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Chicago History Repeats Itself As Cops and Protesters Clash

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chicago no nato
Chicago Police and protesters clash during demonstrations surrounding the NATO Summit in Chicago.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

In 1972, writing in Rolling Stone about a looming confrontation between protesters and police in the streets in front of the Republican National Convention in Miami, Hunter S. Thompson described the moment he slipped off his watch. "The first thing to go in a street fight is always your watch, and once you've lost a few, you develop a certain instinct that lets you know it's time to get the thing off your wrist and into a safe pocket." Times have changed: Few people wear watches any more. So when the first objects starting flying in Chicago yesterday night on the corner of Cermak and Michigan, I buttoned my cell phone into my cargo pants pocket instead.

I'd begun marching, four hours earlier, from the bandshell behind the Art Institute of Chicago to a temporary protest zone with 2,000 people (by city estimates) protesting NATO’s role in the Afghanistan war. Our destination was a half mile east of the NATO summit taking place at the south-of-downtown McCormick Place Convention Center; it had been an awkward traipse. I was following legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild; they were watching the police, who were everywhere: thousands were deployed for the summit, plus ringers from forty other agencies from as far away as North Carolina. At least a few hundred were in my field of vision at all times. Volunteers surrounded the parade column with yellow cord; just outside that perimeter hundreds of officers kept stride, all of us starting, stopping, slowing up at a pace dictated by the police wagons inching along ahead.

Up ahead, from sidewalk to sidewalk, marched another row of cops, walking backward, sometimes joining hands red-rover style. Flying squadrons of riot police in those fearsome security-visored blue helmets, chest-protectors that make them look like black turtles, and massively bulging shiny shin guards sometimes appeared, then disappeared down abandoned side streets. Then, at the march's culmination at a makeshift stage 800 yards and innumerable eight-foot-tall steel security barriers west of where 65 world leaders were gathering to talk, largely about the course of the war in Afghanistan, they were suddenly among us, en masse: black turtles, row upon row, arrayed on the elevated median strips that afforded them the high ground for whatever battle might ensue.

This was Chicago in May of 2012, where all week citizens have been cordially invited by authorities to savor what it would feel like to live in a police state – 7.5 miles of street closings; several "maritime security zones"; the thwukthwukthwuk of helicopters and the continuous scream of jet fighters overhead; those infamous "Long Range Acoustic Devices" that make it too painful to stand, poised at the ready; and, in one particularly surreal touch in my tranquil Hyde Park neighborhood, a misplaced suitcase that shut down the 57th Street train station as well access to the two adjacent nerdy used bookstores, a full forty blocks from the NATO zone. (An email to every University of Chicago student, staffer, and faculty member: "Police activity 57th Street at Metra. Avoid area. Additional information to follow." Thirty-nine minutes later: "All clear 57th Street and Metra. Will resume normal operations.")

Just as intended, the city thrummed with fear, uncertainty, and doubt, the most effective tool the powerful possess to keep the rest of us in line; so pervasive was the dread that people working downtown wore jeans on Thursday (no one showed up to work on Friday), lest they be randomly attacked by "self-described anarchists" – in the news media's odd formulation – mistaking them for members of "the 1%."

That night, it all came to a head with the warrantless violent police raid of an apartment in the gentrifying neighborhood of Bridgeport, followed by the "disappearing" – no other term for it – of three anarchists, Jared Chase, 27, Brian Church, 22, and Brent Betterly, 24, for over twenty-four hours. They resurfaced Saturday in a Cook County courtroom, where they were charged with "conspiring to commit domestic terrorism during the NATO summit," including "plotting to attack President Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters, the Chicago mayor's home and police stations."  What the suspects said was home-brew equipment the city insisted was the makings of Molotov cocktails. Bail was set at $1.5 million.

Local news stations, of course, reported the arrests uncritically: no mention of beer-making, nor any indication of why these kids might have been singled out – for having dared to post this damning cellphone video on YouTube, in which three easily identifiable policemen (note the vehicle number) explicitly threaten to beat them:

Michael Deutsch of the Nation Lawyers Guild, representing the three, says police infiltrators were responsible for the alleged illegal activity and illicit materials in the apartment where they were arrested. Reflected Don Rose, the 81-year-old dean of the Chicago left, who’s seen it all before. "As history has shown us more often than not, it all could be a phony, rigged distraction. We must wait and see." Indeed, the relationship between the local constabulary and the Chicago left is haunted by such history. Old heads like Rose can never forget the infamous clubbing meted out by hoards of blue-helmeted cops at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Neither can the cops.

"You guys know all about '68," one of the officers, straight from central casting, says in the video above. "What did they say back in '68?'"
"Billy club to the fucking skull," Officer No. 2 answers in that unmistakable Chicago brogue.
Adds another: "Now we'll beat your white ass."
Returns the first: "Wait for the protest day. Save it all up for that .... Can't wait. We'll come look for you, each and every one of you."

We're haunted:

By December, 1969, and another raided South Side apartment, this one containing the sleeping Black Panther leader Fred Hampton: cops acting under the direct supervision of Cook County States Attorney Edward Hanraham claiming they were answering "a shotgun volley" from within, riddled the corner of the apartment in which Hampton was sleeping with almost one hundred gun blasts of their own, killing Hampton instantly. A subsequent civil trial established there were in fact no shots coming from the inside.

