First published on ZNet on May 24, 2012.
Imagine that a democratic and popular media – a people’s media – had been on the beat in Chicago during the NATO summit and protests that concluded in that city three days ago. That media would have noted from the outset that NATO is an aggressive imperial killing machine. As the antiwar activist John La Farge noted on ZNet last week, “A look at some of [NATO’s] crimes might spark some indignation.” Further:
“Desecration of corpses, indiscriminate attacks, bombing of allied troops, torture of prisoners and unaccountable drone war are a few of NATO’s outrages in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere…While bombing Libya last March,” NATO refused to aid a group of 72 migrants adrift in the Mediterranean. Only nine people on board survived. The refusal was condemned as criminal by the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog….”
“NATO jets bombed and rocketed a Pakistani military base for two hours Nov. 26, 2011—the Salala Incident—killing 26 Pakistani soldiers and wounding dozens more. NATO refuses to apologize, so the Pakistani regime has kept military supply routes into Afghanistan closed since November.”
“…the US-led unprovoked 2003 bombing, invasion and military take-over of Iraq—which NATO officially joined in 2004 in a ‘training’ capacity—resulted in over 665,000 civilian deaths by 2006, and 200,000 in the UN-authorized, 1991 Desert Storm massacre led primarily by the US with several NATO allies.”
NATO’s criminal record goes back to the last century, including the deadly NATO bombings of a Serbian passenger train and a Serbian television station in April of 1999.
Noting the absurdity of NATO’s claim to be a defensive and “humanitarian” alliance, a people’s media would have observed that NATO has served as a spear pointed by the world’s richest nations – the U.S. above all – at the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the world’s strategic energy heartland. It would have reported how NATO is threatening to create deadly future conflicts with nuclear Russia and China in pursuit of increased U.S. and Western control of petroleum resources. It would have reported the provocative nature (from a Russian perspective) of NATO’s new missile shield in and around Eastern Europe. And a people’s media would have reported how the U.S. and the West will clearly be retaining a central military presence – a de facto indefinite occupation – in Afghanistan long after 2014, when Barack Obama claims that the U.S. and NATO will have “withdrawn” from that nation
A people’s media would also have reported that NATO is a poverty and social injustice machine. It would have noted the massive global social opportunity cost of the massive taxpayer sums spent on so-called defense by the NATO powers. It would have reported on the absurdity of those nations accounting for more than three-fourths of the world’s massive military budget (U.S.$1.630 trillion in 2010) in a time of savage austerity and misery for billions of world citizens, including many millions even in the rich states. It would have noted that NATO militarism takes hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and Euros away from potential investment in meeting human needs each year and grants them instead to corporate masters of death and destruction like Chicago’s own Boeing Corporation, maker of the Muslim-killing Black Hawk Helicopter, the Predator Drone, and the B2 Stealth Bomber. Noting (perhaps) Martin Luther King’s observation that a nation courts “spiritual death” when it spends “more on military defense than on a social uplift,” a people’s media would have noted the tragic and outrageous nature of this misdirection of resources in a world in a “world’s richest nation” – the United States – where:
- a record-setting 1 in 15 citizens now live in “deep poverty” – at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty measure (less than $11,157 for a family of four).
- the total number of citizens living in official poverty recently reached a historic high of 46.2 million
- over 15 percent of the population (1 in 7 Americans) lives below the poverty line
- 1 in 6 citizens (50 million, a population twice the size of Texas) have no health insurance
- 14.5% of the citizen households are defined as “food insecure” (as facing difficulties putting enough food on the table)
- 1 in 3 citizens live either in official poverty or in “near poverty”: either officially poor or at less than 150 percent of the poverty level
Bringing it to the local level, a people’s media would have noted that the City of Chicago spent 14 million taxpayer dollars to host and celebrate a global killing machine in a city that was already home, even before the onset of the Great Recession, to 15 predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods with child poverty rates ranging from 55 to 71 percent and to 6 predominantly black neighborhoods where more than 4 in 10 children were mired in “deep poverty.”
A people’s media would have reported and reflected critically on the excessive, surreal level of militarized policing in Chicago. From at least Friday May 18th through Monday, May 21st, 2012, that media would have noted, the downtown and South Loop of Chicago were placed under proto-totalitarian multi-dimensional para-militarized police-state occupation. (I’ll report from the scene that heavily armed, high-tech federal, state, county, city and private security forces were omnipresent and ubiquitous in the gleaming center of “global Chicago.” At almost every step in and around the city’s downtown and South Loop, I beheld black-clad, baton-wielding and vest-wearing agents of repression, high-speed police vans and cars speeding around corners and occasionally into crowds – an intimidating, vast “security” presence that seemed more than vaguely dystopian. Except for many thousands of militarized police, the Loop was nearly a ghost town by Friday morning. City, federal, state, and media helicopters hovered above the central business, hotel and restaurant district and swept the lakefront, monitoring real and potential protest. Police cars and vans swept around corners with sirens blaring to descend on real or imagined dissenters. Everywhere you looked, it seemed, men in paramilitary black were getting out of shining white vans and black SUVs.)
A people’s media would have noted how Chicago police repeatedly and needlessly initiated violence by clubbing protesters on Saturday and Sunday. That media would have reported and condemned how police vans dangerously brushed past and bumped protestors, sending one (Jacob Amico) to a local hospital. It would have reported how the police pulled over, harassed, and arrested a handful of live streamers trying to cover the protests.
A people’s media would have questioned and ridiculed the Chicago Police Department’s claim on the eve of the summit to have discovered horrible plots by a handful of “terrorist” anarchists to make and set off explosives in the city. It would have focused on the role that FBI infiltrators and agents provocateur played in trumping up the charges. It would have denounced the blatant violation of the alleged terrorists’ civil liberties by police, who broke down doors with guns drawn and searched residences without warrants and physically and verbally abused suspects, who were denied food, water and access to bathrooms. A people’s media would have noted that federal and local officials commonly manufacture these sorts of fabricated charges and conduct these kinds of pre-emptive raids prior to national security events in order (to quote an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild) “to spread fear and intimidation so you have fewer people our on the streets willing to protest and willing to risk violation of their constitutional rights.”
A people’s media would have commented with grave democratic concern on the chilling militarization of the domestic metropolitan policing demonstrated in a great American city. It would have noted the great lengths to which the city’s militaristic and corporatist mayor (President Barack Obama’s former right-wing chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel) went to prevent protesters from assembling in Chicago in the first place – the endless permit hurdles and protest penalties City Hall placed in the way of those who wished to express their Free Speech rights during the summit.
On the afternoon of Friday, May 18th, a people’s media would have interrupted normally scheduled programming to broadcast live coverage of a remarkable rally in Chicago’s downtown. In Daley Plaza, that media would have shown, 5,000 people crowded in to support the implementation of a “Robin Hood tax” on financial speculators in order to more adequately fund social programs that have come under relentless assault in recent years and decades.
The following day, a people’s media would have interrupted normally scheduled programming to broadcast live from the block in front of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s house on the city’s Northwest Side. Eight hundred marchers assembled there to demand that Emmanuel rescind his closing down of numerous mental health clinics across the city. Speakers drew a powerful connection between the dwindling of city services and the money that “Mayor 1%” was spending to wine, dine, guard, and chauffer NATO war-makers.
On Sunday afternoon, May 20th, a people’s media would have interrupted normally scheduled programming to give extensive and appreciate coverage to the vast scale, rich diversity, brilliant pageantry, and splendid egalitarian and solidaristic spirit of the giant protest march that wound its way down Michigan Avenue to the heavily guarded hard perimeter of the summit at Michigan and Cermak Street (2200 South) on the afternoon of Sunday, May 21st. By my estimate, the march was at least 15,000 to 20,000 strong.
A people’s media would have observed that Sunday’s turnout reflected the futility of the authorities’ attempt to scare people away from the streets.
A people’s media would have given voice to dozens of marchers, letting activists tell readers and viewers why they opposed the summit and what positive developments they wanted to help create in Chicago, the U.S., and the world. Among other things, that media would have noted the wondrous and welcome nature of two interrelated developments: (i) a reinvigorated antiwar movement that (in accord with last year’s Madison rebellion and the Occupy Movement) speaks the language of class, connecting opposition to specific imperial wars and campaigns to the broader problem of Western militarism and connecting both to inequality and the profits system – to the domestic and global rule of “the 1%”; (ii) a reinvigorated left peace and anti-austerity movement that can (among other things) put large numbers of active citizens on the streets when the White House is occupied by fake-progressive/faux-populist (in fact militantly corporate and militaristic) Democratic Party – this in a solidly Democratic-run city.
A people’s media would have given extensive live coverage to the remarkable moment at the end of the massive Sunday march when 40 U.S. military veterans stood on a flatbed truck in a packed intersection several blocks from the summit site (McCormick Place). One by one, each ex-soldier told stories of their service, spoke passionately of their disillusionment with “the global war on [of] terror,” and then tossed the medals they had received into an empty street. One soldier blamed himself for “not doing my homework” on the U.S. imperial project before enlisting in the Armed Services. Another veteran tearfully apologized to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Another shouted that “our real enemies aren’t 7000 miles away with foreign sounding names. They are right here at home. They are the CEOs who take our jobs and homes away.” More than one ex-soldier at Michigan and Cermak dedicated the repudiation of their medals to “the 99 percent.” It was a moving and eloquent display.
A people’s media would have broadcast every word live of this remarkable demonstration on every channel available to it. It would have moved back and forth from the ardent faces and language of the courageous young ex-warriors to the cold and indifferent visages of the police, many of them mounted on horses. The people’s media would have showed how the silent, stoic agents of repression did not glance at the powerful scene on the makeshift stage and instead stared back at the crowd from behind their visors, gigantic batons (as big as baseball bats) in their hands, ready and eager to implement the order to disperse. A people’s media would have noted that two dangerous Long Range Acoustic Devices (each costing the city’s taxpayers $20,000) stood three blocks away, ready to unleash ear-splitting sonic screams against those taking too long to depart (fortunately the police did not use the LRADs for anything other than ordering dispersal). With the cameras panning out across the ominous face off at Michigan and Cermak, people’s media commentators would have noted the chilling proto-totalitarianism of it all and highlighted the contradiction between (a) NATO’s claim to be spreading and defending democracy and freedom and (b) NATO’s apparent need to be defended from the citizenry (including veterans of its bloody neo-colonial wars) with a militarized police presence that turned a major U.S. city center into an occupation zone.
Now, imagine how an authoritarian or even totalitarian corporate war media would have covered the NATO summit and related protests. It would have portrayed NATO as a noble defensive alliance dedicated to peace, freedom, prosperity and partnership. It would have brought in NATO officials and friendly, power-serving “experts” to praise to the body in precisely such preposterous terms. It would have mindlessly replicated policymakers claims that that the U.S. is “leaving Afghanistan” by 2014. Having depicted NATO (and the Afghan strategy) in such an Orwellian way as to make the protestors look like deluded, neurotic, and inherently dissatisfied n’eer-do-wells who just like to march around and make noise – to “be heard” – the authoritarian war media would have claimed that the city was being open, welcoming, and respectful towards protestors and their free speech rights. It would have given dutiful, fear-mongering headline coverage (replete with menacing front page mug shots of the falsely accused havoc-wreakers) to the FBI and police department’s fabricated anarcho-terrorist bomb scare (shades of Haymarket) and warned Chicagoans in advance to be on guard for dangerous anarchists. It would have had nothing of substance to say about the social inequality and opportunity cost of U.S. and NATO militarism and the domestic police state. It would have downplayed and even ridiculed the size of the demonstrations, mindlessly reproducing the CPD’s preposterous claim that the Sunday march was only 2,000 strong (!) and crowing that protest numbers were far less than anti-NATO organizers had hoped. Praising the police for being sensitive and keeping the city safe and under control, it would have had little to say about the content of protestors’ chants, banners, literature, issues, demands, analyses, and perspectives. It would have given wildly disproportionate attention to moments when the cops and the more volatile protestors tussled. It would have largely ignored the moving and striking medal-returning scene at Michigan and Cermak while spending long periods of live television and radio time on periods when cops and a relatively small number of black-clad anarchists battled physically at the end of the march.
Of course, you don’t really have to imagine these differences between (i) how a people’s media and (ii) how an authoritarian state-capitalist war media would have covered and commented on the NATO summit and protests. During the summit, you could in fact find some considerable amount of the first (people’s) sort of coverage and commentary on such relatively marginal and small, major resource-deprived Left and progressive outlets as Democracy Now!, Truthout, ZNet, AlterNet, FiredogLake In These Times, Counterpunch, Socialistworker.org and Pacifica Radio. You could also find vast amounts of the second (authoritarian/Orwellian) sort of coverage and commentary in Chicago’s two corporate newspapers (the Sun Times and the Tribune) and on the radio stations WBBM (Chicago News Radio) and the city’s TV stations WBBM/CBS2, WMAQ/NBC5, WLS/ABC7 and WGN and in various national media outlets like CNN and the New York Times, which actually reported last Monday that only “hundreds of protestors took to the streets of Chicago on Sunday in opposition to the war [on Afghanistan] and to NATO” (Helene Cooper and Matthew Rosenberg, “Pakistan Rift Casts a Shadow on NATO Meeting,” New York Times, May 21, 2012, A6). There’s nothing speculative about my paragraph (two above) on how an authoritarian/totalitarian/ Orwellian/corporate/war media would have handled the NATO summit and protests. As some readers can probably tell, I constructed that paragraph precisely on the basis of a review of the sources mentioned in this paragraph.
Sadly, at present, “the 1%’s” authoritarian corporate media dwarfs people’s media in terms of audience, resources, and influence. This is a key component of the rising totalitarian peril in “democratic” America, where the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire hold power through control of information and opinion as well as the massive deployment of raw force and surveillance.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at email@example.com