Here in Chicago, we’ve had a siege mentality about this NATO summit for the past month, but it’s coming and going as nothing more than a major pain in the ass for anyone who had to get downtown over the weekend.
I spent a large chunk of Saturday interviewing protestors, but when Sunday rolled around with the major rally in Grant Park, it was nearly 90 degrees, and I overslept a little. So I decided to stay in and watch it from Twitter. This turned out to be a good decision because other than a few minor skirmishes with the police, a small number of injuries and a few dozen arrests, the most interesting moment was when a bunch of Chicago Police officers got photographed holding up a homemade sign that said “Everything is Okay” with big goofy grins on their faces.
On Saturday, I had about 1.3 decent conversations with protestors and the rest reminded me of the most useless, airless back-and-forths I had with a small minority on Occupy Wall Street who thought they were going to bring down capitalism by wearing Guy Fawkes masks. When interviewing protestors, I follow the general rule of judging a book by its cover and looking for the most normal-looking people to talk to. No guys dressed like Heath Ledger as the Joker, no chicks with anarchist symbol face paint. Look for people who actually know that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization arose as a way to contain the Soviet bloc without resorting to a nuclear holocaust.
“People are here for a lot of reasons,” Tom Skimming, 33, told me. Skimming was with an anti-war organization that I forgot to write down (I also forgot my camera; I am a crappy journalist). Signs in his group included “NoNATO” and “Free Bradley Manning” and my favorite “War is Stupid.”
“It’s kind of choose-your-own-issue, but we’re here because of Afghanistan and the war there that’s now gone on for a decade,” he said.
I asked him if it wasn’t a little strange to be protesting the war in Afghanistan when the primary purpose of the NATO summit was to talk about how NATO was going to wind down its mission there without letting the country tip into chaos. “Shouldn’t you have a sign that says, ‘Get Out of Afghanistan Slightly Faster’?” I asked.
“You have to ask about the reasons we ended up there,” he said. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all. But you have to look at the culture of militarism that leads us into conflict after conflict. What’s that saying? If you have hammer then every problem looks like a nail.”
Fair enough. We chatted for a long time about Libya and Syria. Hardly anyone I talked to, though, spoke with the thoughtfulness of Skimming. Some samples:
Jen Hollander, 24: “Canada, the United States, Germany, England—all of them are owned by a capitalist group of people who want to make war as often as possible to keep their masters happy. That’s what NATO does. It keeps the masters happy by keeping all the wars going.”
Mike Smith (probably not his real name), 27: “Obama is the same as Bush. He’s part of the same Wall Street problem… You can’t fight the system when you’re a part of it. You have to bring it down. That’s what the Occupy movement is about. That’s what the Arab spring is about. We have to start over.”
“Greg” (refused to give last name, wearing bandana over face), 38: “NATO has no mandate from the people… It’s an unelected cabal that generates war across the world.”
In a way, talking to ultra-left-wing protestors is strikingly similar to talking to Tea Party acolytes who think absurd things like Obama is a socialist or there is a gay plot to take over America: there is usually an itsy-bitsy kernel of reality in what they’re saying, but it’s so layered over by what can kindly be described as factual distortions and mythmaking that it's hard to suss out any coherence.
This is coming from someone who thinks the war in Afghanistan remains a fruitless blunder, who thinks for fifty yars the American military-industrial complex has grown bloated, redundant, and absurdly powerful, who agrees whole-heartedly with what many of the speakers from Iraq Veterans Against the War (the absolute bright spot of the week's protests) said so eloquently during Sunday's rally, who thinks many acts of American foreign policy, from the moment of the country’s founding to the present day, are very obviously criminal, and who thinks it’s really weird how many people don’t see all this as fairly self-evident.