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Monday, May 28, 2012

Nato Protest

It was a Sunny May Day on the day that I went to Grant Park to protest NATO.  Police and the media were making a big deal of things and warning people not to go downtown because of the gridlock that would inevitably occur due to the protest and the transport of the NATO conference members.  While people were warned away, it did strike me as funny as I walked through the Loop and saw almost nothing open.  I will grant that the protest that I attended was on a Sunday and many places in the Loop don't open but this was like a ghost town.  There was one business that I saw open as I walked to the park from where I parked my bike (I parked my bike outside the Loop in the event that things did get bad so I wouldn't have to worry about it).  The one open business was a Starbucks and it was doing a bang up business with everyone.  While there were many issues people had (and many protests), the focus of the protest that I attended was one of peace.  There was going to be a ceremony at the end of the march in which many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were going to "return" their medals.  As a veteran of the first Gulf War, I agree very strongly with this and I wanted to go to stand in solidarity with them. 

While I am a veteran of the Navy who served during the first Gulf War, I am also a pacifist.  So why does a pacifist join the Navy (or the military in general?  I can't speak for all pacifists but I joined in order to help myself pay for college.  I joined during peace time (even though we were at the end of the Cold War) and from what I could see, it didn't look like we were going to see any action.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait, I hoped that things could be worked out peacefully and I was very disappointed when the fighting started.  I was on an LPD, an auxiliary ship with no offensive weapons but carried Marines and their landing craft so they could make an amphibious landing if it was necessary.  While our mission was to stand off the coast threateningly, we did not do a landing.  That does not mean that we didn't have any casualties or have to deal with a constant threat level.  In any case, we made it through and I finished my service in 1992 at a time when it seemed that we were reducing our military size.  This, I thought, was a very good thing.  I am proud of my service but I think that our military has become too active.  I have been somewhat active in the anti-war movement for many years.  I have been to many protests although I have only been arrested once.  Getting arrested has never been a goal for me for any of the protests that I have attended although after having it happened, I am not afraid to risk it.  I do let friends and family know that there is a risk that I may be arrested so if they don't hear from me to start looking.

The protest was to start at Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park.  When I arrived (just before 10 am when events were to start), there was a line of media trucks parked at the curb and a bunch of people ready for the event.  There were some police there but it wasn't overwhelming. The veterans were, for the most part, gathered as a group across the street from the music shell.  The schedule of events had two hours of music (including Tom Morello from Rage against the Machine as The Nighwatchman) followed by a series of speakers and then the march at the end of which there would be a ceremony where the veterans would introduce themselves, explain why they were there, and why they were giving up their medals.  It was supposed to be very peaceful if dissident in it's view point.  There were some black bloc anarchists there so it was obvious to me that there was going to be some conflict although I was going to try to avoid that if possible.

The program started and it was pretty nice even if they did have sound issues in the beginning.  The musicians played a variety of styles although it was all basically protest music.  Because of the sound issues, a few of the musicians did their songs via mic check (using the crowd as their microphone) and Tom Morello took it one step further and joined the veterans (who had joined the crowd).  After the musicians came the speakers and there were many speakers.  There were many issues addressed but it all essentially came down to the idea that the money spent on military actions by NATO and their individual countries could be spent better elsewhere.  Along the same lines is the same idea that because so much money is spent on the military, the powers that be feel obligated to use it much more often than is actually necessary (If your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail).  And collateral damage is much more than those people that are injured and killed in an actual battle setting.

The speakers ended and the people lined up for the march.  For the most part, this was fine but the black bloc wanted to try to make a rush at McCormick Place where the conference was being held so they made a push to get to the front but they were kept back.  From where I was walking, things stayed pretty peaceful for the journey to the end of the march.  I heard later that there were a few clashes between the black bloc and the police who were lining the route but I didn't see it.  The march ended about 1/2 a mile from McCormick Place and the veterans did their thing.  To me, it was very moving.  It reminded me of videos I have seen of the Viet Nam protest in 1971 in which the VVAW (including future Sen. John Kerry) gave their medals back on the steps of Congress.  At the end, they did ask people to leave peacefully which most people were happy to do.  There was, however, the black bloc group that might have numbered 100 people that shouted "NATO is east" after the police gave us the option of leaving to the west or the south.  These people were kids, probably late teens to mid-20s for the most part, who were simply looking for trouble and wanted to be contrary.  While I don't fault the police for their actions against these people (for the most part), I have to wonder what the black bloc would have done if they hadn't faced any resistance.

My journey home was uneventful although it was a long walk back to my bike.  It would have been possible to take the el back to the Loop but when I left my house I decided to pack light and didn't bring anything with me in the event that things would have gone bad and I would have been arrested.  I didn't want to risk losing my money and I didn't think there was a point to having my ID on me because when I did get arrested and I did have my ID, the police still got my name wrong (I was named Kenneth Gary Grice).  I did joke with my friends later that it might have been better to have been arrested because the police station that they brought the arrestees to was within walking distance of my house.  At the end of the day, I was tired, sunburned, and gratified that I was able to go out and stand with people who believe like I do that war is not the answer.    


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