CHICAGO, IL. — Gunshots rang out in northern Chicago Sunday evening, provoking furious blog entries but no response from the police.
“The cops are so focused on possible terrorism downtown they don’t care what happens to real people,” said Meaghan, 28, who has lived in Chicago for the past five years.
As Chicago braced for a second day of summits and protests Monday, residents could be forgiven a bit of grumbling.
Most of the streets leading to the city’s main drag, Lake Shore Drive, are closed because of the NATO meetings, and moving around town can be challenging. The metro is not allowing passengers to bring food or drink with them — for fear that terrorists might smuggle explosive substances onboard.
City officials are also trying to restrict any liquids that might be used as ammunition — in Sunday’s clashes with police, protesters were throwing all sorts of wet stuff “and we don’t mean water,” as one local reporter put it.
Many city workers were told to stay home on Monday, to lessen the crush of people trying to make their way across town through official traffic and unofficial demonstrations.
At least the weather was cooperating — Monday dawned chilly and gray, in contrast to Sunday’s scorching heat.
It should help keep the tension down; Sunday temperatures rose and tempers flared as the 28 heads of state descended on Chicago, to be greeted with angry protesters and gridlocked traffic.
Police were out in force downtown, doing a fairly good job of keeping their cool, despite their full ninja battle gear in heat that topped 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Smiling traffic guards tried patiently to unsnarl hopelessly tangled streams of cars forced off the Dan Ryan Expressway because of the summit; unfortunately, the closures directed thousands of vehicles right into the path of the protesters, who seemed intent on provoking the police into some sort of violence.
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“I’m not sure they even know what they are protesting,” said Erica, a twenty-something social worker. “They seem just to want to be angry about something.”
Certainly the assembled throngs — thousands strong in some spots — showed more emotion than coherence as the afternoon wore on. Many waved banners proclaiming “abolish NATO,” while others sported insignia from the Occupy movement. A few wore keffiyehs, covering their heads and faces with the black and white Arabic scarves.
War veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan gave speeches apologizing for their roles in the war, some ceremoniously throwing their service medals onto the street.
As the sun poured down, dozens of protesters removed unnecessary articles of clothing — naked torsos were common in the crowd.
The protesters were prepared for the police — dozens wore blue masks soaked in vinegar or lemon juice as a defense against tear gas; earplugs were common, since the police had warned of the possible use of Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs). No tear gas or “sound cannons” were deployed in the end, but the sight of hundreds of protesters with pink, green and blue foam sticking out of their ears provided a colorful backdrop to the afternoon.
Some 45 people were arrested on Sunday, but in general the protests were peaceful. There were a few cases of police using their batons with a bit more enthusiasm than might have been absolutely necessary, but no major incidents, despite the numbers and the weather.
The summit itself was a distinctly secondary event in Chicago. Even the local news gave short shrift to the meetings themselves, paying more attention to the lavish food and technical facilities provided for the 2,000-plus journalists in town to cover the event.
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This is, perhaps, the way it should be. Despite the hype, the NATO summit has been a triumph of form over substance. Heads of state might smile and emphasize their accord, but nothing can mask the real cracks in the edifice.
The summit is supposed to be working out a roadmap for Afghanistan’s future — although there are few questions murkier than what will happen in that troubled country once its foreign “protectors” depart, leaving it face to face with its own internal contradictions.
The main issue, of course, is an exit plan for NATO, and here is where the trouble lies. While Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted there would be “no rush for the exits,” France was busy reiterating its determination to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2012, leaving its allies to deal with the consequences.
The United States has said that most of its combat troops would leave by the end of 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai might issue reassuring platitudes about the day coming soon when his nation will “no longer be a burden” to the rest of the world, but the NATO alliance is struggling to come up with the more than $4 billion a year that will be necessary to support the Afghan security forces when the foreign troops leave.
Once the lavish dinners and cordial handshakes are over, the heads of state will head for the airport and Chicago will return to business as usual.
Unfortunately, so will NATO and Afghanistan.