For nearly a week in mid-May, the streets of Chicago filled with riot helmets. Protesters came pouring into the city by bus. When the NATO summit began, the presence of the police force felt as substantial as the massive crowd they were there to control. By Monday, May 21, when Barack Obama said of the protests: “this is part of what NATO defends,” at least 70 people had been wrongfully or violently arrested on the street, at least six of them charged with felonies. A group of journalists had been pulled over at gunpoint by 12 police vehicles, marked and unmarked. And five young men, whose home had been raided the previous Wednesday, days before the summit had even begun, faced terrorism charges.
As Obama spoke about NATO’s protection of free speech, I was on my way to the airport after spending four days with the protests and the militarized Chicago Police Department (CPD). I realized that the book I had brought with me from New York was “Letters from Prison,” by a Slovak dissident named Milan Simecka. After eight months of covering Occupy in New York City and the last four days of NATO, the essays of an imprisoned dissident seemed like an especially ironic choice of reading material. Among both the protesters and the journalists I’ve talked with, there’s an unresolved debate about whether it’s appropriate to describe the United States as a police state. In so many places in the world, the suppression of resistance is so much worse; the media is blatantly state-serving and the violence is massive and horrifying.
The author of “Letters from Prison” was a writer who, in his family cabin in the woods with his young son, created a literary magazine to publish the work of all the writers who had been blacklisted under communism. In 1981, he was charged with “Subversion of the Republic” and imprisoned for 13 months alongside other writers who were sentenced to ten years. I know about Simecka because I met his son, also named Milan, in Bratislava in 2006. He was one of many Czechs and Slovaks I met during my time as a student in Prague whose lives had been dismantled during the regime. All of my professors – novelists, artists, editors – had been janitors and construction workers during communism, surveilled, targeted and punished for creating work that didn’t serve the interests of the state. Despite the erosion of civil liberties underway in the United States by 2006 – things like the passing of the PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretapping – the stories of people like Simecka made me realize how far the US was from totalitarianism.
But while we may not be a totalitarian regime, the numerous incidents of police repression surrounding the NATO protests highlighted specific, tangible and important ways in which we do not resemble a truly free country. Comparing the US to Syria is a wholly different exercise than comparing the US to the ideals of American democracy. One of the hardest parts about watching people get beaten bloody in Chicago was that I knew their stories would be under-covered and overshadowed by the PR efforts of the CPD. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told WBEZ, a beloved NPR affiliate station, “There are very few things I can find we could have improved upon.” The president and media outlets alike celebrated the behavior of the police.
If the United States was a clear, unapologetically oppressive regime the way communist Czechoslovakia was, people would see groundless praise for police as propaganda. Instead, the public trusts the police and buys into the official police narrative that the protesters must be behaving in a way that warrants this treatment, despite thousands of photographs and videos of police misconduct and brutality. The last eight months have seen pre-emptive raids, journalist arrests, activists’ Twitter accounts subpoenaed and police calling out organizers by name and arresting them – take this evidence along with the stop-and-frisk statistics in New York City alone and it’s either delusional or pathological to claim that police departments in the US respect the constitutional rights of all citizens.
Walking around downtown Chicago during the NATO summit, I would stumble upon large groups of armed police standing in formation, blocks or miles away from any protesters. In a police state, such a sight would be oppressive – in Chicago, it was “Chicago’s finest” doing a “great job under a lot of pressure and great scrutiny,” to quote the president again. In a totalitarian state, everyone realizes they aren’t free – political prisoners were a fact of life, something the Simeckas, both father and son, knew as they secretly typed illegal essays in the woods. Yet, as the number of felony charges against protesters continues to rise along with the evidence of unjust policing, we are not having a conversation, as a country, about the criminalization of dissent. Instead, it is the nonviolent protest that is condemned as violent; people leave the crowd covered in blood as the ones holding the batons are credited with keeping things peaceful. The question is not necessarily, “Is this what a police state looks like?” but rather, “Is this what a democracy looks like?”
In the summer of 1968, the Soviet Union sent tanks into the streets of Prague to suppress a spring of resistance. At the sight of the tanks, people wept, knowing that the period of liberation was over. This summer, the streets of American cities will continue to be filled with police wearing riot helmets, holding bats, armed with guns. Houses will continue to be raided; people will continue to be sent to jail – it has happened to activists and organizers for years, just as it has happened and happens daily in poor communities and communities of color. But now it is right before our eyes and I wonder how most Americans will see it. Will they be in the streets watching and weeping, or will they instead be looking at their computers, reading celebratory reports of police restraint? What might we find when we compare this pattern of violent state response to the United States of the public imagination – a United States that not only looks like democracy, but that practices it in the face of resistance?