CHICAGO (MCT) — Some are anti-war. Others want economic reform. Still others are environmentalists.
No matter their agenda, people who share a dissatisfaction with the world’s political and economic status quo have begun to flow into Chicago from around the country and even overseas. They are poised to use the international media spotlight that will be cast on this weekend’s NATO summit to make their voices heard and their numbers known.
“In this case, it’s not something (the media) can really overlook,” said Chris Wahmhoff, 33, a member of Occupy Kalamazoo who is planning to travel to Chicago with people from Occupy movements throughout Michigan. “They really can’t deny this one.”
There will be no denying the cacophony of slogans and chants as protesters march through downtown streets and demonstrate in public squares. While lunch-break spectators may sometimes puzzle over the precise point of a protest, demonstrators feed off the chaotic energy that flows from thousands of people gathered in one place for a common purpose.
Protesters have been planning for the May 20-21 summit for months, using the Internet to coordinate travel and lodging for out-of-town demonstrators, hosting meetings to discuss their rights and how to deal with police, and arranging for free food and legal support throughout the weekend.
Some critics believe President Barack Obama’s removal of the G-8 summit to Camp David, citing a desire for a more informal gathering, has taken some wind from protesters’ sails. But many protesters say the move is the clearest sign that they are being heard.
“The word on the street is that the reason the G-8 is now at Camp David is they were anticipating our strength,” said Thistle Pettersen, a Madison, Wis.-based demonstrator who is bicycling to Chicago with a group protesting the use of fossil fuels to make war. “We feel really strong, and extra-united.”
The planned double summit of world leaders that Obama announced a year ago — G-8 meetings on the global economic order and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization making long-term decisions about intervention in Afghanistan — was lining up to be a protest magnet of a size not seen in many years.
The splitting of the summits in March diverted some of that attention away from Chicago. But because of the remote and secure location of Camp David, the presidential retreat in the western Maryland woods, many protesters say they still plan to protest both summits here. It helps, they say, that the heads of state of the six G-8 member nations that also belong to NATO are coming to Chicago when the G-8 ends on May 19.
Nobody knows just how many protesters will be here to greet the heads of state and their delegations. Police early on estimated a range of from 2,000 to 10,000 demonstrators, while Occupy has set a goal of up to 50,000.
They’ve organized bus rides from San Francisco and New York, carpools from Michigan and Missouri, and even hitchhiking efforts from the West Coast. Although many don’t yet know where they’ll stay, they say concerns over finding a comfortable place to crash are trumped by the opportunity to demonstrate on a global stage.
“I didn’t come here to sleep,” said Jason Brock, a musician and artist who arrived in Chicago last week from California.
Many out-of-town protesters have turned to the Internet to link up with others traveling to Chicago and to find places to stay, from spare bedrooms and empty couches to backyards where they can pitch a tent.
Several protest websites have message boards helping people set up car pools. Most sites also have message boards to help people find lodging, although that’s been a trickier prospect, said Zoe Sigman, an organizer with Occupy Chicago.
Members of Occupy movements in several other cities are used to camping in public spaces, which Chicago authorities did not allow during Occupy protests in the fall and have said they will not allow during NATO.
“A lot of people said, ‘We’re Occupy, let’s camp,’ ” Sigman said. “And we said, ‘Um, this is Chicago, haven’t you been paying attention?’ ”
Although Trinity Episcopal Church at 26th Street and Michigan Avenue — just a few blocks from McCormick Place — is hosting the group of bicyclists from Wisconsin, few other churches have agreed to offer space to protesters, Sigman and others said.
Still, organizers aren’t worried just yet.
“Once protesters are in the city, people will start offering them space,” Sigman said.
Occupy Chicago has positioned itself as a resource center for members of other Occupy movements from throughout the country who are traveling to Chicago, but other groups also are gearing up to meet protesters’ basic needs, from cooking decent meals to providing legal support.
Members of the Montana-based Seeds of Peace Collective have been in Chicago for about a month and expect to cook breakfast and lunch for as many as 5,000 to 7,000 protesters at the height of the demonstrations.
