Chicago has a lot of police on the train, I thought, making the transfer to the brown line at Clark and Lake. Well worn wooden clubs dangled auspiciously from their belts. They wore body armor. I had just arrived in the city from Los Angeles and was not aware of the protests scheduled for the following afternoon. I heard about the march on the news that evening and decided to go to see the spectacle.
The next day I made my way to Grant Park. I missed the rally there but followed the shouting until I reached the procession. After watching the crowd from the sidewalk, I joined in the march. Though I had no particular gripe with NATO – to be honest, I did not know much about the organization at the time – I saw the protest as a vehicle to express my dissatisfaction with the status quo, vague as it may be.
Surely there were others like me in the crowd: unemployed 20 somethings with liberal arts degrees that are unsure what they are mad about, but are mad none the less. Then there were groups, tightly knit groups, which were certain what they were protesting about. Socialist youth in red t-shirts, Anarchists with covered faces in dark sartorial monotony, middle aged men and women supporting teachers unions, environmentalists, Latino groups for immigration reform, and so on. Those like me filled the interstitial space between the major organs of discontent.
As the march went on, block after hot and humid block, the stark division between causes that I had initially perceived began to melt. A chant begun by a group of queer protestors was picked up by animal rights activists. Groups merged and diverged in fluid procession. A call and response rippled vigorously through the crowd: “Whose streets? Our streets!”
The popular speculation that, what is broadly termed the 99% movement, is too divided to succeed is, I believe, a misdiagnosis. The wave of discontent, from the occupy protests to the recent NATO march, is not divided, but rather, diverse. The diversity of ideas is precisely why such a movement has any hope of engendering change.
A similar concern – recently expressed by Jim Warren in his all too cute article about the protest for The Daily Beast – was that there was no concrete goal of the protest, nothing that the protesters could rally behind. Americans cannot direct their ire at a despot as was the case with protests in Egypt (among many others). Without a despot, there is no despot to depose and, therefore, it seems, no tangible goal. It is true that the only unifying theme of the protest was a resounding “Not this!” However, every disparate group in the crowd knew that their cries of, “Not this!” would be carried and amplified. A negative position, though perhaps unproductive on its own, creates cohesion. It is this cohesion that allows the question, “Well, what else if not this?” to be asked and answered.
The abstract nature of American frustration might not provide immediate gratification and change. Success is not a matter of getting rid of one man or woman, or ending a particular war, but rather having a conversation about what matters to us. What kind of country do we want to live in? What do we want future generations to inherit?
What I witnessed at the protest were conversations. Real live conversations between real live Americans. Conversations free of media spin, free of the nasty anonymity of internet discourse and free of the rigidity of academia. Before we can create positive change in this country, we must all shout, “Not this!” Then and only then can we have a conversation about what it is we do want.
Perhaps, as Mr. Warren suggests, the protest was a failure on a large scale. But in the streets that day in Chicago, amid the shouts and sweat, were small changes and small victories. Thousands of small voices, together, cried, “Not this!”