People power from the No-NATO Counter Summit comes back to Detroit stronger than ever

August 23, 2012

GGJ delegation to No-NATO Summit in Chicago May 2012
By Patrick Geans-Ali

CHICAGO – In May of 2012, the EMEAC Grassroots Global Justice delegation to the No-NATO Summit arrived in Chicago. I'll freely admit I had little idea about what was in store for the weekend, but in hind sight I can truly say it was momentous on several levels, and many parts of that experience I've brought back with me.

First and foremost, the moment was about the people we met there and the common-cause connections we all share around the environmental and social justice issues we all face. Our fellow GGJ delegates represented social justice organizations from New York, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago and of course Detroit. Among the delegates was a wonderful diversity of ethnicities, gender identities, political perspectives and organizational causes.

I learned so much in interacting with each of them. From the Asian American delegations from San Francisco and New York I got insights about how even “model minorities” struggle with complex political dynamics around gentrification, cultural assimilation, generational differences, gang activity and yes police brutality and violence. From the local hispanic and African-American community members from Chicago, I learned that the problems with bank foreclosures, privatization of mental health facilities, abandoned housing, neighborhood stability, gentrification, crime and environmental racism mirror those here in Detroit.

After taking the MegaBus in from the D, our little GGJ delegation of myself, Ife Kilamanjaro, Charity Hicks, Victoria Goff and Siwatu Salama Ra did our part to make room for the big shots in town by camping out in two rooms at a local hostel. We had a total of eight members sharing space along gender lines...such that they are among grassroots collaboratives.

From the LGBQT delegates, I learned that their definition of community is not as limited as some would have you think. Heck, I even managed to get some delegates to come out the closet as true sports aficionados. In short, the trip mostly reaffirmed for me that we are all just regular people dealing with a most extraordinary time in history.

You would think that the fall of the former Soviet Union and the subsequent transformation of both Russia and China into a one-world economic order where red states are going green (and no, I don't mean environmentally green either) would make the need for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization obsolete. Think again.

With no large collective adversary to push back, it too often seems NATO – the joint military arm of the Group of 8 (G8) countries: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Russian, Germany, France, Italy and Japan and the world's larger military industrial complex feel they need to push back individual citizens to justify its existence. Now apparently dedicated to protecting the world from a rag tag group of terrorists diligently training on monkey bars when they can afford to peep out of their desert caves or assassinating the occasional rogue dictator, NATO held their annual summit in Chicago May 17-21.

I suppose we should all be thankful that doing something as Un-American as peacefully assembling to protest the summit didn't warrant NATO to employ any of their unmanned drones.

Personally, I have never seen such a police gathering in my life. You would have thought that instead of NATO there was a world doughnut summit going on if it wasn't for stern faced ones decked out in riot gear with hickory sticks at the ready in case any of the Harry Krishna's decided to make up for year's of fasting by raiding every doughnut stand in the Windy City.

Looking back, I suppose that was all for the television audience who actually couldn't be there. The discrepancy between my experience on the ground there in Chicago and what I was seeing in the main stream media coverage was one of the more enlightening aspects of the whole weekend.
On the ground, we got to see some of the real reasons behind NATO's angst over the protests. As the military arm of the G-8's dubious economic empire, I suppose the NATO commanders should be feeling a little antsy.

They've learned to live with any number of civilian casualties aka "collateral damage" from the use of unmanned drones overseas. So, the deployment of ground based two-legged drones in riot gear on the streets of a major American city is probably their definition of soft power. NATO exercises much more ominous shows of force all around the world, so why not let the U.S. Population get a peek at the kinder, gentler face of NATO. Right?

After our arrival on day one, we got to hear about how the grassroots activists of Chicago have been “occupying” the shut-down of mental institutions in hopes of keeping patients off the streets while the privatizers find ways to profit off their condition. Since this was done decades ago in Detroit, I couldn't help but wonder what was taking them so long. We also got to hear how the immigrant community is organizing for their rights while having their labor exploited by many of the same policies that make the G-8 so wealthy at the expense of citizens both foreign and domestic.

The next morning on route to a NATO Journalists Tour of “the other Chicago”, we got the lowdown on how local corporations put $36.5 million in tax subsidies to use. Fourteen million of that total was allocated for parties and social functions. I suppose with the world economy like it is, even the G-8 has to pass the hat around to make sure the muscle end of the family can enjoy their time in the Second City.

