NATO Activists Speak: They Planned the Summits Before Wisconsin, Before Tahrir, Before Occupy …

Truthout has been covering the antiwar movement closely for more than ten years. Click here to help us keep doing this work!

The coming NATO summit and its protest counterpart in Chicago is full of symbolism: the stand-off between the 1 percent and the 99 percent in a city where that division is becoming ever more clear. But it’s also been full of on-the-ground organizing to bring out communities of color, arguments around the role of the Democratic Party and (still ongoing) legal battles for permits to march within sight and sound of the summit.

Truthout sat down with Andy Thayer and Joe Iosbaker, two organizers who have been up to their elbows in press releases, meetings and messaging since it was announced that Chicago would be hosting the summit, to ask them why they will be protesting NATO.

Thayer was dubbed “the protest king” by NBC Chicago and his attempts to get protest permits over the years and acting as a gay rights and anti-war activist have taken him into court against the city about 18 times.

Meanwhile, Iosbaker has also dealt with legal issues related to his political action. In the fall of 2010, he was one of several anti-war activists in the Midwest whose homes were raided by the FBI on suspicion of working with groups in Colombia and the Middle East.

Together, they’ve placed themselves in the thick of organizing against the coming NATO summits in Chicago. Truthout sat down with them after one of their organizing meetings for CANG8, a coalition of groups and individuals against the summit. In this conversation, the organizers discuss how NATO has impacted organizing in Chicago, why the left is abandoning the Democrats and what Chicago’s 1 percent just didn’t see coming.

Yana Kunichoff: Why are you protesting the NATO summits?

Andy Thayer: NATO is, in the words of Dr. King, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today and that to me is the first thing that you have to bear in mind with NATO. It’s NATO’s war in Afghanistan, the longest ever war in American history and it is NATO countries that are doing the done strikes in Yemen which have now reached the same awful level as in Pakistan. NATO is responsible for 70% of world military expenditure. Any number of other issues that we might be involved in, or other people might be involved in, are directly impacted by that. I mean, we live in a city that has had half of its mental health clinics closed. We live in a city that has had its public transit system reduced a couple of years ago. We live in a city where the student-teacher ratios are not what they should be, where there is a $700 million budget deficit looming for 2013 just in the Department of Education here. And so all of these issues that are seemingly disparate are very much connected with NATO.

I think this is why we have been very successful in getting people from other movements involved in this protests against NATO and its wars because, for example, when Occupy first started out it was dealing very narrowly with economic issues. But you can’t have a situation when homes are foreclosed and expect to deal with it when you have 60% of the federal budget going to military.

The good thing about the protest about NATO is that it’s finally bringing together “separate movements.” Back in the 60’s and early 70’s, all these movements were considered part and parcel of one general struggle of the 99% against the 1%. And I’m really happy to see Palestinian activists working with environmentalist working with LGBTQ folks. If we’re going to just talk about why to protest against NATO we could be here all day.

Joe Iosbaker: I agree with everything that Andy said. My general view of NATO is that NATO is an extension of U.S. foreign policy. You know, we live in the heart of an Empire. I remember when September 11 happened and there were so many people in this country who were shocked that there was anger at America from countries that had suffered either our direct rule or allies of ours, like you know, Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The United States, without NATO originally although they now are involved in it, went into Iraq where over the course of a decade, over a million Iraqis lost their lives directly as a result of the war and occupation. The U.S. and NATO have attacked Libya, we are still threatening Syria, we have bombed Somalia in addition to Yemen and Pakistan, we have special forces inside of Syria … We have, I’ve lost count, 40 or 50 or 60 [military] bases. We have troops in Africa for the time ever, in Uganda, and we are threatening several other countries in Central Africa. And that’s just what we have done in the last decade.

If you go back to the 1960’s and 50’s or before the Unites States has had one intervention and bloody war or another against the people of the poor countries of the world for over a century. You ask why do we protest NATO, well those of us who’ve realized this, we have a responsibility to speak out. That NATO and the G8; who most people in Chicago have never even heard of, have now become topics of dinner table conversations means we have an opportunity and it’s thrilling to be organizing the coalition that we have. That includes community groups, that includes, you know, anti-war groups, that includes Occupy, that includes the unions. It’s a tremendous opportunity, it’s a historic opportunity. It’s going to be a historic protest.

