What if #noNATO protesters had been more nonviolent?

Photo by Alaina Buzas, via Flickr.

It was my mother’s first protest, and we were both moved to tears as, one by one, the veterans threw back their medals to the generals and politicians meeting behind the militarized police lines and high perimeter fencing under the no-fly zone of the NATO summit. As thunderclouds began to roll in, I glanced at my phone and told my mom that she should probably start moving toward the outside of the protest zone because I didn’t know what was going to happen once the permitted rally ended. It’s a good thing she did.

There are many lessons to be learned, strategies to be tweaked and tactics to be re-worked, but — for a moment — let’s celebrate the pivotal moment that the #noNATO protests were for anti-militarism movements and struggles for economic justice. Let’s celebrate the fact that 15,000 people took to the streets to protest against austerity and war, in spite of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s and the Chicago Police Department’s fear-mongering. Let’s celebrate the courage of the 45 veterans who threw back their medals as a sign of peace and healing. Let’s celebrate that a few hundred occupiers were able to nonviolently shut down the Boeing Corporation. Then, let’s do the hard work of reflecting on where we’re at and where we’re headed.

Predictably, a number of critiques and defenses of Black Bloc-style tactics have begun to circulate. The question of tactics must not devolve into the tired debate of diversity of tactics that tends to get mired by ideological frames. Rather, tactics should be informed by a movement strategy that asks, among many other questions: What are the possible consequences of this action? As a line of protesters — some masked, some not — linked arms and approached one of the many police lines keeping activists outside of the NATO summit red zone, was there a strategy at play?

From my perspective on the front lines of the melee that broke out — and from conversations with many others I’ve talked to — the decision to attempt to reach the summit by breaking through police lines was an impromptu one and not a planned Black Bloc action. With all the undercover security agents in the protest crowd with bandanas around their faces and sunglasses hiding their eyes, it does not seem unreasonable to consider that agent provocateurs may have also aided in the escalation.

Still, once this group reached the police line in their attempt to push through — all with linked arms — the police forcefully pushed back. It remains unclear what happened next, but within a very short amount of time, police batons were swinging indiscriminately, water bottles and sticks were flying through the air, and activists were being beaten, dragged out and arrested.

More than 80 years ago, Gandhian satyagrahis planned to raid the Dharasana Salt Works and tried to break through police lines, only to be beaten down. The satyagrahis did not fight back nor defend themselves. Eyewitness accounts and the re-created scene in the film Gandhi expose the brutality the nonviolent protesters faced, and it proved to be a turning point for the British Empire’s control over India as the world condemned the actions.  It was difficult for the Empire to defend its violent repression when the satyagrahis maintained such nonviolent, albeit difficult and dangerous, discipline.  For the public, the lines between oppressor and oppressed were clearly established by the Indians’ nonviolent action, which made it nearly impossible for the British to blame the victim.

To be sure, there has been widespread condemnation of the heavy-handed — and incomparable — police violence in Chicago. The National Lawyers Guild reported more than 60 injured activists as Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy shed tears over four injured CPD officers. Those are the human, physical consequences of the protest action. But there are other consequences worth considering as well.

The abolishment of NATO is not going to happen because of a few thousand summit-hopping activists are able to shut down sectors of various cities for a few hours of a day. It’s going to happen when people like my mother, a librarian in a suburban Catholic grade school, are educated and mobilized for action, which includes street protest, but also much more.

When my mom told me that the militant, masked anarchists scared her, even as she listened to my explanation of the tactic, it dawned on me that her marching against NATO was no less radical than anyone else out there that day.  For as much institutional violence as there is in American society, perceived violent resistance — whether it be Black Panthers or the Black Bloc — is unlikely to win the majority backing that successful and lasting revolutions enjoy.

My mind spiraled with excitement: What would have happened if the veterans, grandmothers or the librarians attempted to break the police line and occupy the NATO summit? Would they have been met with the same police violence and official denunciation? Or would the pillars that keep the war-making institution propped up be weakened?

