In this point/counterpoint, we will discuss a pressing political issue that recently touched all who live in the Chicagoland area: the NATO protesters. Were the NATO protests that addressed issues such as income inequality and global warming legitimate responses to the summit, which dealt with purely military issues? Were the protest methods effective? Read on to see both sides of debate.
Point – Josh
I feel that protests revolving around NATO addressed only external issues with no relevance to the summit itself, and thus found themselves waylaid by a need to attract media attention.
Before beginning my argument, I feel it’s important to note that my disagreement over the methods and locations of protestors in Chicago should in no way be seen as a refutation of the goals and objectives of those protestors. In my opinion, many of the issues they raise are extremely valid and are important conversations to have on the national and international stages. However, this does not mean that I condone their methods.
My central disagreement with the assertion that NATO was an appropriate venue for protestors is that many of the protests, hinging around income inequality and other domestic issues, have no more than a loose symbolic connection to the organization itself (remember that NATO is a purely military alliance). In fact, many of the protests we saw this weekend were originally scheduled to revolve around issues pertaining to the G8 summit, and then were shifted to focus on NATO when that summit was moved to the ultra-secure Camp David. A prominent example of this kind of thinking is the National Nurses United rally, which advocated for a “Robin Hood” tax, something NATO has absolutely no effect over as an organization. This is not to take away from those protests which were relevant to NATO, such as the protest held Sunday in which veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq returned their NATO-awarded medals, but it is vitally important to recognize that many protestors were simply attempting to take advantage of press coverage to voice issues that had no relevance to NATO.
While this in itself might simply be annoying, it became dangerous when the central goal of some protestors became not protesting an organization, but gaining press coverage. Unfortunately, I felt that a small but active minority of the protestors were seeking not the vocalization of a peaceful message, but a violent reaction from the Chicago police. They did this with the full knowledge that any altercation would heighten press coverage, their ultimate goal. To me, a key tenant of non-violent protest is that it must not seek to intentionally generate a violent response. As the great Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.” For those of you who were either downtown or watching the news on Sunday, it became quickly evident that the “Black Bloc,” working from within a non-violent protest, was enthusiastically looking to create a violent altercation. Especially considering the fairly moderate response of the Chicago police over the past few days (I can think of really only three flashpoints: The “NATO 3,” the unfortunate collision of a Police van with a protestor, and the altercation on Sunday), it seemed to me that protestors were attempting to engage in violent situations purely to gain additional press coverage. To me, this stripped away the moral high ground and symbolic gravitas that are central to effective protests.
I’m not denying that the protestors were attempting to raise important issues, but I am arguing that many attempted to use NATO and Chicago policeman as an elaborate form of product placement, with the end goal of media attention. This to me takes much away from the strength of their call for change.
Counter-Point - Charlie
I think that the NATO protesters were both relevant and effective in protesting issues external to the focus of the NATO summit.
The problem with the first part of Josh’s argument – that protests ought to be linked to the discussions of the NATO summit and nothing else – is that this feeds back into the central critique of the NATO protesters in the first place. Foreign dignitaries rarely discuss pressing issues such as global warming, environmental justice, or income inequality in a centralized location. When they do, such as in Kyoto/Copenhagen, the summits are woefully inept. Instead, the protesters correctly argue, leaders often use discussions over military strategy to obfuscate the very problems the protesters care about. To argue, as Josh does, that protests in Chicago last weekend must solely protest the existence of NATO or NATO’s wars is to endorse the continued marginalization of a host of other problems. Clearly NATO does not deal with environmental problems or economic problems per se. However, the NATO summit can provide a spotlight and mechanism for protesters to draw attention to the problems they believe important.
Moreover, I’m not so sure that the military-industrial complex is truly so divorced from the problems of global warming or income inequality. In my eyes, it seems like our unending focus on military strategizing is part of what distracts from problems of fossil fuel emissions and increasing inequality.
I also think large-scale protests can have import without becoming violent. As Joya argues for the Stop War coalition, large-scale non-protests remind political leaders that public opinion is turning against further conflict in the Middle East. Harcourt, a professor at the University of Chicago, argues in a November article for the UK Guardian that leaderless protests such as Occupy (who led a large march protesting NATO on Sunday) demand not only a new political vocabulary, but also a new grammar and syntax; these leaderless protests can have “radical implications.” A simple Google Trend search shows that during the peak of the Occupy movement, Google searches for “income inequality” doubled. Although the efficacy of the Occupy movement is beyond the topic of this post, I do believe Occupy was at least somewhat effective in changing the conversation about income inequality. Are the protests going to disband NATO? No – and I’m glad of it. But what they can do is call attention to problems surrounding certain NATO missions. Similarly, NATO protesters have challenged the traditional view about NATO – that it’s a mostly effective military alliance without real downsides – and helped call attention to their demands.
Josh argues that protesters’ attempts to “call attention” to problems can sometimes create an incentive toward violence. He’s right that violent altercations with the police do get more press that nonviolent discussions, and it would be disingenuous for me to say that some protesters weren’t looking for a fight. However, the vast majority of NATO protests were peaceful. And contrary to the popular mantra, any press is not good press, so in my mind, there should be an incentive to protest peacefully to create real change. Finally, just because some violence occurred doesn’t mean that the mechanism of protesting is all wrong as he suggests. A few bad apples shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the bunch.
I’ll conclude my argument with a caveat: I certainly do not endorse protests that escalate toward violence, especially violence toward policemen. The only protests that I do endorse are peaceable marches and nonviolent discussions. I’ll also make clear that unlike many of the protesters, I’m not entirely against NATO as an institution, which is why I did not participate in the protests themselves. But I think that the act of protest itself can be a vital and effective aspect of American democracy.
What do you think? Who is more persuasive? Leave your thoughts in the comments.