With NATO summit, Chicago seeks to avoid repeat of 1968 riots

Chicago has ramped up efforts to head off violence at the NATO summit, leading some protesters to say the city has been heavy-handed.  

Police officers in riot gear block an intersection during a demonstration Friday ahead of the NATO meeting in Chicago Sunday.

While many cities are beginning their slide into the summer calm this weekend, Chicago is in the heat of the international spotlight.

For now, much of the city has the feeling of a ghost town ahead of the NATO summit here this weekend, with businesses directing their workers to stay home and suburban high schools even rescheduling proms to avoid the security hassle in downtown hotels. But by the time NATO dignitaries arrive Sunday for the two-day meeting, between 10,000 and 50,000 protesters could descend upon downtown.

Both federal and city officials have taken strong moves to head off violence. In the year leading up to the summit, Chicago unveiled restrictions on parking and access to roads, museums, area businesses, and public transit. Recent days have seen security personnel in battle gear stationed outside federal buildings and 700 Illinois State Troopers added to Chicago Police Department rolls.

The measures are testing the relationship between new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and advocacy organizations at the heart of the protest movement. They say Chicago has made the permitting process too difficult and is changing the rules at the last minute.

Mayor Emanuel has good reason to avoid a showdown with protesters. Since the famous 1968 riots during the Democratic National Convention, Chicago has tried to move away from its brutal reputation – an effort apparent most recently in its measured response to the Occupy movement. And the ambitious Emanuel will not want a black mark on his record, says Dominic Pacyga, an expert in Chicago history at Columbia College in Chicago.

"The police are very aware they are on a world’s stage and [violence between police and protesters] has happened before, and they don’t want it to happen again,” Professor Pacyga says. “Rahm Emanuel wants no replay of ’68. No matter what he says, he has his eyes on other offices down the line.”

The Chicago Police Department estimates that at least 10,000 protesters will fill city streets this weekend, but groups like Occupy Chicago say they expect at least 50,000. Buses of protesters are arriving from both coasts, and some downtown churches have agreed to provide free housing and meals. Also on hand are legal workers from the Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which is providing about 150 observers to monitor demonstrations and provide legal aid.

Some marches have already started, but the largest is expected to be Sunday afternoon. The Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda (CAN-G8) will hold a noon rally at the Petrillo Band Shell and then a march to McCormick Place, where NATO events start that day. The group advocates for issues such as more accessible health care and public housing and education, and it is critical of the war in Afghanistan.

CAN-G8 organizer Andy Thayer says his organization stresses nonviolent action. “My biggest concern right now is that people may feel intimidated by expressing their First Amendment freedoms based on scare stories” in the media, he says.

For example, according to media reports Thursday, police raided an apartment late Wednesday and detained at least eight people described as NATO protesters. The National Lawyers Guild, which is representing those arrested, described the raid as “shoddy police work” Friday and said police confiscated a beer brewing equipment which they allegedly assumed was being used to make Molotov cocktails. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy described the raid as an “inquiry” and did not release any further information.

Protesters say the city has also sought to clip their rights. Early this week, the city pulled the permit for a march by National Nurses United, a union advocating for economic fairness connected to health-care issues. The city said the addition of Tom Morello, a guitarist formerly with the rock band Rage Against the Machine, would draw too many people. After the organization threatened a lawsuit, the city eventually allowed the group to march a shorter route.

Police say they are committed to allowing peaceful protests. 

“Feel free to express your First Amendment right to speak. We are going to provide a safe environment to ensure that happens. We are going to provide a safe environment for the protesters and the people who live in this city. And we are going to be intolerant of criminal behavior,” Superintendent McCarthy said last week in a press conference.

People living and working downtown have tried to adapt to the heightened security presence. Some residents in high-rises near the NATO site have opted to skip town, while others are using the occasion to host balcony parties to view the protests.

Jerry Fitzpatrick, a property manager of a 202-unit residential building across the street from McCormick Place, said his company was forced to create temporary picture IDs for condo owners and others, such as baby sitters and dog walkers, so they can prove they have a legitimate reason to be in the building. He said many people he are excited, but a bit on edge.

“There’s police everywhere,” Mr. Fitzpatrick says. “Residents keep coming down and asking me what’s going to happen. I just kind of look at them like, ‘If I knew that, I’d be running security.’ No one knows.” 

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