CHICAGO Charlotte got its first glimpse Saturday of how street protests could affect the city when the Democratic National Convention arrives.
After nightfall, things grew increasingly tense as hundreds of protesters surged through the streets.
Police, some in riot gear and at times with billy clubs, stood at the ready. Journalists from the Observer, in Chicago to report on the city's interaction with protesters, witnessed a particularly sharp clash in front of the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower. As protesters marched against traffic, they came upon a police van.
The protesters refused to move. They started pounding on the van. The driver refused to stop, even though one man was hanging off the hood. One demonstrator slashed the van's tires.
As the van passed by, one of the demonstrators could be seen on the ground, apparently in need of attention.
The increasingly tense clashes between protesters and police resulted in 18 arrests, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told the Associated Press.
Earlier Saturday, extraordinary security measures meant to protect President Barack Obama and other world leaders at the NATO summit turned parts of this normally bustling city into a ghost town.
Police barricades blocked dozens of streets. Museums usually teeming with weekend tourists stood empty. And businesses closest to the event covered windows with plywood.
The U.S. Secret Service, which dictated almost every aspect of the plan, will also oversee security during the DNC in September.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police got a hands-on look Saturday when they toured the city and met with planners from the Chicago Police Department and other agencies. Some 100 CMPD officers will help provide security when the NATO summit commences Sunday.
Security planners have essentially closed a large part of downtown Chicago near the convention center hosting the summit.
CMPD Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, among the visiting officers, said that Charlotte would likely avoid such a move. “It will be a secure site, but will it be completely devoid of people? No,” Medlock said.
Chicago leaders have the same hopes for the NATO summit as Charlotte does for the DNC: They want international exposure that casts the city in a positive light while minimizing safety risks.
Authorities said Saturday they arrested three alleged anarchists they charged with plotting to hurl Molotov cocktails at police stations, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home and President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters.
Chicago leaders are hoping the summit will reinforce the city’s status as one of the world’s leading cities.
Civic leaders of the nation’s third largest city were embarrassed when Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics was rejected despite help from President Obama.
City fathers also want to erase the memories of the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention which erupted into violence between protestors and police.
Charlotte hopes the DNC, expected to draw 35,000 visitors, will elevate its national profile after a decade of unprecedented growth.
Large demonstrations expected
Thousands of protestors have converged here in a show of force they hope will capture international media attention on war, economic inequality and other issues. The largest demonstrations are expected Sunday.
On Saturday, more than 1,000 marched in an impromptu rally planned via Twitter and text messages. They blocked streets and chanted, “Whose street? Our street,” as they walked, flanked by dozens of police officers on bikes, in cars, on horseback and on foot.
Thomas Zeitner, a member of Occupy Chicago, said protesters were responding to the arrests of the three people accused of making homemade bombs. Protestors claim the men arrested are innocent.
Jared Hamil, who attended the march, said he was recruiting demonstrators to attend the DNC in Charlotte and the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Hamil said he belongs to a group called Fight Back Florida and said the goal is to bring 5,000 people to the conventions.
“We don’t support any one party’s agenda,” Hamil said. “We oppose the parties of the 1 percent.”
‘Slow’ in normally bustling sections
Sections of the city typically filled with pedestrians and traffic tie-ups stood silent on Friday and Saturday. The summit drove business away from restaurants and shops accustomed to brisk weekend sales. “It’s slow,” said Christina Sauseda, a waitress at the Marquette Inn restaurant and bar. “The construction workers aren’t even working because they don’t have access to the buildings.”
Near the summit site, plywood covered windows on some buildings to prevent possible damage from protests. Workers were putting boards up in front of a Ford dealership near a rally planned for Sunday.
Steve Blessman, who lives near the city’s NFL stadium, said the people who manage his condominium complex warned him that protests could grow violent. Building managers sent out memos that discouraged the people who live in his building from wearing jewelry. They should be cautious when using a cellphone outside, the memo said. Still, he said he feels no danger. “If I didn’t feel it was safe, I would have left for the weekend with my family,” Blessman said.
From his 43rd floor apartment, he watched as law enforcement agents and city officials walled off a large segment of the cultural district near his home – Soldier Field, three museums, a concert venue and a planetarium. Lake Shore Drive – normally busy with cars – was completely empty. Concrete barricades were in place to stop cars and, behind them, metal fences to impede pedestrians, one day before the president and other dignitaries were expected to be on site.
“Everything east of me is shut down,” he said. “When the protesters march, once they start moving people, I won’t be able to get out.”
CMPD meets Chicago counterparts
CMPD officers arrived in Chicago Friday night. On Saturday, they still hadn’t received notification about where they would be policing, CMPD spokesman Brian Cunningham said.
Until the nighttime incident, the protests Saturday were relatively peaceful. That allowed CMPD leaders to meet with their Chicago counterparts.
DNC Committee CEO Steve Kerrigan has said Charlotte’s will be not only the “safest convention, but the least disruptive in terms of impact on daily lives.” Said Medlock: “We’ve been able to test some of the assumptions that we’ve made.”
The biggest tests will likely come Sunday and Monday, with large rallies planned each day. McCarthy, the police superintendent, has said planners tried to ensure safety without creating the appearance of a police state. But throngs of police officers – some from as far away as Philadelphia – blanketed street corners and kept close watch on some buildings.
An intense effort
Federal Homeland Security officers circled a post office repeatedly in SUVs. Other officers stood nearby with a police dog. At the Chicago Hilton, squad cars surrounded the building. Hotel security prohibited passersby from stopping near the hotel’s entrances.
Visitors to one of the few museums that remained open Saturday had go through a metal detector before they reached the door.
A Secret Service member shooed away bicyclists who wanted to use the path normally open to them. One woman rode off saying of the NATO summit, “They shouldn’t have had this in Chicago if there’s so much risk.”