CHICAGO (Reuters) - The NATO summit ended without major violence between police and protesters, winning praise for Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy and helping erase bad memories of the bloody street battles here during the 1968 Democratic convention.
Ever since anti-Vietnam protesters were beaten in what a commission later called a “police riot” in 1968, Chicago has tried to live down its reputation for police brutality.
But experts said NATO summit protesters angry about the war in Afghanistan got to have their say, while the Chicago police were restrained, and always seemed to be one step ahead of the demonstrators.
“My analysis is there was ... free speech, and in response to that there was appropriate law enforcement. There may have been some things at the margins,” said Harvey Grossman, head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago, which sent observers to accompany most of the protests.
Over a week of daily rallies and marches, police made fewer than 100 arrests, most charged with minor infractions and released within hours. Roughly two dozen protesters were injured Sunday following the largest demonstration of the week.
On Sunday, the barrel-chested, mustachioed McCarthy paced up and down behind the lines of helmeted, baton-wielding officers as they advanced on protesters who ignored orders to disperse.
He lifted up an officer who had fallen, and helped corral a protester, and received congratulatory fist-bumps from his men. Messages passed along from officer to officer were “remember your training,” and “work as a team.”
As the police line advanced, batons swinging, protesters at the edge of the crowd suffered head wounds and others lost teeth and absorbed body blows, but no one was killed. There was little vandalism during the week, other than a few spray-painted signs.
President Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel each praised the 12,000-member police force on Monday, with Obama ending the summit commending “Chicago’s finest.”
Emanuel, who had raised $55 million to pay for the summit and police overtime, compared the police performance favorably to the violence-marred World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
“If Seattle in 1999 was lesson of what not to do, I think Chicago will be a lesson of what to do,” Emanuel said.
Behind the scenes, the city laid elaborate security plans for the summit. McCarthy said officers received additional training and equipment, and were prepared for many more protesters. Pre-summit estimates were for tens of thousands of people to show up, though the largest demonstration likely was fewer than 5,000.
The message of economic inequality delivered by the anti-Wall Street Occupy movement was diminished in Chicago when the G8 economic summit was shifted by Obama from his home town to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland.
“The G8 was the real motivator for the more international protesters. My guess if it had been a combined meeting it would have looked more like Seattle,” said Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson.
In 1968, then-mayor Richard J. Daley denied some 10,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters permits to march and he ordered the parks cleared in the evenings, resulting in nightly battles.
“That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat,” a December 1968 government report on the violence said. “Fundamental police training was ignored; and officers, when on the scene were often unable to control their men.”
The clashes culminated in what the report labeled “a police riot” where officers covered their name tags and clubbed demonstrators and reporters in front of the Conrad Hilton hotel.
Police adopted a mob mentality, always a danger when police try to quell protests, said Dennis Kenney of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
With the 1968 debacle as a backdrop, McCarthy vowed to use more sophisticated tactics this time.
Police from Tampa, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, observed the action in Chicago to prepare for upcoming Republican and Democratic Party conventions in their cities.
Tampa’s assistant chief, John Bennett, said Chicago used a “layered approach,” with officers on foot or bicycle passively monitoring protests, with squads of heavier armored officers standing by out of sight.
They steered crowds in circles to tire them out and sometimes stalled the marches to allow officers to set up blockades further on. They made pre-emptive arrests of selected protesters considered dangerous, security analysts said.
In the run-up to the summit, Chicago police arrested several men, three of them from out of town, who were charged with terrorism-related crimes for allegedly making homemade fire-bombs to attack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters and other targets. Defense lawyers said the charges are trumped up.
Zoe Sigma, 22, a roommate of the three men who was away on Wednesday night during the police raid, said she believes the arrests were an effort to intimidate protesters.
“It didn’t keep me off the streets,” she said. “But it was scary.”
Editing by Eric Walsh