After NATO summit, questions about protest mindset

By TAMMY WEBBER,Associated Press Updated at 2012-05-22 00:47:44 +0000

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CHICAGO (AP) — For activists, the NATO summit in Chicago served as one big stage from which to air a broad range of grievances — not just the war in Afghanistan or other actions of the 63-year-old military alliance.

In their effort to maximize turnout, organizers were quick to welcome a wide variety of interests, including Occupy protesters, immigration groups, the nation's largest nurses union and others.

But after a week of protests and rallies, the all-inclusive mindset raised questions about the focus of some of the nation's major protest movements. Were their messages becoming too diffuse to make a difference?

"The issue with the protests here is that everybody is kind of protesting their own thing. There's not really a solid voice and united message against NATO," protester Trent Carl said Monday during a demonstration at Boeing Co. headquarters organized by Occupy Chicago to oppose the company's tax breaks.

Carl, who said he was not part of the Occupy crowd, was disappointed that the week's protests weren't more focused on NATO.

"Everybody has their own message, (and) it isn't super-effective when you want to get a singular message across," said Carl, who said he came out specifically to protest U.S. and NATO actions in Yemen and Pakistan, where he has friends and family.

In the days leading up to the two-day summit, nurses rallied in a downtown plaza to call for a "Robin Hood" tax on banks' financial transactions. The next day, groups marched to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house to protest the closure of six community mental health clinics.

At other times, noisy protesters snaked aimlessly through downtown streets, evading and taunting police. One activist even abandoned a march that began as an environmental protest because it had been "hijacked" by a raucous group with no focus.

Then on Sunday, they all came together for the largest effort — a march against the NATO summit that was peaceful until the end, when some protesters clashed with police for a couple of hours, throwing boards and bottles. Some officers struck back with batons.

Many of the activities were originally planned to coincide with the G-8 economic summit that was to be held in Chicago for two days before the NATO meetings. So when President Barack Obama in March moved the G-8 to secluded Camp David, Md., some groups decided to hold their protests in Chicago anyway.

"Our main goal was to elevate our local neighborhood struggles in Chicago to the international stage, and we feel we did that," said Rachael Perrotta, a spokeswoman with Occupy Chicago, who estimated about 500 Occupy supporters from around the country showed up for the protests.

And now that they've met face-to-face, "it is really going to strengthen the movement and lead to more cohesive national days of action and better organizing in general at the national level," she said.

Jesus Palafox, a Chicago activist with the American Friends Service Committee, said the fact that so many groups came together energized many movements, including the quest to preserve union rights.

Many city and school contracts are expiring soon, raising the possibility of strikes, he said, and the Chicago meetings will "be a jumping-off point" for union protests.

And anti-war activists, who worked hard to drum up support for the NATO march by linking U.S. war spending to economic cuts at home, said they were successful, too.

"You saw the new generation of the anti-war movement," said Joe Iosbaker of the United National Antiwar Coalition in Chicago.

But others weren't so sure what the weeklong protests accomplished.

Marching along with protesters to Boeing, Kevin Murphy said he had been disappointed with what he called a small and "very disorganized" movement. He doubted it would change the minds of any of the world leaders at the summit.

The farmer from Beaver Dam, Wis., said he came to Sunday's march to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and decided to stay for the march to Boeing.

Some protesters, particularly those who threw objects at police, were too young to know "what they are talking about," he said. "Instead of doing this, they should just vote."

Estimates for Sunday's march varied widely — police said about 2,200 participated. Organizers said 15,000. But either way, the number was far less than the 500,000 who marched through the streets of Chicago in 2006 to call for immigration reform or the tens of thousands organizers predicted would march when both the G-8 and NATO summits were to be held here.

Joe Lombardo, a New Yorker who belongs to the United National Anti-War Coalition, said the turnout and diverse views in Chicago do not signal that any one movement is floundering.

"We have a diverse message because we're under great attack," he said. "We all have grievances and ... we're merging into one huge movement for social change."