Practice helped cops frustrate those intent on violence
For four days, and nearly around the clock, Chicago police guided, cajoled and blockaded roaming groups of NATO protesters, following a set of strategic goals that laid the foundation for everything they did.
Keep protesters from damaging property or hurting anyone; keep any trouble south of the city’s famous Michigan Avenue retail district, where many international dignitaries were staying; and do it all with a „soft look“ that belied the overwhelming police presence and kept violent confrontation to a minimum.
By all appearances, it worked.
Police frustrated and defanged smaller groups of the most troublesome protesters while allowing peaceful demonstrators to shout and march day and night in the relative safety of the Loop, as long as they respected the boundaries police set. Helicopters, horses, surveillance cameras, bicycles, CTA buses, Twitter and even undercover operatives were among the tools.
Their priorities came together in what could be the indelible memory of the NATO summit — a violent clash near McCormick Place on Sunday at the end of the largest weekend demonstration. Every aspect of the police response was on display, from police in everyday street uniforms escorting peaceful demonstrators to the „turtle suit“ cops in fully padded riot gear. It featured the only extended physical altercation between baton-swinging police and protesters who threw everything from water bottles to a chunk of metal fence into the mass of officers who forced a die-hard crowd of several hundred protesters to disperse after a two-hour standoff. There were several dozen arrests and a number of bloodied demonstrators, but the situation never got out of control.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who stood yards behind the action, said Monday that strategy, discipline and an underwhelming crowd of protesters all played to the department’s advantage.
„We purposely call it the soft look. Everything that we’ve been doing has had a blueprint that is in response to what happens,“ McCarthy explained. „When people start throwing things, I’m sorry, we put on our helmets. When people start doing things like attacking the officers like yesterday, we’ve put on turtle suits. So that’s the way it works.“
Sunday’s large march was the main event for NATO protesters, and it brought in a mixed group of thousands who set off from Grant Park to walk south to the edge of the McCormick Place complex. Ahead of the path, police moved in a complex series of vehicle movements involving vans and buses filled with officers, while at the head of the march, bicycles were used to guide walkers on the path they were permitted to take to Michigan Avenue and Cermak Road.
Veterans of the Iraq War gave back medals they had received for their service in an orchestrated ceremony, but it quickly became clear that a large contingent of so-called „black bloc“ marchers, who often dress in black and wear makeshift helmets and masks, was intent on a confrontation. Police watched from above as they formed groups and locked arms in packs, with individuals kneeling on the ground to pull objects from backpacks.
As the rally ended, someone on stage announced the exit was to the west, down Cermak, but the black-clad demonstrators began chanting: „NATO’s east! NATO’s east!“ and surged forward, trapping some peaceful marchers between themselves and police lines.
Panic ensued as some marchers had to link arms and barrel out of the crowd to get out. Suddenly, police in full riot gear at the front of the crowd began to be pelted with batteries and sticks, and the heavily geared cops and the black bloc came together.
Billy clubs were swung as police refused to give up their ground, and then they surged forward. Some protesters began to come backward through the crowd with blood flowing from their faces.
But while protesters lacked organization or discipline, the heavily clad officers were guided at nearly every step by commanders in the field and by key strategists four miles away from the scene of the action.
„Remember your training,“ a reasoned voice urged officers over their radios. „This is why we practiced. Stay calm. Hold the line.“
The voice belonged to a 14-year veteran officer with a knack for logistics and details, who was issuing the directives from a control room filled with video screens, all capturing feeds from across the city. Some 20 others were also there — police commanders and federal law enforcement who were consulting on or observing the key decisions.
When the skirmish line loosened, the voice told the officers to tighten up together. „Work as a team, work as a team.“
And they did. Using hand signals, officers identified key antagonists and targeted them for arrest. Teams of officers surged ahead and grabbed troublemakers, pushing them to the ground. „Rake ‚em through,“ came the direction on the radio, shorthand for handing a violent protester back through the lines.
There was only one major moment of confusion, when police announced they might use crowd dispersal tactics and dozens of officers could be seen donning gas masks. But McCarthy, who had repeatedly said in the weeks leading up to the summit that he didn’t believe in the use of gas on crowds, said Monday that was a mistake.
„I’ve got to tell you, when I turned around and saw everybody kneeling down and putting on gas masks, I said, ‚Wait a second, I’m supposed to give the order for gas.“ It turned out, he said, that some officers yelled „mask“ when they saw a protester with a mask on and the officers thought an order had been issued. It was quickly rescinded.
In two hours, the confrontation was over. And once again police were off on another game of chasing and turning protesters in the Loop.
McCarthy’s presence, and the calming voice over the radios, were a constant for the thousands of officers who worked 12-hour shifts over the course of a summit weekend that featured skirmishes with demonstrators as early as Friday morning.
Friday had provided the first chances for police to manage large crowds, and the day saw one of the few hiccups for police — they almost let protesters over the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Things started with more than 3,000 standing in Daley Plaza for a rally headlined by musician Tom Morello, and they were met with a police presence that McCarthy said was deliberately a „soft face.“
Officers closest to the gathering wore standard blue uniforms with soft crown caps, not helmets, as other forces in heavier, more aggressive-looking gear stayed on neighboring blocks. And things stayed calm, until agitated protesters in the crowd began screaming into officers‘ faces, „Who do you protect, who do you serve!“
Groups of marchers left from two corners of the plaza, eventually forming a large group that made it onto Wacker Drive as officers on bicycles worked to keep up. A line of police in standard uniforms rushed forward around State Street to try to stop the crowd, but it had grown too large and was able to reach the Michigan Avenue Bridge before police were ready.
