CHICAGO — The stage seemed set for an epic showdown: G-8 and NATO leaders planned to hold back-to-back summits in Chicago that activists predicted could draw tens of thousands of people protesting everything from war in Central Asia to unemployment and education cuts at home.
But at the last minute, President Obama moved the Group of Eight economic meeting to Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in Frederick County, Md., 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 heartfelt 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 in a bid to pump up turnout.
The message, he said, is “starting to sink in: NATO is the armed wing of the 1 percent” - the wealthiest Americans targeted in the nationwide Occupy movement.
Even so, the protests are almost sure to be smaller and less dramatic than originally expected.
But the NATO alliance 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 G-8 summit “would have brought more protesters and more anger because you could raise up the flag of the social class,” said Dominic A. 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 for protesters, Chicago still offers a chance to capitalize on the international media coverage the summit will draw. For Mr. 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.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Fernandez said. “They saw things building up to what could have been a perfect storm.”