AT: You can’t have a gathering of the Worlds 1%. You can’t have all the suffering and not, as Chicago based activists, say “this is the time to really step up to the plate.” It’s a heavy responsibility, I think, all of us as Chicago activist feel that this is how we can begin to get our movements back on the right track. Not to be the plaything of one or the other major parties but take the movement back into the streets; where it belongs. That’s where all the gains of our movements have always been. And not get sidetracked into another ridiculous, useless wasteful election cycle going for this or that candidate. This setup to NATO and G8 was very much set up as: this was going to be President Obama’s big re-election coming out and frankly also, Rahm Emanuel’s first big pitch to become the big man, presumably to become a 2016 candidate for president. And we saw with Chicago ’68 the utter be-smudging of the Democratic Party’s hopes in that year and that actually led to a tremendous step forward for the anti-war movement of that era and I hope we can do our best to repeat that history. Because people took the movement to the streets following their disappointment with the Democrats in ’68.

The point is that the anti-war movement very rightly gave up on the Democrats. It was a real lesson for our movement that those of us who have been in the anti-war movement since 9/11 and before saw what a tremendous distraction and demobilizing effect the Obama election of 2008 was and this is a tremendous opportunity for us to get things back on track back into the streets because the people are the only one that are going to free themselves. It’s not going to be some politician.

JI: Martin Luther King, he said: “You can walk to freedom, you can run to freedom, you can crawl to freedom but you can’t be carried there.” Any politician that comes to you and says; “vote for me and I’ll set you free,” you know right away that they are lying to you. We’ve been preparing for this since last summer when we first heard that NATO was coming here and we heard they added the G8 to it. It was the tri-fecta, you know, that it was going to be in our town, both of these world-class evil organizations were coming here, so it’s going to be a tremendous protest.

AT: A lot of people when they nixed the G8, a lot of the main-stream media were saying; “Oh doesn’t this, you know, totally steal your thunder?” No. It was a huge victory for one. And two, I think fortunately by that point there was a genuine understanding building of a connection of the economic with the military. That the G8 countries start out with the un-equal treaties, the sanctions against third-world nations and if they can’t secure their domination that way, then the military comes in. And we saw that in the run up to the Iraq war. We are seeing that now in the run up to a potential attack on Iran, which looks particularly worrisome to happen immediately after the November election regardless of who is elected. And so now is the time to be on the streets to prevent a new war on top of the wars we already have.

YK: At the same time that guys are doing your organizing, there is effectively a propaganda machine pushing in Obama’s city on the side of re-election. Not all movements have had such a disenchanting experience with the Democrats. So, what does this look like on the ground?

JI: Let me address that. I’m also an activist in my union, SEIU. You know, our international leadership is intending to support Obama for re-election. But they also are very aware, in 2008 they spent just an unbelievable amount of money, $65 million, on the Democrats campaigns, mostly for the Obama Campaign. And the unions are aware of two things now. One, they got virtually nothing out of it.

AT: Yeah, where’s that card check? And where is that repeal of NAFTA?

JI: And number two, I think, more importantly, they’re aware that there is not a motion among the base of working people, of union members and non-union members, towards supporting the Democrats’ re-elections. Because the Democrats have essentially represented continuity from the Republicans. Certainly, on foreign policy but also on other issues that were so important for the movement that got behind Obama. The other example, that is near and dear to my heart, is the issue of civil liberties. My home was raided by the FBI a year and half ago; my wife and I are under investigation for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. I still have a hard time saying that and not cringing, you know, charges that carry 15 years in prison if they ever take us to court. But when we got raided, all of the movement people, or many of them, said, “Well this doesn’t make any sense, why is this happening now? If this had happened under Bush, I would understand that but, you know, Bush in no longer in the White House.” I actually saw a TV show last night where somebody’s bedroom got raided, who was kind of a farce. And the person said; “You can’t do this, Bush is no longer in the White house.” And now a year and half later, everyone gets it. The promise of closing Guantanamo, the promise of reversing the violation of civil liberties that had gone on with the previous regime, those were just rhetoric to get elected.

