My day at the NATO protests

I don’t make a habit of going to these things.

As Chicago braced itself for road closures, heightened security and masses of protesters surrounding the NATO summit, I reflected on why I wanted to march in this protest, at this particular moment in time. I’m a Christian feminist who’s been accused of being liberal on more than one occasion, but this just seemed so radical. And for what purpose? My reasons, I realized, had everything to do with my faith.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance of 28 nations in North America and Europe. Formed after World War II, NATO employs a strategy of collective defense, which means that an attack on one member is treated as an attack on all. Such was the case after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, at which time NATO engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is spending $115 billion on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, on top of the Department of Defense budget of over half a trillion dollars. Critics generally argue that NATO has outlived its original purpose and should disband, and that its collective defense strategy is little more than “might makes right.”

The day before the march I wrote down about 20 reasons I protest NATO. Here are just a few. Like more than 70% of Americans, I disapprove of the war in Afghanistan; I believe that the financial costs of unjust wars weigh heavily on all of us; I protest as an expression of my Christian faith, which takes into account Jesus’s radical commitment to justice.

As I joined with thousands of other protesters for a rally at noon Sunday, I realized that our reasons for resisting NATO were numerous, some even in conflict with one another. I saw posters for three different presidential candidates. I heard people disagree about when and how to end the wars. Some people want social reform, others want complete overhaul. These discussions were peaceful and even fruitful for most of the day. As I walked through the streets of Chicago, clapping and chanting, I saw these differences as a strength, not a weakness. During a chant of “Stop the war! Feed the poor!” I shouted these words as a prayer. Keep our soldiers safe. Bring justice to the children living in a war zone. Help the people hurting here at home.

The march ended at Cermak and Michigan Avenue, just a few blocks from the site of the NATO summit. This was as far as the demonstration was permitted to go. White flags bearing doves and the words “Veterans for Peace” flew as it was announced over a loudspeaker that Iraq war veterans would be returning their medals of honor in protest. However, my two friends and I grew uneasy as soon as the crowd stopped moving. With nowhere to go, spaces got tighter and the ever-present rows of police, who had been walking right alongside us, were now reinforced by officers in riot gear. At this final stop of the march, the news cameras were on. With a gut feeling and a train to catch, we decided to leave. A peaceful march was what we came for, and it was what we got. We decided there was nothing else to gain, no greater message to spread. After four peaceful hours of rallying and marching we headed down an empty street at 4 p.m., passing literally hundreds more officers on the way.

Our anxiety was well-founded, because by 4:45 the scene back at Cermak and Michigan had turned ugly. When I got home at 6 p.m., I was dismayed to see live television coverage of police clashing with just a few dozen remaining demonstrators. To me, this was pointless hijacking of a peaceful, tremendously meaningful day by a group representing less than one tenth of one percent of the original crowd. Where were the live cameras when the officers returned their medals? Where were they when environmentalists, feminists and other peacemakers shared ideas about a better future?

Justice is comprised of acts big and small, and God is never short on ideas. In the pursuit of a better world, we’re going to disagree about how to get there. Some Christians will judge me for marching at all, while others will judge me for leaving too soon. I don’t think everyone must share my politics, nor do I believe that social justice necessarily demands participation in a mass demonstration like this one. How we enact justice is between us and God, but act we must.

What Do You Think?

  • Have you ever participated in a protest or demonstration?
  • How should Christians use such tools for justice?
  • What should Christians make of NATO?


Comments (3)

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[please take this the right way] Are you that naive to think the media cares about recording anything but a physical clash between protesters and police? They want blood. The network media is not interested in promoting causes.

Hi Hollie,

Thanks for taking the time to write this out. A few thoughts that might nudge the conversation a little:

NATO was gathering to put a(nother) timetable on ending the Afghan conflict. No one - absolutely no one - suggests America and its NATO allies should persist in Afghanistan in perpetuity. The 70% of Americans that oppose the Afghan war is confusing; a statistic that could probably use some clarification (do you mean opposed to begin with in 2001, because that’s untrue, or do you mean believes the war should end with prompt withdrawal, because then the number is probably higher).

NATO is a relic of the Cold War, but it’s an important one. It’s the only multilaterial institution capable of carrying out operations like those in Libya, Afghanistan and more.  Secondarily, is the United States spending too much on its military? As a Canadian, I certainly think so, but then that has much less to do with the purpose of a gathering of the international alliance of NATO and much more to do with your own domestic politics.

Finally, how we enact justice is most certainly not between just “us and God” by definition. We must not act at all, in fact, at times it is far better if we don’t - even if excruciatingly hard (as in Syria); right action is a devil in the details of international politics. Institutions like NATO are key to helping us have options - especially when it comes to things like R2P - that might otherwise be unavailable.

My concern about shutting down NATO is that we have allies that are there for us if we need them. If we don’t have that alliance, they have the option to ally with others and that could cause more harm then good.

As far as protesting, I applaud you for going out and doing what you believe you should do. That is what makes this country great. But sadly, the media is not looking for recording any kind of protest to get the message right. They have a paper or show to sell so they go where the cash is and that is in conflict.

I’ve always wondered what the rest of the world would do if the US decided to mind their own business, pull all of our troops home and guard our borders. What would happen if we moved out of all those countries that were needing our help at one time or another?

How do we know that this would be a right thing or not?
We say “No war in Afghanistan!” and think that is the right thing to do. But is it? Do we allow terrorist groups, like Al-Qaeda, to retreat to their safe zones and regroup? Could this lead to larger attacks in the future? Some of these questions might not be able to be answered unless we make certain choices, I’m sure.

But one thing we need to be clear on is that, yes, we are free to make choices, but we are not free from the consequences of those choices.

What’s curious is that we know, as Christians, that the only time there will be true peace is when Jesus comes back to reign for the 1000 years, right? So should we be fighting for peace at all until he comes back? Is that a futile endeavor?

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