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NATO protesters bloodied in clashes with police

A protester taunts police dressed riot gear during an anti-NATO rally S. Michigan Ave. Cermak Rd. Sunday May 20 2012

A protester taunts police dressed in riot gear during an anti-NATO rally at S. Michigan Ave. and Cermak Rd. Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 20, 2012 10:39PM

Chicago Police in riot gear battled with angry “Black Bloc” protesters at Michigan and Cermak on Sunday, with officers raining down baton blows, pushing taunting protesters back and leaving some bloody.

A sea of blue-helmeted police officers began violently battling with the protesters just before 5 p.m. The fights stopped and started and stopped for about an hour. A strong flare-up of violence erupted around 5:30 p.m. — just as lightning began flashing to the east as a stormfront moved in.

After an hour of pushing, yelling and aggressive crowd control tactics, police pushed the block of protesters back about 50 yards. Although most of the pushing and shoving had subsided by 6 p.m., a protester could be seen being dragged away by police.

While there was still a hardcore group of protesters refusing to leave and confronting police, other protesters made an effort to get the injured out of the street and urged calm.

Several police wagons were moved in through the crowd.

A police lieutenant could be heard telling a line of officers at about 6:15 p.m.: “Just soft wood — no hard wood,” meaning to stop using batons.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration downplayed the seriousness of the clashes.

“While there have been scuffles with individual protesters, the Chicago Police Department has acted professionally and with restraint as protesters refused to disperse,” one city official said.

Throughout the clash, dispatchers could be heard on police radios reminding officers they were on live television and should show restraint.

At a press conference at 8 p.m. Sunday, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy choked up when recounting that four officers were hospitalized with injuries, including one who was stabbed in the leg. Several others were treated at the scene for minor injuries.

Officials did not have an estimate of how many protesters were injured, but many were bloodied and loaded into ambulances. Sunday night, at least one woman who had been arrested could be seen limping into a police station at Belmont and Western; later, someone was taken from the station in an ambulance with a police escort.

The taunting protesters were throwing sticks, bottles and garbage cans at the officers at the intersection — where a mostly peaceful march erupted into violence.

Blows from batons rained down on the front row of the “Black Bloc” protesters, who were screaming at police and pushing forward. As police pushed back, the protesters fell down.

After 5:30 p.m., police called for more cops in riot gear and police on horses to augment the throng of officers already there.

At about the same time, President Barack Obama left McCormick Place, the site of the NATO Summit, to prepare for an evening dinner at Soldier Field. The convention center is less than a half mile from the intersection of Michigan and Cermak. The violence played out about five miles from the president’s home, in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side.

None of the clashes were visible from the presidential motorcade. In fact, the president was greeted by smiling crowds lined up to wave as the procession headed back to the president’s hotel.

Police began ordering protesters to disperse or get arrested shortly after the battle begin. Some of the protesters were yelling at police about being stopped from reaching McCormick Place, where the NATO Summit is underway.

“Attention, attention, this the Chicago Police Department. You must disperse to the west,” police announced over loudspeakers — in both English and Spanish.

At the press conference, McCarthy said 45 people were arrested Sunday, on top of 19 arrested earlier this weekend. That includes someone who cops overheard saying had an incendiary device in his backpack. The liquid found in the pack is being tested, he said.

He said most of those arrested were people that had come to the city determined to clash with cops.

It’s “200 or 300 people who came here to cause problems,” he said, of a crowd he estimated at between 2,500 to 3,000 (protest organizers said as many as 5,000 people were there). “... I have to say to myself, what are you thinking?”

Still, “that is overwhelming” if the numbers of arrests stay at such a low level, he said.

He said there had been only a “couple incidents of property damage,” which involved broken windows downtown.

Fifteen people, including at least five women, could be seen exiting police wagons and being taken in handcuffs into the police station at Belmont and Western after 7:30 p.m. One woman was brought there in an ambulance and was limping as she was led inside.

Earlier, during the melee at Michigan and Cermak, a shouting McCarthy was near the front line — without a helmet. He was directly behind the front row of officers, picking up debris at one point and clearing it away. He could be seen angrily shouting.

He was pacing back and forth, apparently giving orders to his troops. At one point he slapped one of his officers on the top of his blue riot helmet to show his support.

The melee left protesters bloodied. Police were leading detained protesters away from the melee. Several protesters could be seen wrapped in black cloth to keep their arms at their sides. One man in yellow had a bloody forehead. Blood dripped down another’s face.

At a nearby medic station, at least eight people were being treated for cuts.

Protesters were chanting, “Shame, shame, shame!” at the police and were throwing broken placards, garbage cans and water bottles.

Reporters covering the march were told by police before the blows to clear out. But they were pinned in by the throbbing mob and unable to clear. One reporter emerged covered with somebody else’s blood.

The clash between the Black Bloc marchers and police also involved regular protesters as well who were hemmed in between the police and angry marchers — and had nowhere to go.

