FINAL NATO PROTEST DISPATCH: From Hope To Despair (This Is Not The Chicago That I Saw On Election Night)

 

Last night in Chicago was surreal . . . There was zero violence, unconditional love, and peaceful pandemonium. I accidentally stepped on some dude’s Jordans and he shook my hand . . . Cell phone lines were so jammed that people couldn’t reach one another, but I was far from alone. I must have wrapped my arms around 100 people . . . I know – awesome.

I wrote those words nearly four years ago, on the day after Barack Obama was elected to the White House. I hadn't voted for the Illinois senator – my rule is to always support Ralph Nader if he's running – but that night in Grant Park pumped me full of American pride. Despite my critical coverage of Obama leading up to that evening, it was nice to feel enthusiastic about my big box store-of-a-country.

All of that's changed in the past four years. Not just for me, but for countless others who were relieved to avoid an inevitably hawkish John McCain presidency. I realized this on Sunday in Grant Park, where the Veterans for Peace organized the biggest anti-NATO march of the week. In 2008, I was moved to tears of joy in that big open field. Yesterday I nearly cried out of despair.

Despite the vagueness that Occupy is often pegged with, nearly everyone involved in the movement has specific concerns. Some, like healthcare or homelessness, are personal, yet reflect larger issues that transcend communities and cross state lines. Others have more direct political gripes; an Occupier from Montana, for example, told me about the struggle to protect his city's water supply from privatization.

Certainly Obama's not solely responsible for monsters whose attempts to control common resources are increasingly compromising basic freedoms. Nor was he in command when our military invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Still he represented a shift away from spending trillions on murder, and from economic policies that perpetuate poverty. That's no longer the case.

Nations fall a lot harder when they're pumped full of hope. Which is why I found myself in Chicago following around thousands of damaged Americans. Despite ideal weather and humorous costumes, the mood was dark, as rally-goers unloaded aggravation over everything from immigration policy and military misconduct to the neglect of mentally ill patients and the persecution of political prisoners.

And then there was the violence. While Obama was tossing a football around with fellow world leaders at Soldier Field, soldiers in the streets were facing a Chicago Police Department bent on using extraordinary force. Decked in protective gear, cops set arbitrary boundaries for protesters, and pummeled them with inhumane pride when those lines were crossed.

On election night in 2008, I never would have thought that I'd return here under such circumstances. Or that, despite its brutal history, the city which I found so inviting would threaten its own residents and visitors with weapons built for international combat. Back then, Obama even walked the picket line with workers from the Congress Plaza Hotel, who have been striking for nearly a decade.

At a rally outside of the president's campaign headquarters today, demonstrators voiced their concerns with the administration, and with its embrace of NATO-sponsored warmongering. Arguing that Obama's even worse than his predecessor on the “3-Ds” – drones, drugs, and deportation – one woman charged: “20 years ago you would have been out here with us, but now you're part of the problem.”

Protesters challenged the former community organizer to return to his progressive roots. That's not likely though. Back at my crash pad, I caught the president's NATO press conference, in which a local reporter asked about the protests outside, and about how police handled things. Obama said they did a “great job,” and even thanked those who were inconvenienced for their patience.

Meanwhile, hundreds were still rallying outside of his nearby campaign office, which is located just steps away from where I watched Obama give his victory speech in 2008. At the time, I scribbled in my notebook that I have faith in this guy. No doubt he’ll prove me stupid as soon as he arrives in office, but it’s a tremendous feeling for the time being. I've never felt sadder to have been so right.

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