I wonder did they bring their secret service agents? Probably not as everyone knows the price of prostitutes in the US is appreciably higher among the so-called developed nations where our politicians provide their services with enough wanton abandon to make the workers of any South American bordello blush.

Of the corporate donors that contributed to the NATO party slush fund, United Air Lines received $31M in tax increment financing, Boeing received $24M in property tax breaks and grants from the city, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange got $9.8M in tax breaks, AECOM received over $30 million in city contracts, AT&T, Bank of America, Exelon and Harris Bank each got $30M, $25M, $60M, $98M and $1.2 Billion respectively in city business.

Not to be outdone, the state of Illinois chipped in by returning $77M of CME's $2 Billion in profits, Boeing got an additional $17M in state subsidies and another $13 million in state grants.
Meanwhile, what have the tax paying residents of the city and state been getting for living and working in Chicago? Well in our first stop on the media tour, the residents of the largely African-American community of Englewood have been getting the same treatment the rest of the country as been getting: foreclosures with banks inexplicably refusing to rent vacant properties to potential renters, cut backs in all public services, lost jobs, reduced wages and lip service -- according to Mr. Charles Brown, a retired police officer and community leader with Action Now.

At our next stop in the largely hispanic community of Brighton Park, the priorities of seeing to the safety of the NATO elite was so great, that mothers and grandmothers of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council had to don their yellow vests (not bullet proof ones like we would see later on the manned drones lining the streets downtown). These ladies volunteer their time to work the school cross walks because the city can no longer afford to provide adequate police protection for school children in the community.

It turned out that we could have used some protection because when our little troupe of journalists wandered one block over to take pictures the memorials tagged in memory of fallen gang members, one of the S.A's took exception. He rode through on his bicycle and swerved through the corner like a buzzed hornet finding intruders in his hive and reminded us all in his own way that “people die 'round here.”

Maybe it was the presence of the vigilant mothers and grandmothers a block away that kept him from carrying out a sting operation. But needless to say, we took his reminder to heart and made our way back on the bus and headed back down town where it suddenly seemed a lot safer place to be.
That Friday afternoon was one of the best parts of the entire weekend however as GGJ's Sha Grogan-Brown and I walked back from the Hyatt to Daly Plaza with a community journalist from Chicago and another American expatriate living in France.

It was at Daly Plaza that I first saw the scale of the police presence assembled in Chicago. They were out in force because the National Nurse's Union had decided to hold a rally on the steps of the government buildings in favor of the Robin Hood tax. The nurses were all decked out in green red-feathered bonnets and woodsman clothes in support of the now arcane notion that taking from the poor to give to the rich is not good economic policy in a Democracy.

Can you imagine the nerve of these modern day outlaws running around in green hoods and red fairy tights right under the Sheriff of Nottingham's nose? They even had the nerve to break out into flash mobs and defiantly remind Democratic Mayor Rom Emanuel that he was occupying the People's office!

Fortunately for the police, the nurses soon gave way to a modern day warrior-minstrel like Rage Against the Machine lead guitarist Tom Morello. Morello began by pointing out that he was another Harvard graduate with a Kenyan father and American mother from Illinois with rock star credentials in town for the NATO festivities. He then proceeded to energize the rally with a rousing Jimmy Hendrix impersonation, and some good old fashioned folk music.

Morello's rendition of This Land is Our Land and World Wide Rebel Song to close out the rally sent the throng gathered in Daly Plaza away on a high note. The wind swirling through the concrete jungle had a tangible electricity to it as Sha and I now gathered with the entire GGJ delegation across the street on a corner opposite the plaza. There a restlessness in the air as the crowd was being ushered out of the plaza by police.

We blended in with the regular workers come down from their offices to see what all the buzz was about, however we intentionally avoided getting swept up in the crowd being channeled back up Washington Street like a rush of rain water. We didn't come there for any drama and people were wary of provacateurs planted among the crowd to give police the justification for being there in such overwhelming force. We soon found our bearings however and found our way to our van.

Next, it was off to Chicago's Little Village neighborhood for a grassroots environmental justice tour. You can draw many similarities between Southwest Detroit's 48217 and Little Village. They both fit the pattern of initially being a landing spot for poor Eastern European immigrants who found work in industrial facilities along what was then the outskirts of the city. As the number of industrial facilities grew, so did the number of black and hispanics in the community with Little Village being mostly hispanic today.

