Report from Chicago NATO Protests

from Defending Dissent 

The attempt to stifle the voices of dissent started months before the May 20-21 NATO summit. Federal and local officials aggressively raised alarms about the people planning to travel to Chicago to protest NATO.

To those of us who have been around awhile, it's an all too familiar story: vilification of protesters, which serves to drive down turnout and set the stage for heavy-handed police tactics. Bull Connor did it in Birmingham in the 1950’s and 60’s, labeling civil rights protesters “communists,” then turning the fire hoses and dogs on them. 

Four years ago, officials in Denver and St. Paul raised the specter of violent protests at the Democratic and Republican Conventions to justify a huge, militarized police presence, arrests before the protests even began and the arrests of hundreds of peaceful protestors during the Convention (charges were dismissed for all but a few of the people arrested). 

In Chicago: the president of the Fraternal Order of Police publicly insisted the city spend almost $1 million on new face shields to protect police from “anarchists” throwing bags of urine and feces (a fabricated threat also trotted out before both Conventions in 2008, and which never occurred); federal law enforcement agents began prowling The Loop dressed in battle gear, armed with “less-than-lethal” weapons weeks before the Summit began; and newspapers were full of talk of evacuations to Milwaukee, Illinois National Guard being called up, state troopers reassigned, preparations for hundreds of arrests and even temporarily reopening a long-shuttered out of town jail to storehouse the “worst offenders.”

Five Activists Charged With Terrorism

Just days before the NATO summit, Chicago police preemptively arrested several activists, charging them with terror-related crimes. On May 16, police raided a home in the Bridgeport neighborhood and arrested nine activists. Although six were released without charge, Brian Church, Jared Chase, and Brent Betterly were charged with possession of explosives or incendiary devices, material support for terrorism, and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. Police also arrested Sebastian Senakiewicz, who was charged with “falsely making a terrorist threat,” and Mark Neiweem, charged with trying to obtain materials to make a pipe bomb. Details are still emerging but it is apparent that informers or undercover agents were involved in all three cases.

Lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild are representing the five activists. They have pointed out that they have not been shown any of the materials their clients were allegedly going to use to commit these acts of violence. Instead, it appears that some or all of the five may have bragged to informers that they intended to do something, whether or not they ever took steps to put their plan into action.

The highly sensational charges received extensive news coverage in Chicago. It fit into the narrative laid out by authorities and hammered home in the previous months: anarchists and occupy activists were coming to Chicago to commit acts of violence. Physical evidence to support the accusation was hardly necessary.

Peaceful Protests?

When it finally came time to take to the streets and protest, there were no incidents of rocks being thrown at windows or human waste being thrown at police. As Kevin Gosztola reported, “instead of experiencing chaos created by protesters, the city experienced a looming police state that took over the city for a few days.” The heavy, militarized police presence often seemed to outnumber protesters, whose numbers were diminished by the relentless propaganda campaign. Police did not deploy teargas or rubber bullets, but many protesters were beaten by batons when they tried to go where police did not want them to go. According to the National Lawyers Guild, at least two dozen protesters went to the hospital with broken bones, head wounds and knocked out teeth. Over 100 protesters were arrested, most for minor charges, and many were released without charge.

In the end, it was not a police riot as in 1968, but “the city was anything but tolerant to political dissent,” according to Kris Hermes, spokesperson for the Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.