Around a thousand individuals, including rocker Tom Morello, gathered at Chicago's Daley Plaza Friday afternoon to demand the US government start properly funding health and stop funding death with an ever-expanding military budget.
Casey Hobbs, a registered nurse for 37 years and part of Nurse Talk Radio, traveled to Chicago from San Francisco in order to protest for the creation of a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street. Participants wore red National Nurses United (NNU) shirts accompanied by green Robin Hood masks and hats in keeping with the theme of a small trading tax in order to raise badly needed revenue.
"[It's] less than half a penny tax on financial transactions. With the billions of dollars we'd get from that, we're gonna heal America. We're going to do that by providing Medicare for all, we're going to provide college educations, we're going to rebuild our infrastructure and put people back to work and give back to the 99 percent."
Nurses are one group on the frontlines of budget cuts. For them, austerity isn't an abstract concept to discuss on a "Meet The Press" panel, but rather an all too vivid reality they must confront on a daily basis.
"First of all, they cut mental health. Mental health is critical because, in a time where finances are through the roof and people are losing their homes, mental health: depression, anxiety, suicide, are off the charts. The response to that has been to cut mental health [budgets]. It's absolutely wrong-sided. It costs us more money on the back end."
Hobbs added that this is particularly true when it comes to veterans' mental health care and that more military persons are killing themselves every day than die in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Furthermore, that "back end" cost skyrockets when uninsured individuals wait to seek medical attention and then go to the emergency room when their suffering becomes unbearable. That late care ends up being far more costly than if individuals seek medical care early on.
In addition to raising money to fund decaying aspects of society, Hobbs mentioned that the NATO protests were also about attempting to shift the government's priorities away from funding endless wars toward investing in its citizens.
"I agree with Ron Paul in this one area," said Hobbs. "We should close [military] bases all over this world. We have bases in over 50 countries. We don't need that. We don't still need to be in Afghanistan. What we need to do is start supporting the people by providing health care for all. We're the only industrialized country that doesn't do that. That's a shame."
The GOP-controlled House of Representatives on Friday passed a nearly $643 billion military spending bill, including $88.5 billion for military actions in Afghanistan, a war the majority of Americans oppose. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act also exceeds the cap set for defense programs in last year's budget deal by several billion dollars and may be altered in the Democratic-led Senate.
Martese Chism, a RN for 20 years at Cook County hospital, said she was at the rally because "We bailed out Wall Street. Now we believe it's time for Wall Street to start helping America."
"Instead of allocating revenue for war, they need to take some of that money from the defense spending and allocate it for health care and Main Street. We have three wars. That money needs to come back to America. We need to get out of those wars."
Chism added she constantly sees uninsured patients, who "are suffering a lot."
NNU has been working closely with Occupy Chicago and the wider Occupy movement to organize today's protest.
Early on, a speaker on stage addressed the negative media coverage of Occupy, which has at times bordered on the surreal and/or absurd. I personally witnessed one such moment while watching WGN local Chicago news in the morning when a film reviewer suggested "anarchists" would be throwing "bags of feces" at the NATO protests right before giving Battleship" a "B+."
"Who here is afraid of Occupy?" the speaker asked, looking out at the crowd. Not a single person raised their hand.
Ben Clifford and Timothy Tross, activists who have participated in Occupy Chicago events, who are perhaps best known for making out at a Rick Santorum rally - the crowd panicked and started reflexively chanting "USA! USA! USA" - said they attended the rally to stand in solidarity with the nurses.
Also, they came to "tell NATO to piss off," according to Clifford.
Tross mentioned that Occupy Chicago has several events planned for the weekend. "We have a couple unofficial marches," Tross said, adding that Sunday is going to be a big day of protests, including a "Say No to the War and Poverty Agenda" scheduled to take place at Petrillo Bandshell, which includes a march afterward to McCormick Place. The event includes participants such as Jesse Jackson, SEIU Health Care Illinois/Indiana, the United National Antiwar Coalition, Chicago Teachers Union, National Nurses United, United Electrical Workers Western Region, Malik Mujahid of the Muslim Peace Coalition and Veterans for Peace, among many others.
Afghanistan and Iraq veterans also plan to converge on Chicago that Sunday in Grant Park to march to the NATO summit where they will ceremoniously return their medals to NATO's generals.
A call to action released by Iraq Veterans Against the War states, "We were awarded these medals for serving in the Global War on Terror, a war based on lies and failed policies." Calling this a march for justice and reconciliation, veterans say they will mobilize to "demand that NATO immediately end the occupation of Afghanistan and related economic and social injustices, bring US war dollars home to fund our communities, and acknowledge the rights and humanity of all who are affected by these wars."
To naysayers who claim the Occupy movement is dying, Toss retorts, "Look around. We're not dead. We have people from all around the country and [world] coming here."
"We have hundreds of people camping out in Chicago," Clifford chimed in, referring to ongoing occupations happening around the city, including the recently closed Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic. The city closed the clinic in late April along with three others in order to consolidate services and enlist the services of private mental health organizations.
"The [police] never let us have an encampment and they let us have five last night ... They let us sleep, for the first time ever, outside in Chicago," said Clifford.