AT: And we have had a dramatic escalation. I mean, we got the National Defense Authorization Act; which isn’t repealing just 20th, or 19th, or 14th century civil liberties gains. It’s repealing the danged Magna Carta; habeas corpus 1215. This is how low we’ve sunk; that a constitutional law scholar from the University of Chicago would take away the right for people to be not held indefinitely without charge. This is how low the Democratic party has sunk. This is something that was just of the wet dreams of George Bush, they couldn’t get away with this; this whole notion of killing people abroad and the president acting as judge jury and executioner. I mean, what’s constitutional about that?

JI: I think that the removal of G8 from Chicago is a very important thing for us to study. I think because of the economy, first and foremost, there is a serious question of their [the Democrats] return to office and Obama in particular. And I think that the Republican party field is one extreme wing nut after another. The question I think you posed is: How much of the shine is? How much of the blush is still on that rose….

YK: But also how much fear of the other side puts a blush on that rose?

JI: I think that there is certainly, that is what they’re taping into. But what, I think my union has recognized is that that is probably not going to the enough. Which is why the unions, not just my union, but even some of the more conservative unions; have been running after Occupy Chicago and even, you know, offering support to CANG8 and our protest efforts because they recognize that unless they can capture some of this new mass movement that’s in the streets; that the chances for their candidate are slim.

AT: Fortunately, Occupy has resisted the move to incorporation into the Democratic Party. As a gay activist I can tell you this threat of “oh yeah, you may not like us, but those other guys in the Republican Party, they are grade A, number one creeps” has a lot of appeal in our community. And I would point out that the only way that we have gotten anything out of the Obama Administration, it’s been frankly precious little in the LGBT community, has been when we have forces, when we have demonstrated against Obama. We’ve got a plethora of so-called leaders who like attending very nice cocktail parties in D.C. in the Beltway that frankly have given this administration license to squish its way out of any number of commitments. I mean, they had, back when they were elected back in 2008, the power to repeal the DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]. They had both houses of Congress, they didn’t do it, they wanted to just dangle that out there as a temptation. President Obama still refuses to the treat us as legal equals. He has not endorsed equal marriage rights. [Editor’s note: President Obama endorsed equal marriage rights for same-sex couples after this interview was conducted.]

If you are refusing to even consider me a human being that is worthy of equal legal rights let alone the plethora of other demands that the LGBTQ community has; why should I support you? I mean, yeah the other guys are complete Neanderthals and that’s an insult to all Neanderthals to say that. But we’re not going to get our gains by kissing up to the Dems. I mean, look a the constituencies that have been most in the president’s corner and those are the constituencies that have precisely gotten the least. I’m talking about labor, I’m talking about African Americans. What single initiative has this president put out to say that I’m going to address the problem of racism in the U.S against African Americans?

JI: Yeah, it’s not there …

AT: We’ve had deportations of immigrants, the undocumented, escalate dramatically under this president; and we got amnesty out of the, was it the George Bush, the first, Administration? I mean, we’re not going to get anything out of these jokers so long as we think that kissing up to or endorsing them is going to get it. I mean, Dr. King, to his eternal credit never endorsed a single candidate in his life. He played the two parties off against each other in other to get the historic mid-sixties civil rights legislation and the movement stayed in the streets. That something that we need to re-learn in our movements and that is something that the May 20th march is going to be a big contributing factor for.

JI: I just came back, by the way, from Connecticut; I was at a national anti-war conference and it was mostly east-coast-ers but, you know, it’s the largest number of anti-war groups. And they all agree; Chicago May 20th, it’s the main event for, not just the anti-war movement but for the movement for peace and justice more generally. I think that when President Obama and Rahm Emanuel; when they were planning their summits with their generals and banker friends, they were planning that before Tahir Square, before the Wisconsin Protests, before Occupy Wall Street.