NATO protest fails to deliver punch

Those who wanted confrontations got them, but clashes were limited

Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 5:00 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — The NATO protesters marching in the South Loop on Sunday were mostly peaceful when they were in Grant Park. They’re opposed to violence, opposed to the war in Afghanistan.

The only argument I became involved in was with the slightly militant vegans, like the guy who shouted at me, unprompted, “The human body wasn’t designed to digest meat!”

His colleague, Pamela Stelmasek, said he was just kidding.

“He talks like that,” Stelmasek said. “But he’s OK. You love your dog, but you eat farmed animals? How could you?”

How can I? With lemon and salt. But sometimes with a nice pan sauce.

There were others in the march who wanted trouble and got it, including some of the uniformed anarchists wearing black, although somebody should tell them that the phrase “uniformed anarchists” makes as much sense as “organized chaos” or “Chicago political reform.”

“I’m the one who was in the paper shaking hands with McCarthy,” said one of the anarchists.

He pulled down the scary anarchist bandanna from his face to reveal a kid, in his 20s, and he looked just like the young man on the front page of the Chicago Tribune the other day, shaking hands with the police superintendent.

Protesters and police wouldn’t be shaking hands later. The billy clubs would appear. The pushing would begin.

In Grant Park, before the march, there wasn’t the feel of a protest as much as it felt like a party on a college quad back in the day.

Parents brought their kids. People wore costumes. Some were dressed as dollar signs, others as skeletons and still others as medieval physicians in black robes with those long-nosed masks worn during the Black Death.

I asked the Black Death Physicians: Didn’t I see you at the Renaissance fair?

They pointed ominously at me with long fingers, but one gave me a thumbs-up and I thought I could see her eyes crinkle in a grin.

Most didn’t wear costumes, and one of these was Mel Packer, a retired physician’s assistant from Pittsburgh.

“Of course I’m against NATO,” said Packer, who says he’s been a revolutionary all his life.

“NATO is the military arm of global capitalism,” he said, “and it’s job is to keep poor people in line. NATO’s problem is that Greece is melting down, then Portugal and Spain and Italy. What are they going to do then?”

They’ll have another meeting. Just not here.

The crowd in Grant Park was smaller than one you might see for a jazz festival, but after music and speeches critical of NATO and President Barack Obama and Republicans, they began marching south to McCormick Place. These were Americans enjoying their unlimited freedom of speech, but since it was 2 p.m., they had just about two hours with which to enjoy it before the city protest permit ran out at 4 p.m.

There was one sign above all that I thought was unique. It was held by a tall fellow with long arms marching on Harrison Street toward Michigan Avenue. He held it high with his right hand. It had two words:

Ron Paul.

It was rather courageous of him to hold up a sign for Paul, the cranky Republican presidential candidate whose opposition to wars and unsustainable war spending prompted the corporate Republican types to snicker as if he’s the madman, not they.

I tried to reach him through the crowd, thinking to ask about the common ground between the tea party on the right and the anti-war Occupy crowd on the left, and of the Republican and Democratic establishment shepherds who steer each away from the other to keep control.

But the Ron Paul guy was gone, just one fish lost in a protest sea teeming with signs from so many different groups, the anarchists, the socialists, those from Code Pink and others folks chanting “Obama needs to listen.”

One group was Pakistanis complaining about NATO and the war in Afghanistan.

I asked them about their president, Asif Ali Zardari, a man who’s been so repeatedly accused of graft and corruption that his people call him “Mr. Ten Percent.”

If there’s one politician at the NATO meeting who could have a fine career in Illinois politics, it’s a guy named Mr. Ten Percent.

“He was Mr. Ten Percent, but no longer,” said a man in a suit holding a sign who gave his name as Mustafa. “Now he’s Mr. Hundred Percent.”

Nobody can take 100 percent, I said, and Mustafa tried to explain.

“Mustafa,” said another fellow in his group as they marched away, “come on!”

Mustafa turned to me as he marched, shouting over his shoulder.

“Well, you call him Mr. Ten Percent if you wish!” said Mustafa, and he was gone too.

After the rally, those who wanted a confrontation with police got one. Those who wouldn’t leave when they were told were pushed up against the wall, and some were detained.

The TV commentators describing the scene outside McCormick Place seemed excited, but I’ve been in protests in Greece recently, angry ones without costumes.

Instead of half-empty water bottles, there were chunks of marble as big as your fist arcing through the air at human heads.

Greece is in complete economic meltdown, and people aren’t just losing their jobs, they’re losing their pensions and the means to feed themselves. And other NATO countries might face the same.

It happens when people are deeply afraid. But they’re not deeply afraid here. Not yet.

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