CHICAGO (AP) — A diverse crowd of protesters began streaming into a downtown Chicago park Sunday for one of the city’s largest demonstrations in years — a march to the lakeside convention center hosting a historic NATO summit.
Peace activists joined with war veterans and people more focused on the economy for the protest, which was expected to draw thousands of participants. Marchers arrived at Grant Park with signs denouncing NATO, including ones that read, “War=Debt” and “NATO, Go Home.”
They planned to walk 2½ miles to the site at which President Obama and other world leaders were meeting to discuss the war in Afghanistan, European missile defense and other issues.
“I’ll be walking all day and guiding all day, trying to keep tempers calm,” said Sue Eleuterio of Highland, Ind., a longtime activist who plans to act as a “peace guide” by mediating problems between police and protesters. “Our goal, believe it or not, is to have a family-friendly protest that is peaceful.”
Organizers of Sunday’s rally initially predicted tens of thousands of protesters this weekend, but that was when the G-8 summit of leading industrial nations also was scheduled to be in Chicago. Earlier this year, Mr. Obama moved the Group of 8 economic meeting to Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in rural Maryland.
Chicago kept the NATO summit, which focuses on international security matters but not the economy. That left activists with the challenge of persuading groups as diverse as teachers, nurses and union laborers to show up for the Chicago protests even though the summit’s main focus doesn’t align with their most heartfelt issues.
“I’m here to protest NATO, which I feel is the enforcement arm of the ruling 1 percent — of the capitalist 1 percent,” said protester John Schraufnagel, who took a bus from Minneapolis to Chicago.
Sunday’s protest followed several smaller demonstrations over the previous two days, including a march Saturday to the home of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former chief of staff.
Later that evening, hundreds of demonstrators zigzagged through downtown, some decrying terrorism-related charges leveled against three young men earlier in the day.
Increasingly tense clashes Saturday night tested police, who used bicycles to barricade off streets and horseback officers to coax them in different directions. Eighteen people were arrested.
Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said officers would be ready with quick but targeted arrests of any demonstrators who turn violent Sunday.
“If anything else happens, the plan is to go in and get the people who create the violent acts, take them out of the crowd and arrest them,” Supt. McCarthy warned. “We’re not going to charge the crowd wholesale — that’s the bottom line.”
Security has been tight throughout the city. As police gathered en masse on street corners, near parks and landmarks, the city’s streets remained largely vacant and many downtown buildings closed.
“It’s strange because downtown is empty,” said Gabe Labovitz, an economist out for a walk near his home. “The police presence is reassuring but unnerving.”
Three activists who traveled to Chicago for the summit were accused Saturday of manufacturing Molotov cocktails in a plot to attack Mr. Obama’s campaign headquarters, Mr. Emanuel’s home and other targets.