By 1996, when the Democrats came back to Chicago for the first national party convention in the city since, the cops wore T-shirts in their off-duty hours (I remember them) reading something like, "In 1968 we beat your parents' asses. Now we're going to beat yours."

By 2003, when smiling, accommodating police opened up Chicago's scenic freeway Lake Shore Drive to thousands of joyous protesters marching against the Iraq War—and then, when police decided enough was enough, instructed them to disperse to the west where they kenneled 886 happy, peacefully retreating protesters for arrests, singling out the ones they decided looked like punks for those patented Chicago police billy-club beatings.

Some of us are even haunted by 1886, when someone threw a dynamite bomb at police dispersing a peaceful rally for the eight-hour workday. That memory is still absolutely a living one in this city, a story of dueling narratives of martyrdom between the seven police officers who perished in the blast, and the seven anarchists sentenced to hang even though the prosecution acknowledged they had not committed the crime. The recognition of May Day as an international holiday for the left honors the latter; a statue of a Chicago policeman with an arm stretched high, victorious – the subject of literally violent controversy ever since (read that fascinating history here) – honors the former.

We're haunted – and yesterday haunted us, too. We gathered at the Petrillo Bandshell, scene of the most harrowing images from the classic 1970 movie Medium Cool, which combined fiction and documentary footage of the '68 brutality for the best portrait of state violence against protesters ever committed to film. We marched down Michigan Avenue past the Hilton Hotel at the intersection with Balbo, the spot where, on August 28, 1968, seated protesters were clubbed and tossed into paddy wagons, into which tear gas was sprayed, then the doors closed – all while witnesses chanted, "The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!" My heart raced at that intersection, and also when we came to this statue; and I was relieved when we passed both without incident.

Then we arrived at our final destination, and I was not haunted at all. Instead, I took in one of the most radiant spectacles imaginable: Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, a shocking number – echoed a 1971 ceremony in which Vietnam Veterans Against the War hurled the medals they had received back at the Capitol dome.

A twelve-year National Guardsman, throwing his medals east toward the NATO meeting: "... And all I have to say is this is not something I'm proud of!"

A 2002-08 Iraq War vet, explaining that the military was "where I learned what integrity meant," and "at this point I believe if I am to live with integrity I must get rid of these."

An Afghanistan vet who visited the 9/11 Memorial with some Afghan friends dedicated his medals to "33,000 dead Afghanis who won't have a memorial built for them."

Others:

"I'm returning my Global War on Terrorism medal and my National Defense medal because they are both lies."
"I choose human life over war."
"We don't want this garbage."
"For al those people who are wondering why we are doing this: do your homework."
"Because I want to live by my conscience rather than being a prisoner of it."
"This medal I'm dedicating to the children of Iraq who don't have mothers and fathers."
"In the last seven years I haven't been sure of anything. But now I'm sure, looking out over this peace-loving crowd, my daughters can grow up in peace."

One was choking back tears so violently he could hardly get out the words "I'm sorry." Another said, "This is a Good Conduct medal," and we rocked with laughter, before adding that he was saving his humanitarian service medal from Hurricane Katrina, "because that's the only thing we should be doing."

We roared. We roared every time. "Do these medals represent a job well done?" "NO!!!" "Do they mask lies?" "YES!!!" "Do they mask injustice?" "YES!!!"

And then it was over, and most of us made to disperse to the west, though a column of Black Bloc anarchists lined up to march eastward, to the NATO meeting. Police batons started slapping palms: This was Chicago. A marshal announced through a bullhorn how people could disperse if they wanted to avoid arrest. A knuckleheaded Black Bloc kid screamed at him that he was "worse than the police." This is 2012, and people are very angry. Then began the standoff, things grew quiet, and I felt what Hunter S. Thompson described feeling when he wrote, "There was an awful tension in that silence ... an almost visible shudder ran through the crowd .... I felt a strange tightness coming over me."

Plastic bottles started flying. I buttoned up my phone in my pocket. When a thunderclap boomed I cut out, praying for rain. As Thompson would have put it, I'm too old for this shit. So I missed the mélée that soon broke out between anarchists and the police. Viewers of the local news that night did not, of course: If it bleeds, it leads. The glorious testament of the horror of war we had just witnessed was all but obliterated. The Lawyers Guild reports it was "indiscriminate violence," instigated by the police; that claim I cannot evaluate.

I can report, however, that walking to the train home I passed a Chicago city bus whose electronic sign read "CHICAGO IS MY KIND OF TOWN," and that upon reading that I was haunted again. My Kind of Town is the name of a masterpiece of a new play being performed here through July about Officer John Burge, the Chicago cop who came home from Vietnam and began torturing innocent suspects using the electroshock techniques he had learned in the war. For decades, Chicago officials including Ed Hanrahan's successor and future mayor, States Attorney Richard M. Daley, knew about the abuse and did nothing, even as false confessions elicited by Burge landed men on death row. War, torture, police abuse, global plutocracy: one and indivisible, from generation to generation. Never forget. Never stop fighting.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

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