NATO protests reveal need for nonviolent discipline

“I was in Iraq in ’03, and what I saw there crushed me,” former U.S. Army sergeant Ash Woolson told thousands of people last Sunday afternoon from a makeshift stage at the edge of the security perimeter around Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center, where the NATO summit was being held.

As the international meeting was getting underway that day, thousands marched for peace through the city’s downtown. They were led by contingents of U.S. veterans like Woolson organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, 40 of whom eventually mounted the ad hoc stage, where they brought the symbolic and tangible purpose of the week’s protests into sharp focus by attempting to publicly return their service medals, including their Global War on Terror awards.

Just before Woolson lobbed his medals in the direction of the NATO gathering (the organizers had requested that an official accept them, but this was turned down), he added: “I don’t want us to suffer this again, and I don’t want our children to suffer this again, and so I’m giving these back!”

This was the largest organized medal return since April 1971, when more than 800 veterans deposited their medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to dramatically repudiate the Vietnam War. Like that event four decades ago, Sunday’s ceremony was moving and powerful. It crystallized in a clear but visceral way the realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time it spelled out the critical importance of undertaking deliberate and potentially risky resistance for healing and nonviolent change.

This riveting event could well have become the indelible image of this week’s NATO protest. Even more importantly, it might have prompted a renewed national focus on the realities and costs of the last dozen years of war-making.

So far, neither has happened. Although there was some media coverage of the medal return ceremony (including a piece on local television and extensive reporting on Democracy Now!), it was largely overshadowed by the clash between police and protesters that took place almost immediately after the vets exited the stage. The march permit expired and most of the thousands of marchers drifted away, but a couple of hundred people stayed put in the streets. Hundreds of police in riot gear then flooded into the area. As an Associated Press story reports:

Some of the most enduring images of the event were likely to be from the end — when a small group of demonstrators clashed with a line of police who tried to keep them from the lakeside convention center where President Barack Obama was hosting the gathering. The protesters tried to move east toward McCormick Place, with some hurling sticks and bottles at police. Officers responded by swinging their batons. The two sides were locked in a standoff for nearly two hours, with police blocking the protesters’ path and the crowd refusing to leave. Some protesters had blood streaming down their faces.

This description conveys little of the ferocity of the tense confrontation that erupted after the permit expired and a huge police contingent swarmed into the space, intent on pushing people out of the intersection and keeping them from moving toward the convention center. News accounts and video clips from the scene show that the police tactics were hugely confrontational and aggressive; the police attacked and pummeled many protesters. At the same time, video clips show objects being hurled at police officers, including a police barricade, and protesters pushing police. Both sides were confrontational, as this raw video indicates.

My spouse Cynthia and I brought our two-year-old daughter Leah to this march. (The coalition website said that this event would be “family friendly,” and we took it at its word.) We were one block from the stage, but left a couple of minutes before the permit expired because Leah was getting hungry and thirsty; it had been a long, hot day. As we walked north, a long phalanx of police officers in riot gear were trotting single file toward the intersection, where only a few minutes later they would be swinging batons at marchers unwilling to budge. Some would be bloodied; others arrested.

There is no excuse for the actions of the police. At the same time, the lack of nonviolent discipline among the remaining protesters contributed to escalating this confrontation. The media frame on this story shifted almost immediately from “peaceful march” to “street fighting,” and the powerful action of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets was largely lost in the inundating shuffle.

Well before all of this, Suellen Semekoski and I were asked by Iraq Veterans Against the War to co-facilitate the nonviolent action training that would support the vets in preparing for their medal return. We were happy to do so, and on Saturday afternoon and evening we plunged into this process with them.

In our six hours together, we sensed the depth of hope that this public action was generating for them as individuals and as a community. Throughout the day the participants repeatedly stressed that nonviolence was going to be crucial to this event and that they were committed to maintaining this spirit. In addition, we were joined by three members of Afghans for Peace who were collaborating with IVAW on this event. They were also resolute about the importance of nonviolent discipline. The success of this action, they said, depended on it.

These survivors of war — U.S. veterans and Afghan peaceworkers — were creating a rare public space where they sought to call on the nation and the world to reflect deeply on the reality of this past, present and future destructiveness. They were very clear that nonviolent strategies, tactics and atmosphere would be vital to achieving this.

Unfortunately, there was little infrastructure in place to support that possibility. While many of us led numerous nonviolence trainings in the Chicago area in the run-up to the NATO mobilization, there were no agreed-upon nonviolence guidelines to serve as a foundation for nonviolent action. (The “Chicago Principles” did not serve this function.) Nor were there adequate numbers of peacekeepers prepared to intervene in order to maintain this nonviolent atmosphere. (In January, some of us had offered to train 500 peacekeepers, who would be equipped to respond to outbreaks of violence. This was based on the experience some of us had had in Seattle in 1999 at the World Trade Organization meeting, where 200 peacekeepers had been an inadequate number. We were told that the coalition was already training peace guides.)

There are many reasons such infrastructure was not in place, including a sensitivity to the now classic debate between nonviolence and diversity of tactics. Nevertheless, I suspect that we are at a crossroads as a movement for change and, at some point, we must make a difficult but important choice.

From my perspective, people power depends for its lifeblood on nonviolent discipline.

Nonviolent action is more effective than violent action — including the kind of heated scrum that took place in Chicago this past Sunday — because it keeps us on message (focused on the issue, rather than the tired tit-for-tat narrative), it is more likely to alert, educate and mobilize the population (the lynchpin of successful movements), and it communicates a vision of the kind of society we want (veterans creating the space of transformative healing and social change rather than the push-comes-to-shove dynamics of retaliatory violence).

If these things are true, then we must engage in nonviolent struggle with those for whom nonviolent struggle is dispensable. The challenges our world is facing are too grim to move forward without the strength and effectiveness of disciplined nonviolent people power. There are lessons everywhere — even from what went down in Chicago on Sunday.

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