Editor’s note: This story is part of our coverage of the #noNATO protests in Chicago.
Chicago, IL–It’s quieter than you might expect. I’m in the middle of a crowd of NATO protesters, and nothing is happening.
Not “nothing,” exactly. We are marching, though it may be more accurate to describe it as trudging. (To trudge: the slow, weary, depressing yet determined walk of a person who has nothing left in life except the impulse to simply soldier on.)
Hours earlier, we marched this route in reverse, in much larger numbers. There was chanting and singing. Bullhorns blasted our messages to curious residents and concealed snipers on high rises lining South Michigan Avenue. Signs waved, flags flew.
In an hour-long ceremony, veterans of the misnomered War on Terror threw their medals back toward the leaders who made unilateral decisions that ended in needless loss of life. The crowd alternately cheered and hushed in sympathy with the brave men and women standing up for their beliefs. It was impossible to witness without being moved.
Even the violence was quieter than you might expect, at least from where I stood, slightly removed. I could judge what happened by the injured being pulled from the epicenter. Street medics tended to head wounds, carefully and methodically checking for evidence of leaking spinal fluid. Their calm demeanors belied an underlying sense of urgency. Hundreds of riot police stood behind the makeshift triage unit, silent in their all-black body armor, batons ready to inflict more pain if deemed necessary.
No Imperial March played in the hot sticky air as the Stormtroopers moved in to begin clearing the intersection. With the exception of some shouted commands and a periodic dispersal order broadcast via LRAD, they simply pressed forward, forcing us back. Their eyes stared through us from behind sealed visors as if we were not real, or as if they were not fully present in the moment.
A photographer took pictures of me filming the scene, streaming it live to the Internet. We exchanged pleasantries and credentials. The police line pressed ever closer. If this were a movie, there would be a melodramatic soundtrack accompanying our slow retreat down Cermak. Instead we moved through a sea of silent tension almost worse than the implied force itself.
We played cat-and-mouse games with columns of riot cops all afternoon. They tried to contain us and direct our movements; we tried to outmaneuver them and get to the convention center. We succeeded, making it to the eight-foot metal barricades three times only to be threatened by the Special Forces guarding the dignitaries meeting beyond. I did a stand-up TV interview at one barricade, telling the reporter that our goal was to be seen and heard by those inside the summit. I was only seen and heard by the soldier who cut the interview short, barking a command to leave the secured area immediately.
Now, hours wearier and sweatier, we have finally gotten ahead of the riot cop formations long enough to head north, back toward downtown. It’s a four-mile trek and we have been marching all day in 90 degree heat. There is no energy left for chanting; signs have mostly been discarded. We just put one foot in front of the other, advancing our small offshoot protest march and its ever-present bike cop escort.
It’s about to get loud again as we meet up with the other marches downtown. We’re about to stop traffic and close down Michigan Avenue. We’re about to sit outside a dinner being held at the Art Institute for the NATO spouses, demanding to know why we weren’t invited to join them. More people are about to get hurt, including my friend Harrison, who will be hit over the head by an overzealous baton for the crime of playing his tambourine in the street. We’re about to end the night with a dance party in the rain, followed by another five-mile march to the jail where they took our friends.
But now, right now, all is quiet. The sun is setting spectacularly over the skyline and we are blocking four lanes of traffic, winding our way back to the heart of the city.
This is the part that never makes it to the movie, or the textbook – how the protesters get back home. These are the spaces in the middle and in between that automatically hit the cutting room floor. This is supposedly the least interesting part of the day.
And yet it is also the most human. After all, the media loves to paint a caricature of us in opposition with the stiffly regimented forces of law and order. They look for the loud, flashy moments and show them in eight-second clips devoid of context. But we are human. We get hungry; we look for a bathroom. We get sweaty and tired and thirsty. If you hit us with a baton, we will bleed – human blood, not protester blood. Yet we press on, because we feel righteous anger and indignation. We eschew personal comfort in order to amplify our message and champion our ideals. We shout our dissent from the pavement to the rooftops, and it echoes back to us through the concrete canyons that have been abandoned by all but the most dedicated this weekend.
This is the hardest part of the protest, when we are tired and alone and one blister away from giving up and finding a train that’s still running. This is the part when I wonder if we made any kind of difference at all. This is when reality sets in, that we face a long road ahead with no express route to the finish line. We will put in the hard work, one step at a time, one day at a time. I have friends by my side and more waiting ahead. This isn’t the end; it’s just the first in a series of memorable adventures.
This is the part that nobody sees but me. This is the true measure of my convictions, because to me it’s not a long, arduous journey back. I enjoy every sweaty, bloody step of the way.
– Rachel Allshiny –
Photo courtesy of Kelly Hayes