By now, many of you have probably seen media accounts of a “clash” or (as one paper called it) a “bloody melee” between protesters and riot police at the NATO summit in Chicago. I’m in a position to clarify only some aspects of what really happened, because I was a few blocks away from the intersection where the violence occurred.
I traveled to Chicago with a contingent of about a hundred Occupiers and other activists from the Twin Cities that left from Minneapolis on two large buses at ten pm on Saturday night. The trip to Chicago was well-organized by WAMM [and the Anti-war Committee] with checklists to make sure everyone was present and accounted for.
We reached the Petrillo Bandshell in Chicago at five am, about five and a half hours before the music was scheduled to begin and more than eight hours before the start of the march. Numbers were low at first, prompting local reporters to shoot seemingly endless footage of people doing Yoga or playing musical instruments to pass the time. More and more people kept showing up as the hours went by, until there were several thousand protesters by the time the music started.
I wandered out behind the stage and found even more people milling around in a small wooded area, including some dancing Hare Krishnas and a large Black Bloc contingent conducting a training session for the march. Media later described the Black Bloc as having “military-like” discipline at this event. They moved together as one coordinated unit throughout the day, stopped to “huddle” under a black blanket when they wanted to discuss tactics, and even had people along the sides of the march to tell them when to speed up or slow down or watch out for approaching police. You can see a column of them coming up on the left in the early portion of my video.
After music and speeches by a number of activists, the march began. By this point, there were so many people in the crowd I couldn’t begin to estimate the size of it. The day was dangerously hot and sunny, but luckily we were using the buddy system and my buddy was rather more concerned with the risks of heat stroke and dehydration than I was. He pretty much insisted I stay hydrated, and I’m glad he did. At one point I had a brief dizzy spell in the heat (as many people apparently did) but it passed and I was able to march.
At first the police seemed to be holding off, and there were even some friendly interactions between police and protesters. I saw a few cops letting some protesters through their lines to re-enter the march, and I saw one policeman respond with agreement when a protester called out “the one-percent will come for your pensions next!”
However, that was all in the earlier stages of the march, when most of the cops along the route were ordinary beat-cops rather than the heavily armored riot police. As the march moved past a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop, some protesters tried to get close to it and the police formed up to hold them back. The IWW (also known as the “Wobblies,” a legendary militant labor union founded in 1905) recently organized the Jimmy John’s workers, and management has done everything possible to crush the union. The protesters (I think they included some Black Bloc and some others) were trying to reach the Jimmy John’s, and the police were (somewhat comically) defending the sandwich shop to the best of their ability.
At this point, column after column of riot police began to appear from different directions, and soon every side-street was blocked off and the march was “kettled.” Someone came up to us and handed us a black bandana soaked in vinegar, which is a makeshift protection against tear gas. As we approached the ending point of the march, I checked my cell-phone and found out it was 4 pm. I was in a sea of thousands of people, surrounded by riot cops- and our bus was supposed to be leaving at 4:30 sharp!
It was pretty obvious we weren’t going to be leaving on time, but I didn’t want to take any chances so my buddy and I started to work our way to the edge of the massive crowd in hopes of finding a way out somewhere or at least seeing someone else from Minnesota. A guy with his face masked came up out of the crowd and shook my hand, and I recognized him as someone I had met in St. Louis. Go figure!
The space between the rows of riot police kept getting narrower and narrower, until moving through the crowd was just like threading a needle. The Iraq vets had started giving speeches by this point prior to giving up their service medals. I heard one line that really struck me: “I refuse to keep giving up my humanity in exchange for a false heroism.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)
Suddenly the space in front of us opened up, and it was once again possible to move down the street, although there were hundreds if not thousands of riot cops in full armor along the whole length of it, and more of them pouring in continuously.
The Black Bloc suddenly broke off from the rally and marched down the street, seemingly with the intention of challenging the police barricades preventing us from getting closer to the NATO summit. I was trying to get close enough to get some video footage of whatever happened next, when someone suddenly yelled “they’re trying to block you in, get out of there!”
I glanced over my shoulder, saw riot cops closing in on me rapidly, and decided it would be prudent to go twice as rapidly in the other direction. I just managed to zig-zag my way out of the mini-kettle when all the Black Bloc people came running by, and I realized it might not go so well if I didn’t keep up. Looking back over my shoulder as I ran, I saw still more riot cops just behind us. When I got back to where my buddy was sitting on a median covered with lilies, the cops formed up maybe two feet away from us, a solid mass of body armor blocking us off from going anywhere. Behind us, another column of riot police was forming up, so we were trapped on the median between two long lines of them.
This was about a half-block away from from the corner of Cermak and Michigan, and maybe twenty minutes before the violence happened. Luckily, we had been joined by a few more Minnesota folks, and one of the WAMM activists had cell-phone contact with some of the others. We found out where the buses were waiting (they couldn’t get through to our original rendezvous spot) and decided to see if we could make it there. So we all got down from the median and “walked the gauntlet” past all the riot cops less than a foot to our right. They let us pass, and we got to the corner where we were supposed to meet up.
At this point, something happened back at Cermak and Michigan between the Black Bloc and the police. I don’t claim to know what really happened, but I’ve seen video from three different angles and it looked to me like some Black Bloc guys tried to push through the police line and get out of the kettle, and the police responded by wailing on everybody in site with their batons, whether Black Bloc or not. Some of the video shows people being beaten on the ground by the police, clearly not resisting at all. Some of it also shows Black Bloc people trying to fight the police. Who really initiated what happened? I don’t know. Even people who saw it first-hand are giving contradictory accounts.
Back where we were about two blocks away, I saw medics helping a wounded man to the sidewalk. Police have stated that he was using fake blood to pretend he was hurt. I was there, and I know what I saw- he was bleeding continuously from a head wound. He was examined by street medics and firefighters and none of them seemed to think he was faking it. An ambulance came and took him away.
Shortly afterward, our buses arrived and we all got on. One person didn’t make it back. Apparently he was trapped in the kettle and couldn’t get back to where we were, but local activists put him up and got him a ride the next day.
The media narrative has been all about the violence at Cermak and Michigan, but that was a brief incident involving a small minority from a march of thousands and thousands of people. Whose “fault” was it? I couldn’t tell you, but I can say this. The riot police weren’t there to keep anyone safe. They were there to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in order to suppress dissent.
When you see a guy bleeding from his head on the sidewalk in front of you, and then you read that the police “acted with restraint,” it makes you angry. They didn’t charge the whole march like we feared they might, but their mere presence insuch massively disproportionate numbers, armor and weaponry shows their true intentions: to scare people into shutting up.