Chicago's NATO Summit: In the Shadow of Global Geopolitics, the Realities of an American City

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

A woman attends a protest on May 18, 2012, leading up to the NATO summit in Chicago

For several days leading up to the start of the NATO summit in Chicago, protests, while large and passionate, were a controlled and carefully orchestrated affair. Demonstrators stayed in their assigned areas, while swarms of police on horseback and foot fanned out into the streets.

Some of that changed this weekend with isolated clashes between police and activists; the latter are demanding, among other things, an end to heightened military spending and the U.S.'s armed presence around the globe at a time when the country struggles to recover from the mess of the Great Recession.

As of Sunday — which was the official start of NATO's summit — there had been 19 arrests. Charges ranged from disorderly conduct to assaulting a police officer, according to the Secret Service and the Chicago police's on-site command posts. Late Saturday, as crowds of protesters (many consider themselves part of the national Occupy Wall Street movement) swelled into the thousands, a number of protesters clashed with cops. In one incident, an officer was reported to have hit an activist with a baton as protesters surged toward police who had detained a woman on suspicion of trying to steal a police bicycle. At least one protester was briefly hospitalized after falling down along the protest route. Meanwhile, authorities are investigating the hacking of the city of Chicago's website, which was "attacked" and shut down for a period. Observers and some lawyers representing demonstrators say police overreacted to minor incidents and used their sheer numbers to intimidate rather than protect.

But mostly, it has been quiet — and an expected boon for the Windy City, according to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who told reporters the city stands to gain in international reputation and bring in loads of cash in the wake of the arrival of 60 heads of state and about 2,500 media reps. He wants to show that this is no longer the Chicago of 1968, when police repeatedly beat protesters at an out-of-control Democratic National Convention.

"I think [the Chicago police department] has done a great job," said a Secret Service agent monitoring the streets on Sunday morning. "For this summit, it's not something where we're taken [by surprise]." Still, he said, "I expect we'll see more activity as the week gets started."

Two Florida men and an alleged plotter from New Hampshire — initially identified as members of the "Black Bloc" anarchists but later tabbed by lawyers and others as Occupy protesters doing nothing more sinister than making beer — were arrested in the neighborhood of Bridgeport for, according to authorities, amassing explosive devices. Among the alleged targets: President Obama's campaign headquarters, police stations and even Emanuel's North Side home.

With the arrests, the three men became the first people to be charged under Illinois' antiterrorism laws that took effect after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Still, as dignitaries representing the world's greatest military alliance met in fortified seclusion, much of this spectacle seemed a sideshow in a city that faces very local and real crises.

Away from the summit action, which was concentrated in the Loop business district, a different and far more familiar chaos was playing out on Chicago's streets: around 10 p.m. Saturday, just as scuffles were happening in the Loop, a 12-year-old boy, Nazia Banks, was gunned down after being called inside from playing with friends on the South Side.

Twenty-four hours earlier and a just a few miles from where Nazia was shot in the head by two men who popped from a gangway by the boy's home, the short life of Alejandro Jaime was wiped out by a bullet to the back while the 14-year-old was riding bikes with a young friend.

Nazia and Alejandro were the latest minors to be slain in Chicago, where, according to police figures, overall murders were up nearly 60% during the first three months of this year. The increase has been attributed by some to a general uptick in violence; others, including Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project, have said the city's mild winter played into the equation, as more shootings typically take place during the warmer months, when greater numbers are on the streets.

"For any changes in violence levels in Chicago," Siska said, "leaders will have to reallocate resources put toward events like the NATO meetings into real community economic development and jobs."

"We live in the wealthiest country in the world but have decidedly third-rate social services," says protest leader Andy Thayer. "Why do our youth run with gangs, why the dealing on the streets and why is minority youth crime so off the charts? That point got worse during the Great Recession, and yet programs like former mayor Daley's summer programs are a shadow of what they were."

Chicago, Obama's home base and the first U.S. city outside of the capital to host NATO, is also one of the most surveilled cities in the nation, with so-called blue-light cameras, speeding cameras and private cameras recording much of Chicagoans' daily lives. Officers have been training around the clock since at least the large May Day protests this year. Officials hoped to avoid scenes like those out of Seattle at the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999.

Chicago was the U.S. finalist for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games — and though it pulled out of hosting the G-8 this year on worries about congestion and safety, the May Day protests that numbered in the tens of thousands and the earlier Occupy demonstrations have largely been peaceful.

The advent of the summit also marks the first full year for the city under new leadership, after a generation under the old. Much has changed, at least on the surface. But peel it back, and Chicago is still a highly segregated city that can't seem to figure itself out: world class in business, with about a dozen Fortune 500 companies calling it home, but with third-world poverty in some neighborhoods; nation leading on some fronts like environmentally friendly construction while bottoming out in key education measures.

Blacks and Hispanics are heavily overrepresented in the city's jails, the economic recovery so far has not lifted many minority groups, and the city's budget is some $700 million in the hole. So too are Chicago's public schools.

"At every point in the food chain," says Thayer, "people have been bumped down. It has everything to do with income disparity and lack of support for a floor that is crumbling and beneath which many are falling."