Anti-war soldiers headed a protest against the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20. Thousands poured through the streets in the largest anti-war demonstration seen in the United States for some time.
The turnout was inspired by the Occupy movement that broke out last year, which helped legitimise street protest again.
From conflicting accounts, the march involved about 10,000 people.
A contingent of soldiers organised by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) marched at the front. Most wore their combat fatigues, and some were in dress uniform.
As they marched, they chanted rhythmically in unison, military style, including the words: “No NATO, No war, we don’t work for you no more!”
Marching with the veterans were Afghan women from Afghans for Peace.
At the end of the march, kept far away from the NATO meeting by a huge police mobilisation, the soldiers came forward one by one to give short, emotional speeches to an attentive crowd, explaining why they were there.
Some confessed to taking part in war crimes against the Iraqi and Afghan people. Others denounced the lies they once believed about the wars — lies they came to understand on the ground.
Many apologised to the Iraqi and Afghan people and asked for forgiveness.
A few were suffering severe mental anguish from what they saw and did, only to be given no or inadequate treatment for their war-caused mental problems when they returned.
After each speech, the veterans threw their medals, including one they had all received for taking part in the phony “war on terror”, into the street towards the NATO summit meeting.
One vet said he was representing deserters who can’t come back to the US — and threw the medals they had given him.
After “retiring” an American flag they had carried through the streets, they gave the folded flag to a woman whose soldier son committed suicide upon coming back, an all-too-common tragic consequence of the wars.
Then the veterans held a “reconciliation” ceremony with the Afghan women, who had carried an Afghan flag on the march. The women also spoke.
One, Suria Sahar, told the crowd: “All we have is this flag, but not our sovereign land.
“I’d like to direct my message to the NATO representatives here in Chicago today. For what you’ve done to my home country, I’m enraged; for what you’ve done to my people, I’m disgusted; for what you’ve done to these veterans, I’m heartbroken.”
Soldiers hurling their medals and ribbons back at the war makers recalled the time in 1971 when Vietnam War veterans did the same.
After the main march dispersed, about 1000 protesters tried to move closer to the NATO meeting and were met with a vicious police attack.
The cops waded into the crowd, clubs swinging, injuring many. Teeth were broken and heads bashed.
Videos from cell phones as well as television cameras recorded the police riot. The National Lawyers Guild, which had lawyers present to represent the protesters, said more than two dozen demonstrators had sustained serious injuries.
The cops tried to grab cell phones recording the melee, smashing some. But they couldn’t grab them all.
The protests were originally scheduled to greet not only the NATO summit, but also the meeting of the big imperialist countries in the G8, which was also to be held the week before the NATO meeting.
This would be more convenient for the G8 heads of state, who would attend both meetings.
But as it became clear that there were going to be big protests in Chicago, the G8 meeting was moved at the last moment to Camp David, in a secluded area in Maryland on the East Coast.
Pro-austerity German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her collaborators didn’t want footage of the G8 meeting to include big protests and police riots.
But there were many protests and meetings in the week leading up to the big march that zeroed in on aspects of the world capitalist crisis.
One of these was a march of 3000 organised by National Nurses United calling for a “Robin Hood” tax on Wall Street and opposition to the cutbacks in health care hitting workers and the most needy the hardest.
The police made many preemptive arrests in the weeks leading up to the big march, targeting people who looked like they were “out of towners”.
The National Lawyers Guild is defending about 100 people who were arrested, including on the march.
The most ominous arrests were of three people — Brian Church, 22, from Florida; Jared Chase, 27, from New Hampshire; and Brent Betterly, 24, from Massachusetts. The three were arrested earlier in the week, along with at least six others who were later released.
The three are charged under a local law with plotting to commit “terrorism”. The details remain obscure, but the National Lawyers Guild has taken on their case.
The announcement of the charges was made on May 19, the day before the big march. The purpose of the arrest couldn’t be clearer: to smear the protest with the charge of “terrorism”.
The use of the “war on terror” to attack those in the US who protest government policies has expanded beyond frame-ups of Muslim Americans to attacks on socialists.
Last year, anti-war activists from Freedom Road Socialists were arrested by the FBI and charged under the Patriot Act with aiding terrorism because of their pro-Palestinian views. Their case is winding through the courts.
Now the Chicago police are using the same tactics to smear anti-war and Occupy activists.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP In a two-volume book, The Party -- the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books.]
Democracy Now! report on the anti-war march.