Chicago's NATO Protest: Clashing with the Cops

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Andrew Kelly / Reuters

A protester with blood on his face after a strike to the head with a police baton, screams during an anti-NATO protest march in Chicago May 20, 2012.

For a moment on Sunday, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy made his way through massive crowds gathered to protest NATO at the military alliance's summit here, outfitted in nothing more than his white supervisor uniform. No riot gear. No intimidating getup.

At that point, the situation on the ground — other than a few blips in which cops were punched and activists pushed, clubbed, or arrested — was mostly peaceful outside NATO's largest summit to date and the first in a U.S. city other than Washington D.C. Police estimated the demonstrators at about 2,500 to 3,000 (though organizers claim 10,000 people showed up). The march to the McCormick Convention Center was led by a group of veterans from NATO countries who threw their medals into a pile when they reached their destination in protest.

Then, the situation turned on — and fast. By early evening, the massive protest got violent. Police were hit with bottles and paint and sticks and just about anything people could grab from the street or ground and hurl at cops who, dressed in full riot gear and heavily armed, pushed back and struck protesters with batons, punched them, wrestled them to the ground. On Michigan Avenue, famed for its retail and polished image, and on State Street and near Cermak Road by the convention center, violent clashes would break out, settle and then start back up again through the night. It was as if both sides, after bottling frustrations for days leading up to the official opening of the NATO Summit Sunday, let loose their emotions and descended into battle. By night's end 45 people had been arrested, which brings the total so far to 64.

About a dozen people were treated at the scene or raced to hospitals for injuries ranging from busted heads to minor scrapes. An officer was stabbed in the leg. Meanwhile, police — state police, Chicago police, agents with the Secret Service and Homeland Security, among other agencies — tried to disperse thousands who had walked the two-plus mile route from Grant Park, which had been jammed in the early afternoon with loud and excited, but peaceful, activists.

Helicopters hovered overhead. Sirens could be heard everywhere as the police set off water canon blasts to disperse the huge crowds. The situation seemed to feed off itself. Calm one minute, it exploded the next, then would calm and explode again. Some protesters complained that the media were buying the police line that it was anarchists — indeed, members of the Black Bloc were present and in large numbers — instigating everything. To them, police overreacted with intimidating force. Indeed, police boats with heavy guns patrolled the lakefront and river.

Cindy Spoon, who made the trip from Texas to join the protests, said "the police presence is insane. This was a total overreaction." She claimed that there was "no violence except when the police are the cause of it. The cops are using bats to beat people that are protesting bombs being dropped. Why aren't they stopping NATO — the real bomb users, the real threat of violence to the world. Why do they have to invent this idea that we have home made bombs — when Obama is sending drones to whatever country he feels like?"