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Supt. McCarthy on the front line: ‘You lead from the front.’

Supt. Garry McCarthy large protest against NATO Cermak   Michigan. Sunday May 20 2012 | Brian Jacks~Sun-Times

Supt. Garry McCarthy at the large protest against NATO at Cermak & Michigan. Sunday, May 20, 2012 | Brian Jackson ~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 6, 2012 12:42PM

Under the hot mid-day sun, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy wiped his brow and took unexpected compliments from a few of the thousands of folks from across the country who marched down Michigan Avenue to protest the NATO Summit.

“Thank you for keeping this peaceful,” a woman dressed in pink said.

“No, thank you,” said McCarthy, who walked alongside the protesters and uniformed officers sporting Chicago-blue helmets and wooden clubs.

When a man wearing a colorful mask came to McCarthy with a plea — “An old woman was assaulted. Help her” ­— Chicago’s top cop personally escorted the alleged offender to officers who later placed the man, a lawyer from San Francisco, under arrest.

“So far, everything is as we expected,” McCarthy said just after 2 p.m. “A couple broken windows. But we don’t know if that’s NATO related, yet. Most people are here to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.”

Three hours later, everything changed. A band of “Black Bloc” protesters clashed with police at Cermak and Michigan in an apparent attempt to move closer to McCormick Place, where world leaders gathered for summit talks. As the march neared the protest’s city-approved destination, the Black Bloc banded together in the crowd and charged the line of police outfitted in bulky black body armor, helmets and face shields with gas masks and clubs dangling from their belts.

Protesters pushed forward and hurled bottles, shoes, wooden sticks and rocks, among other things.

Police shoved them back and pounded some of them bloody with clubs and arrested others, confining them with rubber handcuffs.

McCarthy, without a stitch of armor, stood behind that first line of cops, barking commands. A few of the things thrown by protesters hit McCarthy, but he wasn’t hurt. An officer standing next to him took a bottle to the helmet. “No big deal,” McCarthy said when the conflict was over.

Police knew there would be a confrontation. Detectives received information that the Black Bloc — some of them heard chanting “What do we want? Dead cops,” earlier in the day — had it all planned. After Iraq War veterans ceremoniously gave back their war medals, certain protestors would strike. And it happened right on cue, McCarthy said.

“They came after us. We’re not here to get assaulted. You can use force to overcome an assault, and that’s exactly what happened … Where are the fingers pointing at the people who charged us. You can’t expect me to say cops weren’t doing the right thing. We were there to hold the line, and we did.”

A few minutes after the confrontation started, one cop went down, flat on his back. McCarthy jumped into the line and pulled the officer out of the crowd.

“I thought he was hurt and told him to get out of the line,” McCarthy said. “But he said, ‘I just fell down.’ I told him to get back in there and gave him a pat on the helmet.”

At one point, each officer dropped to one knee and quickly strapped on his gas mask. Police had received word that at least one person in the crowd had either tear gas or some kind of explosive device.” A few minutes later, that man was in custody — quashing the possible threat.

McCarthy, standing on a median planter, jumped down to street level and signaled — almost like a general — that all was clear. Officers removed their masks. McCarthy barked more orders.

“You lead from the front. You can’t lead from behind,” McCarthy said. “I’m not asking my cops to do anything I wasn’t going to do. We knew this was coming. I was going to be in the middle of it. I just had my helmet in the truck and never had a chance to get it. Oh, well. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

At the center of the conflict, four officers were injured, one stabbed in the leg. Altogether, police arrested 45 people Sunday through mid-evening. It’s unclear how many protesters were injured.

Protest organizer Andy Thayer wasn’t impressed with McCarthy’s leadership.

“I would not give high marks to Garry McCarthy, who helped gin up an atmosphere of violence with his comment bragging about training 30,000 police in riot duty,” Thayer said.

“I would give credit to police on the scene who helped make adequate provisions for water on a day with extreme heat. The only problem was they were rather belligerently pushing people away near the end ... in an uber show of force, which I think is unfortunate.”

On Twitter, folks watching the action on TV noticed McCarthy’s front-and-center presence and offered up their opinions.

“Garry McCarthy is out there helping his men, with no riot gear. None. Cop of the year, yo,” @RegYoung posted.

Not everyone in the Internet peanut gallery agreed with that sentiment.

“I hope he gets knocked out … #CPD Supt. Garry McCarthy, down in the thick of things. #NATO,” Michael Jenkins on his Twitter handle @Saggerifico.

That’s fine with McCarthy, who praised officers — the cops in battle gear, 70 bicycle cops and the uniformed officers who took verbal lashings from protesters on the parade route. McCarthy even teared up at a news conference Sunday night.

“Oh my God how proud I am of these cops,” McCarthy told the Sun-Times in a phone interview. “I’m really happy these are hard working guys — and there were a ton of women involved, too, I’m really so proud of this group for that. They have to know that they’re not out there on their own. I’m just very happy I was able to get in there with them, and I’m proud of the action they took.”

For many officers, the proud feelings were mutual.

“It makes the troops feel better when our commander is in the front line,” officer Anthony Richardson said after the crowds finally dispersed as the hot sun set.

“Even without gear, he wasn’t in danger. We got his back like we got each others’ backs. For me, to see him do that makes me feel that he is a great leader.”

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