Chicago Sun-Times, May 21, 2012
Several thousand protesters spent five hours peacefully chanting, singing and marching against war. At the end, nearly 40 young veterans dramatically took their military medals and hurled them toward McCormick Place, where world leaders met behind closed doors.
It was supposed to end there — at Michigan and Cermak.
But a “Black Bloc” of about 100 anarchists wanted something else. The group, which chanted “What do we want? Dead cops!” as it left Grant Park at 2 p.m., surged to the front of the protest crowd and tried to break through the imposing line of Chicago cops in riot gear blocking its path.
Then, in a scene Chicagoans feared ever since the city learned it would host the NATO Summit, the two sides violently clashed on live TV, with police nightsticks flailing and protesters unleashing a volley of sticks, bottles and at least one rock.
The battle at Michigan and Cermak flared and then slowed, and then flared again in bursts between 5 and 6:30 p.m. By then, much of the Black Bloc had slipped away, leaving behind a scene of bloodied protesters and four injured cops, including one stabbed in the leg.
With police intent on pushing protesters west away from the NATO Summit, and the Black Bloc hell bent on pushing east towards President Barack Obama and dozens of world leaders, the clash seemed an inevitable conclusion to months of debate over how and where the protest would end.
“What our city fathers did … they set the table for what happened down at Michigan and Cermak today,” said Andy Thayer, the protest leader who got the permit to march. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy disagreed. He was on the front lines with hundreds of officers in riot gear.
“If you think it is easy to ask people to do what they did, it’s not,” the top cop said of his officers, choking up. “Asking people to put themselves in harm’s way, knowing that they are going to get assaulted and to be able to stand there and take it. Those guys were amazing.”
Police arrested at least 45 people. At least 10 protesters got medical treatment on the scene, with at least one being carried to an ambulance.
“While there have been some scuffles with individual protesters, the Chicago Police Department has acted professionally and with restraint as protesters refused to disperse,” a city official said.
Many protesters said police provoked the violence.
But elements in the crowd clearly had come looking for a fight.
The Black Bloc anarchists had gathered under the shade of trees behind the Petrillo Band Shell before the march started.
“We are a leaderless resistance,” they chanted, dressed from head-to-toe in black clothes, with bandanas covering their faces.
Some wore helmets and body armor and carried anarchist black and red flags on hefty wooden poles; others brandished trash can lids fashioned into shields.
Locking arms to stay in a tight group at the center of the march, they tried to exclude any outsiders who ventured too close.
“I’m sorry if I have to stab you later,” one menacing Black Bloc member threatened a Sun-Times reporter, pulling off the reporter’s shoe and telling him, “Go ahead a——, punch me.”
The Bloc grew to around 150 as it freewheeled through the march down Michigan Avenue, at times shoving aside other marchers who didn’t share their dress sense or politics.
As they headed south towards McCormick Place, they first clashed with police outside a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop at 13th and Michigan. The Bloc surged to the west side of the street and tried to force its way into the store, lobbing bottles and sticks at police. Police used nightsticks as barriers to successfully push them back in a short foretaste of what was to come.
From that point on, the Bloc was escorted by police in full riot gear.
At Cermak, they moved to the back of the crowd, then, when the speeches were over, the medals were thrown and the veterans on the stage asked the crowd to leave “peacefully to the west,” the Bloc broke out in chants of “NATO’s east! NATO’s east!” Ignoring a recorded police message repeatedly telling them to “disperse to the west,” they surged towards the police lines and urged others to “push!”
In the chaos that followed, other protesters tried to escape west through the scrum of bodies while police advanced from the east and Bloc members donned gas masks and shoved back from the west.
A hail of projectiles was thrown at police, who bloodied the heads of several protesters withtheir nightsticks.
“The whole world’s watching!” the crowd shouted back. “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
When police surged forward a second time — shouting “move” and using their clubs as barricades to shove protesters — many at the front of the crowd could not move fast enough. Several fell to the ground and were trampled by other protesters also being shoved back by police.
As reporters and protesters in the center of the melee screamed “There’s nowhere to go — stop!” the police line stopped just in time to prevent a disaster.
Moments later, some protesters were back in the faces of the police, screaming insults and taunts. Others appeared less sinister — they just didn’t want to leave under a police order.
With Supt. McCarthy standing just yards away, the officers gradually shoved the crowd back down the block. At one point protesters tried to throw a metal barricade at the cops.
One man — Elmer Frazier of the South Side — crumpled to the curb and told police he couldn’t walk. He said a Chicago police officer pushed him and he fell onto the sidewalk.
Medics treated at least eight people in a nearby alley for injuries, and one man was seen with an eye swollen shut and blood running from his forehead.
In all of the violence and drama, the original message of the majority of marchers risked being lost.
A multitude of demonstrators representing a swath of causes — everything from Filipino revolution to gay rights — spoke to the huge crowd on hand at Grant Park.
And in what was intended to be the emotional centerpiece of the event, more than three dozen Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans tossed their medals away.
Alejandro Villatoro of Chicago — one of many veterans who gave heartfelt speeches before the symbolic move — said he was a “squared away” soldier who’d once believed in the armed forces.
“I realized there is no integrity,” he said. “Integrity is to do what is legally and morally right and we failed and there is no honor in these wars, there’s just shame.”
Soon after, the street was in a state of chaos.
At about the same time, Obama left the site of the NATO Summit, to prepare for an evening dinner at Soldier Field.
None of the clashes were visible from the presidential motorcade. The president would only have seen smiling crowds lined up to wave as he headed back to his hotel.