of the youngsters began chanting and taunting the police — "Hey, Hey, how many kids have you kill today?" And, "How do you spell racism? CPD!" (A reference to the Chicago Police Department) despite the fact that half of today's police force is minority. I got a little nervous when I saw the bandanna-covered faces and the gas masks dangling from belts, but there were few of them to be seen from my vantage point. Perhaps they were theatrical props.
The march continued south for two miles to Cermak Road, as close to the NATO confab as we were allowed to get. The lake breezes provided relief from the heat but the marchers were struggling to keep the large sail like banners upright. Water bottles were passed out at several points along the way and some were tossed at the police. Despite my better judgment, I have always sympathized with the ultra-left (infantile left). I was in Lincoln Park when the Weather People congregated near the baseball diamonds where I had been playing Little League ball only a few years earlier. I believe the "Days of Rage" leaders were raised in posh North Shore suburbs. I did not join in the window smashing spree then and certainly didn't wish to be part of any futile violence this time. I am not a pacifist, but when the opposing forces have what amounts to a monopoly on violence I am all for peaceful protest. The police looked tense beneath their riot gear. But they were, fortunately, not provoked — so far.
The march passed beneath an abandoned railroad viaduct and I recall the runs I once made over it and on through the bowels of McCormick Place delivering freight trains to the IC yard in Markham. The many years on the extra board and 24/7 hours were hard, but railroading used to be fun and paid a living wage. I wonder what kind of jobs my young fellow marchers are likely to find?
Finally we arrived at the end of the route. There were between five and ten thousand of us packed into the block north of Cermak. The curbs were lined with barricades about three feet high and ten feet long interlocked together, but we were allowed on both the streets and sidewalks. I was tired and thirsty. Incredibly, I found a spot to sit on the curb beside a stylish woman close to my own age. I drained the last drops of water from my canteen as I listened to veterans of recent NATO misadventures explain why they were throwing their service medals back. Some 45 men and women expressed their shame and regret for what they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. An Afghani woman read a moving free-verse poem lamenting the destruction of her country. The moderator thanked everyone and explained that we were to exit to the west on Cermak.
After a few minutes I stood up expecting the crowd to begin moving, but no one was going anywhere. I was only a few hundred feet from the intersection but all I could see was a line of blue police helmets several deep, seemingly blocking the exit. I didn't know what was happening but the crowd was too thick and I decided to return north on Michigan to find some breathing space.
After going back a few hundred feet I looked up to see a line of police three or four deep extending from curb to curb, advancing on the trapped marchers. I was tempted to see what they were up to, but those billyclubs looked hard and painful. I felt old and vulnerable and feared being caught between the police and some black bloc crazies. In a moment, I was climbing over the barricade and making my retreat up the sidewalk. The Chicago police stayed in the street and I passed their flank on the sidewalk. Hustling up behind the cops were several dozen firemen in their gear and helmets. Were they going to turn firehoses on the crowd? I still don't know what went down. One news report said marchers sat down blocking the exit resulting in 40-some arrests. I circled the block and found a large number, perhaps 1000, police officers amassed west of Michigan on Cermak along with a couple dozen CTA buses whose signboards flashed a message: "Chicago, it's my kind of town." I don't think that I was hallucinating. In any case I made my way to the safety of the Chinatown L Station. Looking back to the east I saw flashes of lightning and a thunderstorm brewing out over the lake. I called my wife to assure her of my safety and said that I would be home shortly.
Smaller demonstrations continued that day and the next. Several hundred young people danced in the rain in front of the Art Institute where Michelle Obama was hosting a dinner. The kids looked to be enjoying themselves and the media coverage. Good for them.
The following day while painting the iron railings on my back porch I struck up a conversation over the fence with my friendly neighbor, Joe, a Chicago police detective. He is not the kind of troubled soul you probably imagine most cops to be. Joe claimed that most officers supported the criticism of NATO. He certainly does. Mayor Emanuel is reneging on police pension funding but he can find the money to host a photo op for NATO bigwigs. Furthermore, most police resented having their off days canceled so Rahm Emanuel could play world-class leader. Joe was also relieved that the demos were peaceful. He was not as suspicious of the case against the three Floridians arrested on the south side of town for "attempting to obtain bomb making material" as I am (agent provocateurs?)
Well, good riddance to NATO. Now mayor Emmanuel & Co. can get back to their real work of busting the Chicago teachers union and handing out billions in no-bid infrastructure contracts and private foundations as our ever escalating property taxes are siphoned into his tax increment slush fund. Business as usual and politics are local.