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Monday, March 19, 2012

Occupy to protest at NATO summit

ST. LOUIS – After a long weekend of protesting aimed at reinvigorating their movement, Occupy leaders from around the country set their sights on their biggest target of the spring – the NATO summit in Chicago.

Meeting in a sunny city park Sunday, they echoed the rallying cry of other protest groups: President Barack Obama’s decision to drop plans for holding the Group of 8 economic summit in Chicago the same weekend as NATO was a victory that should encourage even more demonstrators to show up in May.

“G-8 left, I think, directly out of fear,” said Brian Bean, a Chicago demonstrator who came to St. Louis to organize people for the NATO summit.

“What they are worried about is that, in an election year, the possibility that there’s actually working-class resistance in the United States and globally and what that would look like in Obama’s home city.”

In between protests targeting agri-business giant Monsanto Co. and the foreclosure practices of Wells Fargo & Co., organizers from Chicago encouraged movement leaders from nearly 20 other cities to talk up the NATO summit when they return home. They also compared notes on the nuts-and-bolts of protest practices.

“We’re trying to plan a summit, and we’re trying to learn everything really fast,” said Zoe Sigman, 22, who lives in Chicago.

Sitting at a picnic table under the Tower Grove Park cupola, Sigman and Bean asked for ideas from the crowd about how to coordinate housing and transportation to Chicago.

Bean said Chicago police have been “training for urban warfare,” making it unlikely Occupiers were going to be successful in any effort to camp in public spaces.

Eli Silva from Tulsa, Okla., agreed, saying that conflicts over camping in parks – like one Thursday in St. Louis that resulted in 15 arrests – served only to distract public attention from the political message of the demonstrators.

Instead, Sigman said, organizers were trying to coordinate “floor space” for people to sleep on, seeking help from churches and private property owners.

Noting there had been Internet chatter encouraging demonstrators to shut down the Chicago Transit Authority, organizers agreed that was as terrible idea. One man, who declined to give his name but said he was from New Mexico, noted that public transportation served working-class people, not millionaires, and disrupting their trains and buses would send the wrong message.

Others agreed, including Sigman, who said public transit was how demonstrators planned to move around the city during the summits. She said she had met with transit workers recently and wanted protesters to support such laborers rather than hindering their work.

Sigman encouraged the Occupy members from around the country to host “teach-ins” in their cities to educate people about the actual functions of G-8 and NATO so potential demonstrators would understand the message of the protest. There is some concern among protest organizers of their message getting muddled, both by too much attention on conflicts with authorities as well as too many disparate protest messages within the demonstrations.

The demonstrations in St. Louis also served to re-energize demonstrators. With multiple events occurring at once, it was difficult to judge the size of the crowds, but none of them swelled into large-scale demonstrations.

Mike Hipson, who flew in from Boston for the “Occupy the Midwest” event, was among tired protesters who took a break from demonstrations to listen to briefings from Chicago organizers.

“It has the potential to be one of the biggest actions in the country in the last decade,” said Hipson, 19, who has been an active member of Occupy Boston.

For months, demonstrators had focused their comments about the Chicago summit on the G-8 meeting as an opportunity to protest global economic policies. When the White House decided last month to move G-8 to the Camp David presidential retreat in rural Maryland, demonstrators had to shift their message. Chicago protest leader Andy Thayer has repeatedly linked the two organizations by calling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “the military arm” of G-8, although two G-8 members – Japan and Russia – are not members of NATO.

That message seemed to work for many demonstrators who said their disappointment over the G-8 moving wouldn’t stop them from trying to capture the NATO spotlight.

“It’s almost more of a motivator,” said Duncan Sewell, a landscaper from the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill.