Last week jurors rejected Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s argument that the three young out-of-state men arrested prior to the NATO summit in Chicago should be convicted of planning and perpetrating terrorism under an obscure Illinois statute passed in the near-hysteria that gripped the nation in the wake of 9/11.
The men, who have been dubbed the NATO 3 and who identified themselves as Black Bloc anarchists, came to Chicago to protest against the U.S. and NATO’s war policy, income inequality and the rule of the 1 percent. Underscoring their lack of sophistication or knowledge of history, they readily bantered about attacking President Barack Obama’s re-election headquarters with slingshots and creating Molotov cocktails to undercover Chicago police who had infiltrated their group and encouraged their schemes.
The men never actually did anything and were arrested just days before the summit began.
With defense attorneys claiming victory and castigating Alvarez for “overreach,” and Alvarez claiming the charges were appropriate and necessary, it’s likely that the case will be contested far into the future.
What should concern the rest of us is what this case tells us about the fragile state of the democracy that both sides claim to be protecting.
Dissent has always been fundamental to the U.S. experiment. Our nation was born in rebellion.
Nearly 250 years ago, colonists set fire to tea-laden ships in Boston Harbor. Though we now celebrate them as heroes, these men were branded as traitors by a British Parliament that demanded their deaths. Our Founding Fathers were outlaws, hunted by the British for sedition. Had they been caught, and had the British won the war, all of them, such as Patrick Henry, would have been hanged.
Chicago was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a network that illegally transported slaves from the South to freedom in the North. John Brown, now an icon of the civil rights movement, was hanged for his raid on Harpers Ferry.
A century ago, gun-toting armies of German and Irish immigrants paraded down North Lincoln Avenue to protest and signal their readiness to fight against the McCormicks, the Fields and the Medills who opposed workers’ fight for the eight-hour workday and suggested that the immigrant demonstrators be deported if not “hung from the lampposts.”
Thankfully, neither the British, nor the South, nor Chicago’s city fathers won.
There are more recent examples as well. During the 1960s, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members broke the law when they conducted lunch counter sit-ins. “Freedom riders” broke the law when they challenged segregation by riding together throughout the Deep South on segregated buses to protest back-of-the-bus laws. And more than a few protesters lost their lives so black people could vote.
The casual use of the term “terrorist” undermines our democracy and represents a more serious threat to democracy than the three young men who came here to voice their concerns at the August 2012 NATO summit.
In Chicago, and in others cities, demonstrators are typically assigned specific protest areas. Imagine the power of the protest if the leaders of the Boston Tea Party agreed to stay a half-mile from the British ships. Federal laws now make it a criminal offense to come too close to a person being guarded by the Secret Service. Would Martin Luther King Jr. or the Freedom Riders have abided by rules that prevented their confrontations with public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, of Birmingham, Ala., Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus or President Lyndon B. Johnson?
Demonstrators at the summit were greeted by Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. His earlier comments that “We have to train for mass arrests. We have to train 13,000 police officers in arrest procedures and containment procedures” both defined and preordained the situation. His statements had a chilling effect on would-be demonstrators who felt strongly about war and income inequality.
Thousands of heavily armed police in riot gear were a bizarre contrast to the few thousand demonstrators in T-shirts and jeans, many well into their 50s and 60s. Some claimed that the Chicago Police Department’s preparedness prevented violence; it is more likely that it prevented the free expression that stands at the heart of democracy.
Still, it is Anita Alvarez who deserves the sharpest criticism. Her charging of three hapless, stoned young men was a distraction — diverting us from scrutiny of real threats and creating cynicism about government’s intent.
Her casual use of the term “terrorism” degrades civil liberties, political dissent and our understanding of the real and potential threats of terrorism. We have seen too many young lives ruined or lost due to police, prosecutors and legislators who sacrifice truth for a quick headline or politically useful prosecution. While we should prosecute criminals, we should cherish our outlaws — without whom there can never be the progress we seek and need.