The rates of asthma among children and miscarriages among women are largely credited to a waste disposal facility and coal power plant nearby. But I have to say that the level of industry and environmental justice hazards in Detroit are on a whole other level.

Even on its smaller scale, Little Village had some valuable lessons to be share with the EJ community of Detroit. Because they were truly a small grassroots operation rooted in the local community, Little Village was able to have the freedom to apply leverage against local industry that some of the larger foundation funded-EJ groups in either city haven't been able to.

Their new association with GGJ and traditional EJ organizations like the Sierra Club has been a part of those victories for sure, but their real strength lies in the fact that the people being most affected are the ones advocating on the community's behalf because they live and work there.

It was also interesting to note the obvious toll exposure to the conditions there had on our delegation. Check out my colleague Victoria Goff's account of her experience there. As we walked over to near the industrialized zone, I was reminded so much of walking through the smelly, dusty atmosphere surrounding the rice mills I grew up around in Arkansas.

For some of our delegation, it simply made them nauseated and sick. The combination of a long day of marches, rallies, security stare downs and warm temperatures didn't help. Nor did Rafael and Conseulo's assurances that we could just ignore the security detail taking our pictures. By the time the tour was over, we had all had enough. Thank God that Friday came to a close with Little Village officially becoming the latest member of GGJ.

The highlight for me that Saturday was a speech by Iraq/Afganistan War veteran Alejandro Villatro. As a veteran of the first Gulf War, I have a special place in my heart for the veterans of this one. I served in the U.S. Navy as a chaplains assistant from 1989-1993. I also did three years in the Arkansas Army National Guard and have a sister who retired from the U.S. Air Force (not to mention various other family members, friends and classmates who have served or are serving in the various branches of the military) so I couldn't think of a better way to end the weekend than to march in support of the Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Saturday was otherwise about lectures and workshops which didn't to go over too well with the grassroots oriented members of the delegation. Still, Alejandro's story made up for it all. Fortunately for us, Alejandro's presentation was enough to key us up for the big closing event on Sunday.

I had to fight down a huge lump in my throat as I tweeted his words as he spoke from the podium that Saturday. No better person could have set the table for Sunday's big march led by Iraq Veterans Against the War by down Michigan Avenue. At the end of that long march, the IVAW would symbolically return their medals to NATO generals.

When Sunday arrived, I soon learned that schedule changes were pushing the march back and that my fellow EMEAC delegates and I would not be able to attend the entire way because our bus back to Detroit was leaving before the March would be over. It would turn out to be a huge protest march through the streets of Chicago. I've been to enough stadium events to safely guess there must have been no less than 10,000 participating.

I had no real idea of the scale the march would eventually take on. When we arrived at where the pre-march rally was being held, we joined our delegation with the International League of People's Struggle which mostly consisted of Filipino and other Pacific Islanders. The ILPS was the most organized group of activists I had ever seen, and I knew enough about the history of Filipino opposition to American and Spanish occupation from former Filipino nationals I had the honor to serve with in the Navy that I had some idea why.

The group was determined to maintain they integrity of their ranks in the parade from outside provocateurs and I was honored that they asked me to be a part of their security detail. I looked totally out of place of course as a six-foot dreaded black guy who was part of a human chain surrounding the ILPS delegation as we marched but I did my best. It was fascinating to see how the onlookers were obviously impressed by the way the group did their synchronized chants and steps among all the bustle, banners and pageantry of the march.

The thing I hated most is that we didn't get a chance to march all the way. The MegaBus back to Detroit was scheduled to leave before we could see the veterans give back their medals to the NATO generals. Still, I had gotten a real sense of the people power bubbling up to the surface in the face of all the powerful opposition people all over the world are up against.

I had stood with them, marched with them, slept with them and ate with them, and they are still with me as I continue my social and environmental justice work here in Detroit. In trying to sort it all out, I think GGJ's Ife Kilamanjaro said it best.

"I think that the No NATO summit and mobilizations are ways for people to feel as though they are doing something to oppose the destructive policies of nameless transnational corporations and their U.S. government puppets. Also, I see that these convergences provide a space for people engaged in similar work to meet, work and strategize with one another. On another level, however, I think that it reflects a need for deeper study and analysis. It is important to learn lessons from the past, understand this current moment and figure out what is most appropriate for the current moment."