Dozens of Evanston- and Northwestern-based activists joined a crowd of thousands at the largest-expected march during the first day of the NATO summit in downtown Chicago.
Members of Occupy Evanston, Occupy NU, the Chicago Area Peace Action network and Neighbors for Peace participated in the mostly nonviolent protest, which started Sunday morning at Grant Park and snaked for two-and-a-half miles through the Loop, ending at an intersection several blocks away from the international conference.
At McCormick Place on Sunday, President Barack Obama huddled with world leaders in closed-door meetings that reportedly centered on the United States’ role in the new Afghan government, among other foreign policy issues.
Occupy Evanston organizer Jack Sigel was one of about 60 “peace guides” tasked with keeping order as the anti-NATO marchers navigated the city streets, which were lined with Chicago Police Department officers ordered to keep an arm’s length from each other along each curb. Sigel was accompanied by eight members of Occupy Evanston.
At a pre-march rally at Grant Park’s Petrillo Bandshell, Sigel predicted the march turnout would be lower than expected due to a “month of intimidation tactics” from local media and authorities. Official estimates pinned the crowd count at about 2,000 people.
Sigel’s message for the foreign dignitaries meeting at McCormick Place echoed a common refrain of the Occupy movement: “Shift the money back to the 99 percent.”
“It’s all about money,” he said. “Take the money out of NATO and put it back in the country.”
Although concerns voiced Sunday ranged from climate change to illegal immigration, the Evanston and NU groups remained focused on the military alliance itself. Many of those activists accused NATO of pursuing economic interests abroad under the guise of bloody military campaigns.
More locally, they criticized Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for straining an already cash-strapped city with an expensive event.
“Obviously I oppose NATO as an organization, but bringing it here was particularly stupid,” said Mauricio Maluff, an Occupy NU organizer and Weinberg junior. “It’s a city that’s having economic issues, too. We can’t afford to pay for our schools, we can’t afford to pay for mental health clinics — it costs a lot of money to bring these people here.”
Although Occupy NU had no organized presence at the rally and march, about 20 members showed up for what one called “our big day.”
Weinberg sophomore Isabel Rodriguez-Vega, a past participant in Occupy Chicago events who attended the Grant Park rally with her friends, agreed with Maluff’s gripe.
“The mayor spent $65 million bringing this summit here, and it’s cutting back on various public programs,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to spend so much money on wars and this summit when we could be spending it on education and other things.”
There were few flare-ups between protesters and police during the march, but when it concluded at Cermak Road and Michigan Avenue, tensions reportedly escalated between riot gear-clad officers and so-called “Black Bloc” demonstrators. The anarchist protesters, dressed in all-black clothing, tried to push east toward McCormick Place, throwing objects at baton-swinging police.
The conflict unraveled as Obama’s motorcade departed McCormick Place for the president’s hotel less than four miles away.
Sigel said he did not witness the late-afternoon clash between police and protesters because he left shortly after the end-of-march ceremony during which military veterans “returned” their medals to protest the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“All the people I have known for years are out there to be peaceful, to be nonviolent,” Sigel added. “We are committed to what we are doing. We have fun doing it, but we are peaceful.”
Authorities were on high alert Sunday, frequently stopping along the march route to examine trash cans and any suspicious-looking objects as helicopters hovered above the Chicago skyline.
The march came a day after three men were charged with conspiring to commit domestic terrorism during the NATO summit. The suspects, members of the anarchist “Black Bloc,” were arrested after authorities learned they were plotting to attack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago this weekend, as well as Emanuel’s home and local police stations.