But at the last minute, President Barack Obama moved the Group of 8 economic meeting to Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in rural Maryland, where demonstrators will be kept far away. Chicago kept the NATO meeting, which will focus on the war in Afghanistan and other international security matters, not the economy.
That left activists with a new challenge: persuading groups as diverse as teachers, nurses and union laborers to show up anyway for a cause that might not align with their most heart-felt issues.
“Our fear was that (they) would not march with us because their agenda was primarily economic,” said Joe Iosbaker, a Chicago anti-war activist and member of the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda. He said protest organizers have been working to link U.S. war spending to economic cuts at home to pump up turnout.
The message, he said, is “starting to sink in: NATO is the armed wing of the 1 percent, (and) there is a war on the poor to serve the wars (elsewhere).”
Even so, the protests are almost sure to be smaller and less dramatic than originally expected, experts said.
If the G-8 and NATO had been held as originally planned, many people envisioned massive, street-filling protests drawing people from all over the U.S., including many from the Occupy movement.
But NATO is seen by most Americans as “something useful,” even though it faces significant opposition in Europe, said Luis Fernandez, a sociology professor at Northern Arizona University who studies protests.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance of the U.S. and European countries originally formed to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It has since branched out to protect wider Western interests.
The G-8 summit “would have brought more protesters and more anger because you could raise up the flag of the social class,” said Dominic Pacyga, a Columbia College history professor who has written a book about Chicago. That’s not so easy with the NATO summit, where 50 heads of state will discuss issues such as the campaign to replace the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and European missile defense.
But there’s still a lot at stake in Chicago. For protesters, it’s a chance to capitalize on the international media coverage the summit will draw. For Obama and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, it’s an opportunity to showcase their town as a global city. And they don’t want to be embarrassed if the protests turn violent, police overreact or something else goes wrong, especially in a presidential-election year.
This will be the first time the U.S. has hosted the NATO summit outside of the nation’s capital. During the last U.S. summit, in 1999, several thousand Serbian Americans demonstrated peacefully against NATO bombings in Yugoslavia. That same year, the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle drew an estimated 50,000 protesters for demonstrations that erupted in clashes with police.
Obama said he moved the G-8 so he could meet with leaders in a more intimate setting than Chicago’s cavernous McCormick Place convention center, but most observers believe the threat of protests played a role, too.
“The separation of events was pretty smart in terms of law enforcement, but it’s interesting because it shows that they were worried enough about the atmosphere on the ground to change the entire event,” Fernandez said. “They saw things building up to what could have been a perfect storm.”
It’s virtually impossible to forecast how many people will decide a smaller Chicago protest is still worth their time, money and energy.
“These things tend to be a little bit like a party,” Fernandez said. “You never know if they will be successful. But there can be a big surprise sometimes.”
Iosbaker no longer predicts tens of thousands of protesters, but he said support for the anti-NATO march planned for May 20, the first day of the summit, is beginning to “snowball,” citing dozens of endorsements, including from the Chicago Teacher’s Union, the Service Employees International Union and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
More than 20 people from an anti-NATO network in Europe will attend, including two members of the European Union parliament who will observe how Chicago police handle the march.
At least 100 activists from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area plan to ride buses to Chicago, organizers said. Dozens of environmentalists from Madison, Wis., plan to bicycle to Chicago to protest wars they say are fought for oil. Occupy protesters from St. Louis and Des Moines will join their counterparts in Chicago. And smaller fringe groups often show up at international protests, occasionally destroying property and clashing with police.
Many others, though, are staying home.
Rachael Perrotta, a spokeswoman for Occupy Chicago, said that before the G-8 meeting was moved, Occupy groups from 25 cities said they would be in Chicago. Now she expects people on the East Coast will head toward Camp David instead.
“NATO will be huge if Chicago comes out for NATO,” Perrotta said. “It’s not going to be the out-of-towners.”
Thousands of members of nation’s largest nurses union will be in town May 18 for a rally and march in favor of a “Robin Hood” tax on banks and other financial institutions. It was scheduled for the first day of the G-8 summit, and many had planned to stay for the wider G-8/NATO protest originally scheduled for the following day.
But when that larger protest was changed to coincide with the start of the NATO summit, most out-of-town members of National Nurses United decided they couldn’t extend their stay another day because of the difficulty in changing hotel and airline reservations, a spokesman said.
Many who plan to protest, though, are downplaying the significance of both the G-8 move and a big turnout for NATO.
“I think the core issue is still here,” said Carl Rosen, regional president of the United Electrical Workers Union, who predicts “many dozens” of his members, mostly from the Chicago area, will join the anti-NATO rally.
“The American people are very frustrated that so many of our services are being cut back,” Rosen said. “There is so much unemployment, so many people without jobs to take care of their needs day to day, and yet we’re still sending a huge amount of money on these wars.”
Jackson, who plans to march the 2 miles from downtown to a rally near McCormick Place, says the size of the protest doesn’t matter.
“This is a civil rights, human rights demonstration for peace. It’s not a parade you measure by the number of onlookers,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Don Babwin contributed to this story.