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Sigh of relief: City survives NATO Summit

Chicago Police officers keep eye crowd protesting Monday May 21. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media

Chicago Police officers keep on eye on the crowd protesting Monday, May 21. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 23, 2012 9:51AM

Wheels up. NATO is gone. Sighs of relief all around.

No party for the Secret Service, though Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the summit press corps bowling.

Emanuel probably wasn’t among those sighing. It’s not in his nature. But he probably should have been.

Emanuel took a big political risk by bringing the NATO Summit here — lots of potential downside along with very little obvious upside to the regular working stiff.

And he pulled it off.

There were no disasters.

President Barack Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gushed over Chicago having provided a “great showcase,” presumably reflecting the views of other world leaders.

The video clips of Chicago Police clubbing heads of protesters may not help the next tourism campaign, but overall, it was hard to argue with the performance of Supt. Garry McCarthy’s department.

Some of the protesters weren’t real happy, but their injuries will mend, and their lawsuits will eventually be resolved, plus the First Amendment got some exercise.

Chicago will get back to work Tuesday without any appreciable hangover from the weekend’s activities.

By not failing, Emanuel and Chicago succeeded.

Emanuel naturally delivered a much rosier assessment Monday afternoon, arguing Chicago received the kind of international attention that will drive foreign investment and tourism dollars here in the future.

I hope that’s true, though I would caution it’s tricky to gauge benefits that could take years to materialize, while it was apparent to anybody downtown that Chicago was operating at anywhere from half to three-quarters speed for about four days.

The most obvious immediate beneficiary of the summit was the private security industry, which must have set a record for rent-a-cop employment.

You only had to round the corner of Harrison and Michigan during Sunday’s protest march to be reminded of how high the stakes were for Emanuel.

In the foreground were grim-faced members of the Illinois State Police in full riot gear making the first real display of police muscle on the protest route as they steered the demonstrators wide into the far lanes of traffic beyond the median.

In the background was the apparent object of their defensive positioning: the Chicago Hilton and Towers, better known as the Conrad Hilton during the 1968 Democratic National when it was the scene of some of the fiercest — and most well broadcast — tussles between antiwar protesters and Chicago Police.

The message was clear to anybody with a sense of history: We’re not going to do that again, not here, not today.

After the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center, everyone declared the ghosts of 1968 — and the lingering image it gave the city — to be dead.

But the fact is the police were never tested in 1996 to the extent that they were expected to be during NATO, and doubts remained about whether they were ready.

The real test came at the end of the march, when the crowd was asked to disperse by the event’s organizers.

I was there and witnessed part of what happened, and I’ve watched the video and spoken to my colleagues who were even closer to the action. I think most of us on scene agree the police did a good job, with the possible exception that they didn’t always differentiate between the elements of the crowd who meant them harm and those who just hung around too long.

Some of the protesters who got clubbed weren’t trying to cause trouble, and the tactic of squeezing the crowd almost got some folks seriously trampled.

But this was no police riot either. Police executed a disciplined, tactical strategy that was fairly obvious in its unfolding to those on the street.

The problems were started by a relatively small portion of the protesters who wanted to push through the police lines to reach McCormick Place. Everybody knew the police weren’t going to allow that.

Did Emanuel’s police erase the memories of Dick Daley’s police in 1968? I wouldn’t say that. But there’s no new memory of a major embarrassment to follow around Emanuel or the city either.

Having survived our brush with world leaders, maybe in the future we could just have them back one at a time.

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