David Goodner, a community organizer from Des Moines, Iowa, has begun talking about “confrontational nonviolence” as an alternative to Black Bloc-style tactics and symbolic, predictable pacifist actions. Goodner had hoped that the NATO protests would have been a time of new tactics and strategy for an Occupy movement that is facing some serious challenges coalescing into something larger, broader and deeper. Explained Goodner before the NATO protests:

Imagine if a hundred or more large affinity groups of 50–75 people each all started organizing their own pop-up demonstrations at big banks, payday loan shops and the offices of elected officials. The city of Chicago could potentially be overwhelmed, while a disciplined commitment to confrontational nonviolence could increase the legitimacy of the protests and their message.

In a post-#noNATO reflection, Chris Eagan, a Peace Guide during the May 20 march and staff member with the 8th Day Center for Justice, shared his thoughts of being on the front lines of the protest and his unsuccessful attempts to deescalate the contentions between police and protesters. He wrote of his frustrations and the feelings of alienation he experienced as he witnessed protesters antagonizing police and the ensuing violence.  The frequency with which these summit protests result in attention given to police/protester clashes rather than the systemic reasons for protest has caused Eagan to rethink the usefulness of the mass demonstration.

“If NATO were to ever come back to the city, I probably would be more inclined to organize many satellite peace pods all throughout the city,” wrote Eagan in an email. He continued:

A paradigm shift is necessary if we hope to ever impart necessary change on such a large institution as NATO. That means we need to make activism more inviting. We need to actively cultivate space where we can engage neighbors and communities in conversations. Not create space where only the most brazen of each community feels welcome.

Lastly, when agents of state adopt the tactics of a protest movement to discredit it — like what has recently happened with the case of the Cleveland 5 and the NATO 3 — it may be time to let go of those tactics. Ethics aside, the security culture needed for Black Bloc tactics to succeed is nearly impossible to achieve now that undercover police and the FBI are using their culture against activists for means of entrapment and for starting street fights with fellow officers. The ease with which state prosecutors, chiefs of police, and television anchors can craft a narrative of violent, anarchist protesters to discredit or deflect the very real institutional violence of organizations like NATO is a challenge that activists need to honestly consider if they are serious about change.

I spoke with Lisa Fithian from the Alliance of Community Trainers as we shut down Lake Street during an unpermitted march on the Boeing headquarters. Under the din of the El above us, Fithian echoed the need for affinity groups capable of engaging in coordinated, but independent, nonviolent direct action as a way to better engage the many layers of institutional change. The emergence of multiple direct action affinity groups — where solid relationships of trust can be built and new people brought in — seems to be an increasingly popular approach among Occupy organizers.

“When you take away a space of legitimate protest, less legitimate forms of protest become more prevalent,” said the Sparrow Project’s Andy Stepanian when I interviewed him recently. There are very fews spaces of legitimate protest left in this country where protest can be audibly and visibly exercised. But the beauty of the #noNATO protests was that they found ways to activate the power of the people and create those legitimate spaces — particularly through the unpermitted street march.

A culture of regular protest is emerging that recognizes the need to push boundaries not just in the social landscape — such as holding press conferences in the middle of street in front of Rahm Emanuel’s house or President Obama’s campaign headquarters — but also in our own lives, as we endured long hours holding spaces and unknown consequences for our loosely-planned actions.

Protest — the disruptive, effective kind — may not have a start and end time. In a culture that has commodified everything, including dissent, the #noNATO protests were a step in liberating ourselves from the expectations of easy protest and complacency with the state’s control of protest. Unpermitted marches, impromptu decision-making, and flexible activism breaks the illusion of control that city officials seek to impose on protesters. The challenge for activists, then, is how to get the average American into those streets with the nonviolent discipline of the satyagrahis.

I tend to dislike the trite, declarative chants about what democracy looks like and inquiries as to who owns the streets. But the Chicago Spring has proven that when enough committed activists — regardless of experience — show up, the streets can be theirs.

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