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This pacifist is no pushover

Updated: July 1, 2012 12:53PM

He said his name was David Pugh, a graduate fellow at the University of California-Riverside who had come to Chicago on a bus with the Occupy New York protesters.

The last time I saw him he was in the middle of a group sitting defiantly in the middle of the westbound lanes of Cermak just west of Michigan Avenue.

Twenty feet away and staring in our direction was a battle line of Chicago Police in riot gear. Everyone had been ordered to disperse. About 25 young people chose to take a seat instead.

“Move back! Move back!” chanted the police beneath their helmets as they stepped forward 10 feet.

More than half of those staging the sit-in fled. Pugh remained.

I knelt beside him and asked if he had a plan.

“I’m practicing stillness,” said Pugh, who was sitting cross-legged with his arms relaxed at his waist, palms pointed upward.

He was a nice-looking kid. Brown, medium-length hair, a beard and mustache, wearing a white shirt and blue jeans.

“We’re now matching their power, which is the threat of violence, with our power, which is peaceful resistance, and showing the police and their masters that we cannot be intimidated,” he said.

It had been a while since I heard anybody talk like that. I asked if he was prepared to be arrested.

“Of course,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t prepared to be arrested.”

Ever been arrested before?

“No,” he said.

A moment later, he allowed with just a trace of a smile: “Prepared is a relative term. If I was really prepared, I would have planned better.”

His mistake, he said, was that he was “carrying tech,” which I took to mean a phone or computer or such. When you’re going to get arrested, you don’t want to be “carrying tech” — or your valuables.

“I’ve got everything I own right here,” said a kid next to him with a backpack.

It was then Pugh told me his name and that he’d come with the New York group.

“They told me, ‘There will be free lodging.’ I said all right. Of course, I’m sleeping in the park.”

He didn’t say it as a complaint, only noting the irony, perhaps in the growing realization that he wouldn’t be sleeping in the park this particular night.

Just 100 feet away on the other side of that police line, the confrontation between police and demonstrators had become physical, we were told. But from where I stood, all I could see was the occasional surge of the crowd.

Until then, the big Sunday protest had gone peacefully from my vantage point walking in the middle of it.

Strangely, the only scuffling I’d observed before then was between members of the “black bloc” group and their fellow demonstrators, when the masked black bloc pushed its way to the front.

It was an eye-opening display of the group’s military-like discipline — and ability to be imposing. It also let everybody know they were prepared for a confrontation, which came just as soon as the post-march rally at Cermak and Michigan finished and organizers asked everyone to leave.

Instead, the black bloc pressed forward on the police line as if to reach McCormick Place and the NATO summiteers.

That’s when police began a herding technique to disperse the crowd, first surrounding it and then pushing forward on one end as if squeezing toothpaste out of the bottle.

As they surrounded the crowd, I stepped back on the safe side of the police line. Some of those caught inside panicked and ran. Among these were the ones who re-grouped for the sit-in.

The police took their time, but when the crowd started to grow, they pressed forward again. “Move back! Move back!”

I did. Pugh didn’t — and was enveloped by the police line that marched right over him.

One of the protesters came rolling out of the scrum on the business end of the boot of a female police officer, but I never caught sight of Pugh again.

He earned his arrest, if that’s what happened, but there would have been no legitimate reason for any harm to come to him.

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