NATO’s crisis of legitimacy spreads in Chicago

A mural by students at Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy in Chicago depicting the realities of NATO.

As NATO forces find themselves under fire in Afghanistan, NATO’s spokespersons are taking to another battlefield to win the hearts and minds of an increasingly skeptical populace: Chicago Public Schools. Last month, the Chicago Tribune reported from a sixth-grade classroom where representatives from the Chicago NATO Host Committee gave a primer on NATO and its member countries to the Walt Disney Magnet School on the Northside of Chicago.

According a Host Committee press release, the classroom visits and programming are part of a whole series of events “designed to engage and educate residents about the upcoming NATO Summit.” Other events include sponsored sports competitions, culinary classes and specialized menus at Chicago restaurants featuring NATO member countries’ heritages, and a three-part speaker series:

The first will focus on the future of the transatlantic alliance, the second will examine American leadership in the 21st Century, and the third will give Chicagoans an opportunity to hear from visiting NATO leaders.

A Host Committee spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comments on the goals or content of the CPS programming.

Chicagoans are not likely to hear about the civilian deaths that NATO “covered up” during the 2011 Libyan uprising against Col. Qaddafi or the migrants left to die at sea after NATO failed to respond to distress calls. Furthermore, a recent NATO report leaked to The New York Times reveals what many already know: NATO is the U.S.’s wingman and can barely function without it. Alongside a faltering mission against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, NATO is facing a crisis of legitimacy as citizens of its member countries are mobilizing for protest and anti-NATO education en masse.

“AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) is working to combat the pro-NATO discussion happening not only at CPS but in general as well,” explained Barbara Morenoan, an AFSC intern, by email. Moreno has helped put together a number of resources to challenge the NATO narrative and has taken its presentations advocating protest to Chicago Public Schools. Along with students from Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy, AFSC has created a mural depicting the realities of NATO.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, nearly 500 people were arrested in protests at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels in early April. The protests reveal the increasing anti-militarism and anti-nuclear sentiments among many Europeans.

“We neither want the anti-missile shield, nor intervention by NATO in Libya or Afghanistan, nor nuclear bombs that are illegal in our country,” said Benoit Calvi to Agence France Presse about the April 1 action.

As the NATO summit nears, drawing protesters from around the world, local resistance is increasing. On Monday, clergy, along with labor leaders, announced their opposition to NATO at the Chicago Temple; the United Methodist Church, located in the Loop, is the oldest church in Chicago. Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Phil Blackwell, two long-time Chicago leaders, both stated their intentions to march against NATO. The Chicago Temple, in conjunction with SCUPE — a Chicago consortium of cross-denomination seminaries — announced a Chicago-wide discussion amongst pastors on NATO, the G8 and economic justice, following by strategizing for action.

The May 20–21 meetings are less than two weeks away and the summit’s theme — “CHICAGO 2012 — the Global Crossroad” — is uncannily prophetic as thousands of protesters plan to converge in what may be the largest demonstration against NATO in history. And the lead up to those protests will see more educational events and teach-ins all over the city as to why people should be concerned about NATO.

Occupy Chicago’s “People’s Summit” will take place on May 12–13, featuring speakers and workshops about developing protest actions for the NATO summit as well as visions for inhabiting a world without NATO.

Other Chicago churches are also hosting education classes. The Maryknoll Affiliates have organized a program, “Peace through the Lens of Faith: A Reflection on G8 and NATO,” for Catholic churches, and it is being hosted in Chicago-area parishes across the city. Meanwhile, St. Luke’s Lutheran in Logan Square has a four-part series on how people of faith can respond to conflict in the world.

In an email, organizer Joe Scarry explained that St. Luke’s hopes that by the time neighboring congregations join together for morning worship before the May 20 NATO protest, the community will “have a greatly expanded understanding of the significance of NATO, of our own responsibility for addressing the growing militarism in the world, and for coming up with ways that conflicts can be resolved without violence.”

Members of the First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, although media spokespersons denied to comment, are apparently planning a fast at city hall to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s invitation to NATO and highlight the suffering and war it causes.

Rev. Loren McGrail, from Wellington Avenue UCC, which is also planning to be involved in the protest, explained how the Protest Chaplains connected to Occupy Chicago are gearing up for the May protests as they meet this weekend to discuss what kind of response that they as pastors will have during the NATO summit.

“We want to be able to provide emergency pastoral care, kind of like street medics or peacekeepers, to people coming to the protests,” said McGrail when I spoke with her by phone.

So is this what the legacy of NATO has come to: people questioning NATO’s legitimacy in church and NATO selling itself to middle-schoolers? Anti-militarism is becoming much more prominent in economic justice movements like Occupy, signifying that the “global crossroads” in Chicago may be a pivotal moment for the growing worldwide opposition to institutions like NATO. Just as NATO is losing the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, the slick advertising of “Peace and Security” campaigns and target-audience programming suggests NATO is facing a crisis of legitimacy around the world.

NATO’s attempts to re-brand itself and distance itself from egregious human rights violations and faltering missions will only be further complicated in May when all eyes are on Chicago. And as NATO’s security and counterinsurgency experts know all too well, whoever controls the narrative controls the conflict. Unfortunately for NATO, it may be losing both in Chicago.

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