Chicago History Repeats Itself As Cops and Protesters Clash
by Rick Perlstein
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 Pilsen, 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.
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