This past week, four Kartemquin interns – John Fecile (myself), Chris Bentley, Ryan Gleeson, and Haley Martin – joined a loose federation of independent documentary filmmakers to cover the events surrounding the NATO summit.
Organized by renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler and Chicago documentarian Suree Towfighnia, the group included Hollywood director Andrew Davis, documentarian Mike Gray, Labor Beat’s Andrew Friend, the “first black filmmaker in Chicago” Ronn Pitts, and Peter Kuttner, longtime KTQ mainstay and producer of Trick Bag. We called ourselves the People’s Newsreel.
For four days we filmed and/or took part in the protests. A good number of the group had been present during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, most famously Haskell, who filmed Medium Cool during the riots and Mike Gray, who made a documentary about the events called American Revolution 2.
Talking with these guys and other 68ers, the consensus was that back then, it had been the police who rioted, and precipitated the all-out war in the streets of Chicago. Given our specified marching routes and the fact that most protestors were non-violent, well-informed citizens who were there to practice their First Amendment rights, the protests were largely peaceful.
This is not to say that we did not see people beaten, bloodied, and shackled. After the moving anti-war demonstrations on Sunday at Cermak and Michigan, police utilized a tactic called “kettling” to cordon off the remaining 300 protestors who refused to leave. Some of them were members of the "black bloc" - hardcore anarchists who reportedly pelted the police with stones, bottles filled with urine, and overturned barricades. Others were simply trapped. Police pushed in on the mass of mostly defenseless protestors, and are seen instigating the violence in footage that has been released by other filmmakers. Members of our group watched as bodies were dragged out of the melee, and saw the scars and stitches and bruises of police brutality the next day.
Thus far, the mainstream media (especially the local Chicago news) has been reporting on the events as a kind of football game between protestors and the police, that the cops won. They are using the word “protestor” to create this idea of an “angry other.” In fact, all of them were ordinary people of all races, creeds, and age (Haskell being the oldest). What’s being talked about less is why they were there in the first place, and what the protests were all about.
The most vivid emotional experience of the three days was the ceremony on Sunday where, in front of over 2,000 people, members of Iraqi Veterans Against The War (about 45 of them) returned their medals to NATO by chucking them off of a small platform in the direction of the McCormick Center. Each veteran said a few words, telling us why they were giving their medals back: for dead Afghani and Iraqi civilians killed by NATO troops, for their comrades suffering from PTSD, for female soldiers who had been sexually assaulted by their peers (1/3 are). The crowd was hushed, riveted; some people were crying. Afterwards, members of the Afghan Women’s Coalition spoke about the crimes of the NATO occupation. Then they and the troops marched offstage. There was a long, beautiful pause as a lone trumpet played. The gravity of that moment is something I’ll keep with me for a long time.
While that event is getting less play in the mainstream media than the violence that followed, I’d say overall the protests were characterized by these harmonious, informative demonstrations. Democracy Now did a beautiful job covering the veterans on Sunday.
On Saturday night, four of our intrepid interns (myself, Chris Bentley, Ryan Gleeson, and Thomas Mathew) along with Gordon Quinn, Peter Kuttner, and Jim Morrissette, filmed “This Land is Your Land,” a celebration of Woody Guthrie’s centennial at the Metro featuring a variety of musical acts, including the Klezmatics, Holly Near, and headliner Tom Morello. The event was put on by portoluz, an arts and culture program created by KTQ friend Marguerite Horberg. The spirit of the weekend carried through to the grand finale, a rendition of "This Land is Your Land" featuring all 36 of the evening’s performers, singing the uncensored original Guthrie lyrics:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
The People’s Newsreel was formed to create un-spun media that showed all sides of the protests. This is our city, our land, and we knew why people were in the streets. The wrangling of footage has started and over the next few months we will be releasing videos that will document the NATO protests and the people who were there, in and out of uniform, as we experienced them. Expect a different story.
Editorial post script:
Peter Kuttner told me that in ‘68, he had started out filming but ended up getting so pissed off by what he saw that he put down his camera and joined the protest. I pretty much did the same. In a city where schools are being closed and people are dying because they can’t get medication, the government would rather invest in riot suits and cater to dignitaries and corporations than provide public services to those who need them. According to Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s “role on the world stage” may be looking pretty good, but on the ground level it’s got a black eye.
- John Fecile (Kartemquin intern Spring '12).