Thousands of protesters marched beside Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans Sunday to accompany the vets as they marched, hoping to return their service medals to NATO's generals.
Before the march began, musicians - including rocker Tom Morello and Rise Against's Tim McIlrath - performed for the veterans and their supporters.
"I'm here for the Iraq Vets Against the War, which is a group we've worked with pretty closely over the last couple of years," said McIlrath. "We've tried to show our fans a different side of the military, a different side of the war, a different side to the stories that they hear in the high-polished thirty second commercials of military recruitments versus the real stories of some of the troops who have been serving in the military. I find these stories so compelling that I want to do anything that I can possibly do to connect the people from these stories to our audience, who are desperately looking for information that is coming from somewhere besides the military."
McIlrath remains optimistic that dissenters can have an impact on youths' perspectives even though they're competing with an enormous force of pro-military propaganda.
"It's really hard, especially when you have a military that pumps millions of dollars into propaganda, and the collective will of America is sometimes a hard thing to defy. It's a pro-war, pro-troop bundle in a way. There are some Americans who can't divorce those two things. But I'm hopeful there is an emerging part of America that can divorce those two things. There are other ways to support the troops than supporting illegal wars," he said.
Part of what makes McIlrath optimistic is that, in times of severe economic austerity, a country's bloated military budget inherently opens the government's pro-war faction to criticism.
"Budget cuts and the economy have put a unique spotlight on the military, and a staple of the right-wing. That's one of those sacred cows. We don't cut the military budget. But now that [the government] is putting these budgets under the microscope, I think it's forcing people who are stereotypically pro-war and pro-military industrial complex to really think about what a bloated machine it is. You can't ignore it. It sucks up so much taxpayer money," he said.
After the short jam session, the march began and the veterans, accompanied by Afghans For Peace, led the way to return the vets' service medals.
Or rather, the veterans attempted to return their medals, but didn't quite make it. Chicago police, including about a dozen horse mounted officers, shut down the perimeter around McCormick Place, so the veterans spoke instead from a stage nearby the conference.
One emotional veteran addressed the crowd, "Looking out at this peace-loving crowd, I'm convinced my daughters will have peace."
Veteran Scott Olsen, perhaps best known for being severely injured by police during an Occupy Oakland march, returned his service medals, as well.
"These medals once made me feel good," said Olsen, adding, "I came back to reality. I don't like these anymore."
At the end of the testimonials, the veterans threw their medals in the direction of the conference as the crowd cheered.
Christopher Moberg was one of the veterans marching in the procession. Moberg joined the army in 2002 and was deployed to Iraq for the invasion in March 2003.
"My unit spearheaded the attack on most major cities during war and I saw or participated in much of the initial destruction," he said. "I was in a heavy missile artillery unit and we were responsible for over 5,000 indiscriminate casualties."
Moberg says he witnessed sanctioned killing of civilians for sport and the later cover up of these actions.
"There was a culture created to justify these actions within my unit, and I believe [in] the Army as a whole," he said.
Moberg survived a number of IED attacks and now suffers from traumatic brain injury and PTSD and says he experiences depression, confusion, and massive migraines. Furthermore, many of his friends suffer the same ongoing agony.
"It needs to end," Moberg says. "That is why I am marching and have participated in other Occupy actions...I do my best to seed progressive ideas in the hearts and minds of the super conservative, but good people overall, people of my town."
After the veterans spoke and descended the stage, protesters milled about for a bit, trying to figure out their next move.
That's when CPD suddenly accelerated aggressively.
Initially, no order for dispersal was given, when suddenly police arrived in what can only be described as souped-up riot gear that gave the officers the appearance of Storm Troopers.
CPD appeared ready for a violent confrontation with protesters, which of course became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Police attacked protesters, clubbing them across their heads with billy clubs, and generally shoving activists around.
At least two protesters were badly injured.
"Just saw protesters gushing blood from head," independent journalist John Knefel tweeted, "Photog
witnessed it, called it terrifying."
Later, Knefel tweeted, "2 protesters bleeding from head being treated by medics in alley."
The infamous LRAD, or sound cannon, also made an appearance. Additionally, independent journalist Jesse Myerson tweeted that he saw Chicago police dolling out ear plugs among themselves, and protesters tweeted they too were suiting up with earplugs and gas masks after several witnesses noticed police and fire fighters donning masks.