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Busloads of protesters head to Chicago for NATO Summit

Look out Chicago - here comes Occupy - Wall Street. More than 40 protesters from original occupatiNew York's financial district

Look out Chicago - here comes Occupy - Wall Street. More than 40 protesters from the original occupation of New York's financial district that inspired a national movement left for Chicago on a bus in the early hours of Wednesday. | Kim Janssen~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 29, 2012 9:08AM

They’re here, and more are coming — lots more.

The first major busload of out-of-town anti-NATO protesters arrived in Chicago Wednesday evening.

Sixteen hours after they pulled off from a dark New York street corner at 4 a.m., more than 40 tired but excited Occupy Wall Street activists stepped down onto a leafy Lincoln Park block at 7 p.m. wearing Robin Hood masks.

“It’s been fun to ride with you and I’m proud to march with you all,” Shen Tong, one of the “bus captains” told the occupiers moments before they hit Chicago’s streets.

“Let’s rock and roll!”

The arrival of the bus from a protest that sparked a nationwide movement against “the global one percent” marked the beginning of what is expected to be an influx of protesters for this weekend’s NATO Summit.

An additional 16 buses — funded, like the Occupy Wall Street bus, out of a $218,000 donation from anonymous donors and National Nurses United — are due to arrive in time for Friday’s “Robin Hood Tax” rally from Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Providence and Washington, D.C.

Tong, a student leader of the 1989 Chinese democracy protests in Tiananmen Square who became a tech millionaire after he was exiled to the U.S., predicted 10,000 out-of-town protesters would find their way to Chicago one way or another.

Bearing dozens of cell phones, laptops and other digital devices, Tong and the racially diverse group of protesters used social media to keep in running contact with other buses that have already left Los Angeles and Portland, streaming video from their bus over the Internet.

If the iconic bus of the 1960s counterculture was author Ken Kesey’s fluorescently-painted psychedelic school bus, the Occupiers’ coach, was modern, bland and a little “bougie,” the protesters joked — equipped with DVD screens and WiFi. Kesey’s band of pioneering hippies, the Merry Pranksters, tripped on acid. But these 21st century radicals sat at the back of their bus with laptops, laughing at a YouTube video of a pet cat on LSD.

By the halfway point of their journey, somewhere in Ohio, their bus had become a smelly tangle of sleeping bodies and passionate political debates.

“Like a flea market of ideas,” was how Tong described it.

There was the green Mohican-wearing former Tea Party member turned Occupy stalwart Michael Pellagutti, who proudly boasted he had been at the Wall Street occupation “from day one;” Carlos Encarnacion, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who learned just hours after the bus left that he had missed out on his first paid work in months by coming to Chicago; and Barbara, a 62-year-old woman in a hoodie who said: “This isn’t the America I grew up in” but that her 91-year-old father’s disapproval of the protest “makes me feel like a teenager.”

There was Mark Apollo, a quiet but thoughtful 50-year-old who has no home and almost no money or possessions but says he is happy because “my life has meaning” through his involvement with Occupy. There was also Nick, a former paramedic and cycle courier who described himself as a “Dumpster diving snob” because he only eats the finest trash-found food; and Therin Caristo, a 37-year-old convinced that a corporate conspiracy has hidden the secret of free electricity from Americans for nearly 100 years.

Then there were Shawn and Elizabeth, a good-looking, earnest twenty-something anarchist couple that met through Occupy and spent much of the journey canoodling, and the childlike Lara, who, during a short stop for pizza, tiptoed down a river bank to collect a millipede she stored in a jar, while her brother Brendan blasted the coach with techno and slept in the aisle.

There was Maria Fehlig, a Las Vegas nurse and Army veteran who helped set up a medical station that served hundreds in Zuccotti Park, and there was Timmy Turner, an Iraq veteran with a soldier’s knack for sleeping wherever he could. Almost uniquely among the riders, Timmy didn’t talk much.

“I have Asperger’s so some people think I’m anti-social,” he said.

The wealthier or better-connected riders on the bus had places in Chicago to stay lined up — hotels or friends’ couches. Others were winging it.

One girl who had only 13 cents in her wallet and “no other money in the world” got off the bus in Ohio to deal with a family emergency.

Rob “Munchie” Fountaine was one of many carrying everything he owned on the bus.

“If you stick around Occupy enough you learn that things just happen,” he reasoned. He didn’t seem unduly concerned.

“If I like it there, I might stay,” he said.

If the backgrounds of the rag tag army of protesters seemed wildly different, the emotional ties that they said made them a family were obvious. They sung traditional union songs as well as soul and reggae classics and a light-hearted song about donuts designed to antagonize the police.

And when, nearing their destination on the Dan Ryan Expressway, Tong grabbed the microphone, they knew how to respond.

“The banks got bailed out” Tong called out.

“And we got sold out!,” the rest of bus cried back.

“A better world is…” Tong shouted.

“Possible!” they yelled.

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