One young man, Justin Crumbly, 24, of Arlington, Va., said: “I’m getting arrested, and I don’t know why.”

McCarthy was on a median directing activity with police and ordered officers to take off their gas masks.

Jenna Pope, 21, and Charity Schmidt, 34, both of Madison, Wis., said a group of about 50 protesters tried to move toward McCormick Place when police started hitting people with batons.

“I saw two guys bleeding from the head,” Pope said.

The police had directed the crowd to leave by going west, and was stopping the crowd from heading east.

The “Black Bloc” protesters had clashed with police earlier Sunday afternoon near a fastfood restaurant at 13th and Michigan.

Protesters hurled bottles and invective at police, who are clad in riot gear and pushed marchers back as they approached a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop.

The crowd moved on, but tensions between the “Black Bloc” protesters and police remained high, among a mainly peaceful march.

Authorities also said police had arrested six people in possession of balloons filled with urine and socks filled with rocks at Harrison and Michigan.

The march started at Grant Park, as protesters gathered there Sunday afternoon to rally. They finished the march near McCormick Place as the Chicago NATO Summit opened and world leaders began talks on the future of Afghanistan. As the march ended, veterans were giving speeches to the crowd, denouncing the war in Afghanistan.

Earlier in the day, in 90-degree heat, thousands of protesters who’d rallied at Grant Park’s Petrillo Band Shell began marching west on Jackson, south on State, east on Harrison and south on Michigan. The line of marchers was led by war veterans, many of them dressed in camouflage, some of whom were going to return their war medals in a ceremony on McCormick.

Chicago police, in short sleeves and many wearing vests but not riot gear, lined both sides of the street, shutting down traffic for the march, with two police vans driving ahead of the group, clearing the way. The rally, concert and march were permitted by the city.

As the march reached Harrison, state police in helmets were visible, with riot gear nearby, and other police were on bicycles.

At Cermak and Michigan, waiting for the rally to arrive, helmeted police on horseback, the horses outfitted with plastic visors to protect their eyes.

There, about 15 people gathered to call for a no-fly zone in Syria and the ouster of the rulers who have used force against civilian opponents.

As young people took turns leading chants over a bullhorn, “free, free Syria,” Noura Almasri, 33, of Aurora, said she took advantage of the NATO Summit being here to call attention to the need for intervention since children and other innocent people have been killed in her native country.

Earlier, at noon in Grant Park, Supt. McCarthy told reporters he was expecting a peaceful rally — and he said his officers were ready to manage the crowd.

“I anticipate today is going to be a good day,” McCarthy said.

A protester standing behind McCarthy shouted over him: “Children are dying now!” McCarthy kept his cool and kept answering questions about how his department is handing the protests.

“We told our cops we’ve trained for this we have a plan for this,” he said. “All we have to do now is execute. Be professional. Act like there is a camera on you at all times.”

McCarthy said the crowds at noon were much smaller than 50,000 that some organizers were promising.

“Clearly that hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

At a rally at the Petrillo Bandshell, musician Tom Morello led the crowd, including dozens of military veterans, in a rendition of the Woody Guthrie folk classic, “This Land Is Your Land,” urging protesters to “fight against economic injustice.”

Protesters carried signs in support of Wikileaks alleged source Private Bradley Manning, and countless other progressive causes, including ending the war in Afghanistan.

Afghani-American Abdul Mohmand made the trip from Salt Lake City, where he teaches politics, to join the protest.

“The U.S. has to negotiate with the Taliban,” he said. “How can America continue to prop up a government that has no support?”

“I’m here to protest the injustice that is going on in Afghanistan, the war crimes and the human rights violations and the atrocities.”

President Obama arrived at McCormick at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. People were lined up in River North to watch his motorcade as it drove from the Sheraton down Ontario to the expressway and to McCormick Place.

Earlier Sunday morning, Iraq Veterans Against the War members spoke out against the Iraq and Afghan War and called for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan and support for returning veterans at an event near Grant Park. Several dozen veterans were there, with some of them planning to give back the medals they earned in service later Sunday.

First Lady Michelle Obama led spouses of NATO leaders on a tour of The Gary Comer Youth Center, which is home to everything from academic tutoring to a “Youth Urban Agriculture Program” to a recording studio, at 7200 S. Ingleside in the city’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, officials said.

Mrs. Obama and the rest of the group, along with kids involved in the Comer center and faculty there, saw performances by the South Shore Dance Drill Team, the Muntu Dance Theater which features African and African-American dance and music, and the Soul Children of Chicago, another musical group.

Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen opened the main event of the summit at Sunday afternoon.

Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai huddled on the sidelines of the summit for an hour-long meeting. Their talks were expected to focus on planning for Afghanistan’s 2014 elections, as well as the prospect of a political settlement with the Taliban, a senior Obama administration official said.

Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika

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