One of the key goals, keeping the marches from reaching the shopping district and the delegations‘ hotels, was about to slip away.
Protesters ran among cars as drivers gaped and tried to record the scene with cellphone cameras. One marcher climbed a bridge tower, tore down a NATO banner and was able to escape police swarming to the sidewalk.
Just as that drama was playing out, police reinforcements started arriving in large numbers on bicycles. Officers on the north side of the bridge called to each other, „Shields down,“ and as the riot visors came down, the police force had grown to where they could turn the protester group back to the south.
The line at the bridge had held.
It would be tested again Saturday.
Protesters gathered again downtown at Daley Plaza on Saturday to protest the charges in the alleged firebombing conspiracy case.
As speeches wrapped up, a few leaders of a peaceful group shouted that everyone should disperse. More aggressive demonstrators wanted nothing to do with that, though, and chanted, „March! March! March!“
Again, they headed toward Michigan Avenue.
This time, though, the police were ready. When hundreds of protesters reached Michigan Avenue blocks south of the bridge, they were met by a three-deep wedge of police bicycles steering them to the south away from the Magnificent Mile.
Meanwhile, there was a first appearance close to protesters of officers in black uniforms with billy clubs at their sides, stretched in a line across Randolph Street to keep the crowd from going east toward hotels and an office building housing the campaign offices of President Barack Obama.
To the south, police made a first attempt to get the group to stop in Congress Plaza, where some had rested at the end of marches the day before. They built a line of defense that included mounted officers.
„Stay together, we won’t be turned aside!“ a demonstrator with a bullhorn shouted before looking ahead.
„Oh, man, horses, really?“ he said.
But as the march approached, police let it pass, reforming their line to repeat the scenario when the march turned in the South Loop and came back toward Congress again.
This time, police in riot gear backed up the horses, and things got tense as protesters demanded to pass through. They were bottled up as the crowd surged ahead, but officers eventually relented.
It was one of many times that protesters thought they had won a victory.
In fact, the standoff had actually been part of police strategy to buy precious time to move others into better positions up the street.
Holding ground while forces sprinted ahead to secure the next stretch of a march was all part of the training and planning police went through, McCarthy said.
„The bicycles as a useful tactic in these events is unbelievable. And I can’t imagine how these guys are going to be able to walk for the next week,“ McCarthy said.
The Saturday night march eventually made its way to the heart of the deserted financial district at LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard, where protesters sat down. „Let’s go to Obama’s hotel!“ screamed one protester hanging on barred windows of the Federal Reserve Bank building. „It’s across the river!“
Again, the marchers were thinking of getting across the bridge.
But the group would never get near the Sheraton well to the north, where Obama was staying. Instead, helmeted police surrounded the group on three sides, raising tension before releasing the side that aimed the crowd west on Jackson, out of the center of the city.
They would not get near the Michigan Avenue Bridge again that night.
On Sunday, police again successfully kept protesters from the city’s tony Near North Side.
A group moved west on Lake Street toward Canal Street, clearly looking for alleys and other passages that might let them make a break across the river. Police stood in lines two-deep at some major intersections, steering them away from every route north. Police offered no resistance when marchers headed south or west.
At times, the protesters appeared to have little idea of where they were or where they wanted to go.
„Is anyone here from Chicago?“ shouted one protester, who like many had traveled here from around the country.
By around 11 p.m., a group of about 20 protesters that had wandered back into the Loop pondered what to do.
One member carried a handheld camera, which he had been using to live-stream video to the Web. He said he had 300 followers, some of whom were providing them directions based on the feed.
A young man in the party conferred with members of another group, wandering somewhere north, by cellphone, sharing the rumor that the marchers had gone off the rails because of covert action by police.
„It’s all messed up,“ he said, loudly, into the phone. „Yeah. The guys leading the march were (expletive) undercovers!“
In fact, police were mixing in with protesters from the first days of the demonstrations, and in some cases even before that.
„They’ve been very, very useful,“ McCarthy said about undercover officers. „I don’t want to go into details. But we’ve had a very large undercover component, working throughout this event, and it’s been very helpful.“
Undercover officers were used over the past few weeks to infiltrate a group the authorities accused of allegedly planning firebomb attacks during the NATO summit. Several out-of-town men were arrested last week, days before the NATO summit began.
During their nighttime runs through the Loop, protesters repeatedly targeted other crowd members whom they suspected of being officers. And in at least a few cases, some of those crowd members targeted them.
On Sunday night, as a group of protesters stumbled toward the Chicago River, a particularly energetic man tried to hold the group together and give them direction. Suddenly, two other men dressed similarly surged forward and tackled him. They yelled for help, and police officers in uniforms emerged from the dark to bind the leader with plastic „zip-cuffs“ and cart him off.
Tribune reporters Jeff Coen, Annie Sweeney, David Heinzmann, Andy Grimm, Dan Hinkel, Matthew Walberg, Ryan Haggerty and Lolly Bowean contributed to this story.