This weekend, Chicago will host NATO’s 2012 summit meeting. Heads of state from across the world including President Barack Obama will gather in the city to discuss issues of international importance. Peruse any page of the local press, however, and one quickly discovers that Chicagoans are far more interested in the protests and demonstrations that will accompany NATO’s visit than with the summit itself. Schools, roads, offices, and cultural institutions like the Field Museum will all close this weekend in anticipation of the estimated 10,000 protestors that will converge on the city. The Occupy Movement, National Nurses United, the United National Antiwar Committee, Iraq Veterans against the War, and a number of other groups have all planned demonstrations throughout the downtown area. The city has responded by virtually closing the Loop.
This, of course, is not the first time large demonstrations have preoccupied the city. Chicago has long been a beacon of free speech, the site of countless strikes, boycotts, protests, and rallies that have shaped the city’s character and the nation’s conscience. In a recent Chicago Tribune piece, former Scholl Center Director Toby Higbie brings this important historical context to the forthcoming NATO demonstrations. An art studio in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood is currently functioning as a kind of protest factory where volunteers hand-paint the banners, placards, and signs that demonstrators will carry. Indeed, the arts have been central to the recent rise of social movements like Occupy. Creative banners with their catchy one-liners and ad-hoc libraries with their underground fiction have become an iconography of protest, the favored displays of photojournalists and demonstrators alike. But as Higbie, who is currently an Associate Professor of History at UCLA, notes, the art of the Occupy Movement really represents “a resurgence in the visual culture of protests.”
Higbie should know. Back in 2004 when he was Director of the Scholl Center, Higbie co-curated an entire exhibit on protest politics titled “Outspoken: Chicago’s Free Speech Tradition” with Peter T. Alter of the Chicago History Museum (then the Chicago Historical Society). Through text, documents, photographs, and even artistic banners from the Newberry and the Museum’s collections, Outspoken explores movements for free speech and human rights in Chicago from the abolitionists of the 1860s to the student protesters of the 1960s. The project was also one of the Newberry’s first digital publications, opening a permanent virtual exhibit alongside the library’s physical exhibit. This virtual exhibit includes dozens of primary sources for classroom use, and remains online and available today.
This weekend Chicago’s free speech tradition will be on display again. While many may complain about the disruptions caused by the protests, Higbie and “Outspoken” suggest these demonstrations are not a departure from the city’s daily rhythms. Rather, they are intimately a part of Chicago’s identity and history.
By Chris Cantwell