BY KIMBERLEY ELSHAM
Following the attacks of 9-11, the most devastating domestic tragedy in the United States, our leaders created a culture of fear. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on “homeland” security. We were told to get behind the War on Terror. More than a decade later, our leaders are still trying to justify that spending. The 2012 NATO summit in Chicago provided an example on how easily this culture of fear can get out of hand and be damaging to an otherwise very peaceful society, and after the summit wrapped up, how overblown it all was. Our governments and even our “free” media pumped up possible threats. We have allowed ourselves to be fearful of the new and unknown, scared of perceived risks and distrustful of our neighbours.
The violence of the 1968 riots that coincided with the Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago seared the minds of people here with the notion of unrestrained demonstrations. Protesters and police faced off on downtown streets during one of the most tumultuous political times for the U.S. At that time, we were adrift in racial disagreement, and our young people were angry about our involvement in the Vietnam War. At that gathering, nearly 600 people were arrested and more than 100 police officers were hurt as a result of the clash.
This year, more than four decades later, the city ramped up the fear factor and herded a lot of people of out town, Andy Thayer, a lead organizer of anti-NATO protests told a Chicago public radio station before the summit. It felt like we were preparing for another ‘68 riot.
The anxiety, fear and curiosity seemed to split Chicago residents into three factions: faceless security, angry protestors and ambivalent – or clueless – residents. For many, it felt like a strange holiday or festival in the city. Local press published NATO summit survival guides, maps of road closures, a “who’s who” lists of foreign officials, online music playlists commemorating the occasion, user-submitted photo galleries and even guides on what to wear (and what not to wear). Some restaurants added NATO-themed dishes to their menus, such as a “Citizens Arrest” burger at a gourmet hamburger restaurant. Another changed its price of a side of French fries to 99 cents, as a nod of solidarity to the “99 percenters” that have been protesting in the Occupy movements. There was such dichotomy in the city: Were we to take this event, and the upwards of 10,000 people travelling to Chicago for it, seriously or not?
In the months before, neither the city of Chicago nor the NATO planning committee had released any information about street or business closings, leaving many to speculate. Would commerce come to a standstill in downtown Chicago? Would residents be forced to leave? Should we tell people to stay away from the city?
We were told that our city police officers were being given special crowd-control training – replete with riot shields and tear gas – if the awaited protesters become violent. How would a redistribution of our police force affect our neighbourhoods? There were no answers.
Indeed, in the days leading up to the summit, it seemed that there were more cops than people downtown. Our CBS television affiliate reported our commuter rail had restricted service and the size of carry-on items during the event. Bosses gave downtown workers a four-day weekend so they wouldn’t need to travel to the city. Officers in SWAT gear patrolled building entrances. The Chicago Tribune reported that F-16 fighter jets and other military aircraft were on alert to secure a temporary flight restriction zone.
In the end, the NATO summit in Chicago proved peaceful. The hype and security seemed completely overblown. About 45 people were arrested and four police officers were slightly injured, according to the Associated Press. The city awarded our police officers for “job well done” with free tickets to a major league baseball game.
The NATO summit, as occasion for discourse and public diplomatic statements, remained just that, whether it happened among international delegates in an air-conditioned meeting room at McCormick Place (named after a long-ago media baron infamous for his isolationism) or whether it was among the demonstrators in the city’s streets and parks. Perhaps the next time Chicago hosts an international event, we can trust each other a bit more.