Anti-NATO, war protesters rally in Chicago

3:44 PM, May 20, 2012   |    comments
Occupy Chicago protester taunts a Chicago police officer with a pack of donuts during a march down Michigan Avenue, Illinois
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CHICAGO - Thousands of demonstrators protesting the two-day NATO summit meeting here prepared a downtown march Sunday to decry the presence of world leaders talking about the next stages in the Afghanistan War.

Greg Hagen, 56, a Navy veteran, came to Chicago with two busloads of fellow protesters from Minneapolis. "I felt I had to be here," he said. "We're tired of war. Voting doesn't work. We've tried that and it doesn't work."

Hagen was among protesters who gathered at Petrillo Bandshell in downtown Chicago before a noon rally and march to McCormick Place where NATO leaders are meeting Sunday and Monday.

Meanwhile, prosecutors said two men will make initial appearances in court here as part of what they describe as an ongoing investigation of activists who planned to take part in demonstrations.

The Cook County State Attorney's office said in a statement Sunday that 28-year-old Mark Neiweem is charged with attempted possession of explosives or incendiary devices and 24-year-old Sebastian Senakiewicz is charged with falsely making a terrorist threat.

Prosecutors are expected to offer more details at the hearing later Sunday.

The latest charges came a day after three other activists appeared in court and were accused of manufacturing Molotov cocktails and having plans to attack President Obama's campaign headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home, and other targets.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a news conference that he is satisfied with police performance during the week's demonstrations.

"You're seeing us facilitate peaceful protests," he said, despite provocations from people "looking to cause problems."

As he spoke, protesters shouted, "One, two, three, four - Occupy says no to war" and "entrapment."

The latter was a reference to the arrests of those charged with terrorism.

Zoe Sigman of Occupy Chicago, whose house was raided by police who arrested three of the men, told the rally, "This campaign of terror is not over. ... They terrorized our trust."

By early afternoon, as temperatures rose to the 80s, several thousand demonstrators had gathered. Dozens of police, many on bicycles, assembled on the edges of the crowd. Motorcades zipped by occasionally on Columbus Drive and helicopters hovered overhead.

Thousands of police officers - including reinforcements from Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Charlotte - were deployed; a no-fly zone was being enforced; and some commuter trains will be canceled Monday. Some businesses are boarding up windows.

Speaking to reporters just ahead of the official start of the summit, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said top NATO officials met with representatives of several groups protesting the summit to hear their concerns. He added that he didn't think the protests would distract from the work of the summit, which comes as alliance leaders discuss the future of Afghanistan as NATO readies to wind down its decade-old combat mission.

"I'm pleased that we the peoples of NATO countries live in free societies where freedom of expression is a fundamental value," Fogh Rasmussen said. "We have reached out to the groups of protesters. One of my assistant secretary-generals met recently with representatives of the protesters, so they got an opportunity to convey their messages directly to NATO and we got the opportunity to explain exactly what NATO stands for."

Increasingly tense clashes Saturday night tested police who used bicycles to barricade off streets and horseback officers to coax protesters in different directions. Eighteen people were arrested, McCarthy said.

Hosting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a 28-country military alliance, is a coup for Obama's adopted hometown. The city also was to host a Group of Eight meeting of the world's largest economies this weekend, but it was moved earlier this year to Maryland's Camp David. Obama arrived here Saturday.

Jackson Hamilton, 20, is the only representative of Occupy Charleston (S.C.) to make the trip to Chicago. "War is evil!! Like duh!!" his sign read. "Killing a few thousand or a few million people is a bad thing to do," he said. "War is just evil."

Dorothy Conway, 50, a voice-over artist from Chicago, flew a kite decorated with peace signs. She said she isn't sure protests make a difference but said it's invigorating to be among people who feel, as she does, that NATO is the "engine of the military-industrial complex" and should no longer exist. "This is a message that's becoming a massive worldwide message and that's what gives me hope," she said.

Artist Betsy Benefield, 54, of Chicago, joined Sunday's protest because "I want to stand up for our rights. We need peace."

Do demonstrations make a difference? "I sure hope so," she said.

Organizers of Sunday's rally had initially predicted tens of thousands of protesters this weekend. But that was when the G-8 summit also was scheduled to be in Chicago.

Chicago kept the NATO summit, which will focus on the war in Afghanistan and other 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.

Contributing: Associated Press

By Judy Keen and Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY

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