The making of the NATO protest
We shadow the leader of the summit’s major protest group as he plans the big day’s march.
"This is the stuff that doesn’t get recorded in history books,” Andy Thayer says, squinting out from the Petrillo Band Shell stage at the empty swath of Grant Park that lies before him. The oversized button pinned to his black satin jacket reads rahm greets top donor, and depicts a transfixed Mayor Emanuel cozying up to one of the aliens from the film Mars Attacks. On this sunny, crisp April day, longtime Chicago activist Thayer is a rebel with a rather unremarkable cause: to discern ideal placement for ten rented AJAX Waste Services porta-potties. Come May 20 at noon, this serene piece of parkland will become the hard-fought seat of antiwar sentiment. Thousands of protesters are expected to arrive for the opening rally of the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda’s march toward the NATO summit at McCormick Place. And these people will need a place to pee.
“Once you get the right image,” storied ’68 Democratic National Convention agitator Abbie Hoffman once quipped, “the details aren’t that important.” Well, Hoffman is dead—and so too, it seems, is his credo of activist nonchalance. These days, the details are everything. The pivotal civil disobedience tactics popularized in the ’60s have been tempered by protesters’ grudging capitulation to government’s increasing demands of more notice and even more paperwork. Potential revolutionaries have been turned into pencil pushers.
Besides the government’s requests, CANG8 is also beholden to marchers’ high-maintenance expectations of what a modern protest should be, which is more like a festival. On the must-get list: a pro-quality sound system, microphones and gallons of drinking water for the thirsty masses. “We want people to be comfortable,” says Thayer, sounding more like a concierge than an iconoclast. “People expect a well-organized event if they’re going to take the time out of their days.”
The lanky, bespectacled 52-year-old calls the mind-numbing nitty-gritty of event organizing “a lot of ca-ca.” “But I’m used to dealing with mundane stuff,” he says. “I’ve been a secretary for many years.”
Raised in a single-stoplight New York town southeast of Buffalo, Thayer fought frequently with his late father, William, one-time head of the missile-systems division of defense manufacturer Moog Inc. Ironically, his mother, Marjorie, was an active Vietnam War protester. He resides in Uptown with his partner and makes a living as the office manager of a West Loop law firm, where his coworkers started an office pool: When will Andy be arrested next? The Gay Liberation Network cofounder and Northwestern grad estimates he has been arrested “at least a few dozen times.”
It was way back in June when President Obama announced that a convention center best known for hosting car and dog shows would welcome the G-8 and NATO summits, concentrating much of the world’s economic and military might in his home town. Since then, Thayer has been the public face of the international resistance bloc, CANG8. Some bodies within CANG8 are tasked with mobilizing unions and faith-based organizations. Others are charged with booking speakers. Thayer and about a dozen other core members of the logistics working group have had the onerous job of building the protest from the ground up: securing the necessary permits, establishing the march route, marshaling press. This is thankless work.
By far the logistics group’s most time-consuming task has been spearheading CANG8’s demanding civil-liberties fight. Chicago is notoriously tightfisted with parade permits; leading up to the ’68 DNC, authorities rejected nearly all permit apps, giving police a tacit excuse to get aggressive. The parade and public assembly restrictions passed by Emanuel’s administration in January—dubbed the “sit down and shut up ordinance” by Occupy Chicago—require protest organizers to provide the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events with the name and size of every group participating in the rally. It is guesswork; CANG8 has little idea if 5,000 people will show up—the number stated on the permit application—or 10,000, a number that’s been bandied about. The city ordinance also requires protesters to secure at least a $1 million liability insurance policy, meaning CANG8 had to shell out $800 to cover the premium for Petrillo.
“It’s like climbing a mountain,” Thayer says with a laugh. “A mountain of crap!” Still, by mid-January, CANG8’s permits were safely in place for May 19, the day the G-8 summit was slated to begin.
Then, on March 5, Obama revealed he was moving the G-8 to Camp David. The President’s reps explained that the heads of the Group of Eight nations would be comfier gathering in the Eddie Bauer–ish surroundings of backwoods Maryland. However, the subtext was clear: The last thing the President needs in an election year is an international incident in his hometown if protesters or police get out of hand.
Publicly, Thayer and company framed the G-8 retreat as a victory. But on March 6, during an emergency CANG8 logistics meeting at the fluorescent-lit Loop headquarters of the 8th Day Center for Justice, they were scrambling. The two-day NATO summit didn’t start until May 20. If the group didn’t get a new permit, it would be left marching on empty buildings.