They’ve already been whipping up meals of beans and rice for various groups out of a kitchen at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Bridgeport, but are trying to find a larger kitchen before more protesters arrive. On a recent day, half a dozen volunteers chopped leeks, carried in bins of donated buns and summer sausage, and traded war stories about past protests.
“We’re in full-on panic mode now and will be for the next 10 days,” said Steven Schorzman, the donations coordinator for the group, which has been supporting protesters at major events for more than 25 years.
Meanwhile, the Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has recruited lawyers, legal workers and law students from across the country to volunteer during the summit. The group plans to have about 150 legal observers — all wearing neon green baseball hats — monitoring demonstrations and providing legal aid to protesters on the streets, said Sarah Gelsomino, an attorney with the Guild and the People’s Law Office.
The guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois have both held training sessions and handed out cheat sheets reminding protesters of their rights and telling them what to do if they are questioned by police or arrested.
“We can’t change the way the police are going to act, but we can hopefully encourage the demonstrators to feel sure of themselves and to get out there on the streets and demonstrate as they wish,” Gelsomino said.
Organizers of major protest groups have pledged that their rallies will be peaceful, like last fall’s Occupy protests in Chicago and this month’s May Day demonstrations.
Sister Kathleen Desautels, a Catholic nun and member of the Chicago-based activist religious organization 8th Day Center for Justice, is a veteran of large-scale protests in several cities. She is helping to plan a “family-friendly” march on May 20 that will be led by military veterans against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Organizers of the march have trained some marchers as “peace guides,” to keep an eye out for anyone who might be looking to start trouble, Desautels said.
“Our responsibility is a big one — to keep people calm and to hopefully ratchet down any anger that might erupt,” she said.
Although Desautels and other protesters have said they believe police often escalate tension by overreacting to protesters, the energy and emotion inherent in a big crowd can increase the pressure too.
That dynamic was at play during the May Day demonstrations in Chicago, when the crowd at the head of a march began shouting “(expletive) the police” as they walked through the West Loop, creating an anxious moment during what was largely an easygoing demonstration.
Some protesters quickly told police monitoring the march that the chant wasn’t personal, and most officers reacted to the taunts with indifference.
Still, both police and protesters have acknowledged the NATO summit is likely to attract some protesters known for confrontational tactics, such as damaging property or forming “black blocs” within an otherwise peaceful crowd and inciting skirmishes with police.
All it takes is a small number of people determined to cause damage to make a peaceful protest devolve into a potentially violent conflict with police, said Mark Jamieson, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department.
Eight people in Seattle were charged with various crimes — mostly assaults on police officers — after some protesters damaged cars and storefronts during May Day protests in that city this month.
“Our experience, probably going back to (World Trade Organization) protests in 1999, is that you have, by-and-large, peaceful, lawful protests where people exercise their First Amendment right to voice their concern on whatever issue,” Jamieson said. “And then mixed in among that crowd is a very, very small element that is bent on causing property damage, destruction (and) mayhem.”
Protesters intent on causing damage excel at keeping a low profile, but other groups who will protest during the summit have already made their presence felt in Chicago.
National Nurses United, which chartered buses from all over the country for its members, is having a convention for about 1,000 members at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Streeterville that begins May 16 and runs through the summit weekend.
After the city initially revoked permission for the group’s Friday rally in Daley Plaza, some members and supporters protested at City Hall. Late last week, city officials reversed themselves and allowed the rally, in return for the nurses dropping their plans for a downtown march.
But even with some protesters in town and others finalizing travel plans, it won’t be clear how many people have made the trip to Chicago — and how organized their protests will be — until the demonstrations begin.
“There’s so much unanswered that’s going to be unanswerable until we’re there, and that (includes) the number of people,” said Wahmhoff, who plans to car pool from Kalamazoo to Michigan City, Ind., and take a train to Chicago. “We just want to be as fluid as we can be to keep up with this environment.”
(Chicago Tribune reporter Matthew Walberg contributed to this report.)