May 23, 2012 by tristan savage
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords concluded to enlarge their domains they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.
–Eugene Debs, Canton, Ohio, 1918 (the speech for which Debs was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917)
As the Week Without Capitalism progressed in Chicago, the various social movements of the city mingled, feeding off of each others’ energy and forging a common analysis in opposition to the NATO/G8, which we gloss as the “war and poverty” agenda.
On Saturday, a day after a massive National Nurses United rally for a global “Robin Hood” tax to fund universal health care, we marched with the grassroots “Mental Health Movement” of patients from across Chicago mobilizing to stop the mayor from shuttering half of the city’s mental health clinics. Less than a month earlier, Mental Health Movement activists had barricaded themselves inside the Woodlawn Mental Health Clinicjust before its imminent closure. The police responded by cutting open the doors with chainsaws and boltcutters and arresting 23 people. In response to the mayor’s escalation, we occupied his home on the North Side with thousands of supporters. Hundreds of riot police were there waiting for us, to defend the so-called “Mayor 1%”, so we sat down in the street and on his lawn for the rest of the day, sharing stories and writing messages on the asphalt in chalk.
While we waited for the mayor to come home, Debbie told me the story of her son who was shot in a drive-by, and how his younger brother had begun to cope with the shock and grief through counseling at the Northwest clinic near where they live. After the NW clinic was shut down, he stopped going to school, stopped going out at all, and Debbie joined the movement. “I never protested before,” she told me, “but I am doing this for my son.” We cried together on the police line.
Later in the day, I listened in as a police commander talked on his cell phone directly with the mayor’s office. “Has the mayor made a decision yet about how long they can stay before we force them off?” he asked. An hour earlier, protesters had faced off with the riot police, chanting, “Police / are / the army of the rich!”, not knowing how immediately correct they were.
That night, we slept on the lawn of Trinity Episcopal Church, the first of several churches to open its lawn for a tent city of out-of-town activists. We were just blocks from the McCormick Place convention center where the NATO summit was taking place, close enough that the Secret Service was parking its vehicles next to our encampment out of convenience rather than as a way of keeping an eye on us (though, the next day, eight of the folks camping with us were detained and arrested as they walked to the meetup point for the big Sunday march because they “looked suspicious”, and released later in the day after pressure from the ACLU). Most of the congregants couldn’t make it in to church that day because of the security cordon anyway, so the priest invited us in to fellowship. We shared coffee and kettle corn as we read Isaiah 58:Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
We discussed tactics, social change, peace, and the church. When a few activists objected to the participation of anarchists in the NATO protests, saying that anarchism sounds “ominous” because it rhymed with “anti-christ”, the priest gave a lesson in Greek, explaining the etymology of an-arkos (no rulers). After the priest gave a reasoned defense of Christian anarchism, everyone seemed to agree after all.
On Sunday, we joined the march of tens of thousands from Grant Park to the edge of McCormick Place, where dozens of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars shared the stage with young women from Afghans for Peace. The veterans spoke one by one before throwing their service medals over the police line toward the NATO summit, returning them to the generals who had sent them to kill and die. The biggest cheer went to Scott Olsen, the Iraq War vet and Occupy Oakland activist who was nearly killed by police during an eviction on October 27th. Iraq Veterans Against the War pledged to continue supporting other soldiers as they withdraw their labor from empire.
After the permit expired, police attacked the crowd with billy clubs and forced thousands of us away from the protest site, arresting a few dozen that held their ground. The march regrouped a few hours later, still over a thousand strong, and held an impromptu general assembly in an intersection of Michigan Avenue in front of the Art Institute, where Obama was scheduled to have a private dinner party with other NATO dignitaries that night.
Hundreds of passersby and patrons of nearby bars joined from the street, participating in what was for some of them probably their first general assembly. We were surrounded on three sides by hundreds, perhaps a thousand, riot police, ready to clear the intersection by force. That’s the moment when, seeing an opening, the crowd turned jubilant, dancing together as the drizzle turned to a constant rain, forming a giant human peace sign in the intersection, and taking turns sharing the People’s Mike to explain why we were there to protest NATO that day. It was a moment that disrupted the typical script, the ceremonial pattern, the cat-and-mouse of protester steps up / cop beats him down, as hundreds of militants sat together in the street, facing inward rather than out to the police lines, unmasked themselves to each other, and shared words of encouragement and righteous rage. We sang out songs from our childhood- Les Miserables showtunes followed by chants of “Re-create ’48!”, gospel songs, old hymns with re-written words – long and loud enough to get nicknamed “the people’s LRAD” and fall in love again with the magic of nonviolence.
On Monday, we marched to the war profiteer Boeing to celebrate our victory in shutting down their international headquarters for the day. After we announced the week before that we would blockade Boeing on the 21st for paying no income or property taxes while making accepting over $12 billion from the US Department of Defence to produce war machines, Boeing voluntarily announced it would shut its doors for the day. Moving on from the suppliers to the buyers, we marched downtown to to Obama’s headquarters on Michigan Avenue to demand that he stop wasting money on warfare instead of basic human needs.
Thanks to all those that came together in Chicago to support the grassroots movements that are building against capitalism and war. Solidarity,