Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tampa police study Chicago protests to hone RNC strategy

The socialists shouted and the Hare Krishnas hummed. Half a dozen men held up a Palestinian flag the size of a swimming pool. Middle-class moms in pink wielded cardboard guns, part of the antiwar crowd.

On the first day of the NATO summit last weekend, an estimated 3,000 protesters with every message imaginable swarmed south on
Michigan Avenue
. They were flanked on either side by compact lines of Chicago police officers.

A scrum of young people dressed in black and wearing masks snaked through the crowd carrying a red and black anarchy flag.

"What do we want?" they roared. "Dead cops! When do we want it? Now."

Tampa police Assistant Chief John Bennett stopped to watch it all from the dappled shade of a young elm tree.

In August, Tampa will host the Republican National Convention, and many of the same protesters will converge on its streets. Bennett and other local public safety officers had come to get a peek at what to expect when 10,000 protesters mass in Tampa's smaller, and much hotter, downtown.

"This looks like the aftermath of Gasparilla right now," Bennett said, as a caped man wearing a rubber boot as a hat circled four people carrying cardboard cornstalks.

Bennett predicted that Tampa, with its experience handling the Super Bowl and the Gasparilla parade's drunken crowd of 500,000, could deal with this.

As he spoke, the sun disappeared and the wind picked up. Thunder cracked. Less than 100 feet away, Chicago police officers in pale blue helmets and protesters in black bandannas began jostling. Bottles and sticks flew. A man scaled a skinny leafless tree and shook it violently.

Bennett craned his neck. "They rushed the police," he said.

He climbed a barricade and turned on his video camera, zooming in on the fracas. It was hard to tell what was going on, but the swinging billy clubs didn't look like Gasparilla.

The day before the summit even began, a crowd had gathered at Daley Plaza to protest the arrest on terrorism charges of three young men — members of the Occupy Miami group. Police said they had bombmaking equipment. Protesters said they were making beer.

About 300 protesters had begun marching quickly between the skyscrapers of Chicago's Loop financial district. They had no permit, but the police let them move freely.

Here was the first indication that Chicago's 11,500-member police force wanted to avoid a replay of the infamous 1968 Democratic convention when officers cudgeled antiwar protesters on national TV.

Passing a Walgreens, the crowd chanted: "No more shopping, bombs are dropping." A young man jumped on a trash receptacle and yelled: "We are the occupation! We are not leaving!"

As the protest meandered, officers on bikes kept pace, hemming in the marchers on either side. But when the march arrived at the bridge over the river that leads to Chicago's high-end shopping district, police stood three deep with their bikes as barriers. They didn't want the protesters anywhere near the glass storefronts of Burberry and Nordstrom.

The protesters turned around and headed down Michigan Avenue toward the NATO summit headquarters south of downtown. Police on foot, on bikes and Segways tried to stay ahead, but it wasn't easy. Police in vans and cars trailed them. Traffic stalled.

At the city's center, near the scene of the 1968 clash, police with batons blocked the protesters' path. Behind them were mounted officers, their horses wearing protective goggles. Three helicopters hovered above.

"Get those pigs off those horses," the protesters screamed. "This is what a police state looks like. Let us march! "

Then they sat down in the street inches from the police officers' bike tires.

The police stood immobile, absorbing the crowd's abuse. Some smiled. Others sneered.
Periodically, a voice from the command center could be heard over the officers' radios, urging them to "stick to your training."

A trickle of protesters slipped around the blockade. Others followed and the officers began to give way like a broken dam. A supervising officer gave a signal and the police moved aside, letting the demonstrators flood past.

The protesters pumped their fists in victory. But really it had been a stalling tactic on the part of police, designed to get more officers out front of the marchers.

"Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets!" the emboldened crowd bellowed.

One policeman's horse got skittish and started to turn in circles. Protesters clapped and screamed, rattling the horse more.

Occupy Chicago organizer Matthew McLoughlin, 26, said the marchers' words were harsh, but deserved.

"That kind of rhetoric is derived out of very real interactions people have with police on a regular basis," he said.

"Dirty, mother f---ing pigs," screeched one man.

"You know you want this doughnut," said another masked man, who stuck a pack of doughnuts in Chicago police Cmdr. Kenneth Angarone's face.

"Relax, everybody chill," Angarone said.

He took the doughnuts, smiled. "Thank you."

Larry McKinnon, spokesman for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, was amazed at the level of abuse he saw over the weekend. But he was impressed with the way the police handled it and he expects his department will do equally well. "Part of our training is to let that roll off our backs."
• • •
On Sunday, behind the folds of two large anarchist flags, including one that said: "One Direction, Insurrection," people covered head to toe in black hid from news photographers. They were members of "Black Bloc," and if there was a group of protesters that Bennett, the assistant police chief, was most concerned with, this was it.
"No pictures. I'm going to break your damn camera," one of them threatened.

Derek Roberts, a 34-year-old construction worker, snapped shots on his phone. He'd come down to check out the scene.

"I'm free to take pictures if I want," he yelled. "I'm from Chicago. I work for a living. Try it."

Yoni Miller, 18, emerged from the huddled group. He wore all black, including black gloves and a black bandanna, and his black hair had a streak of white. He said he has been a member of Occupy Wall Street since its inception. He'd traveled here by bus with several hundred other Occupiers. He considers himself a revolutionary.

He explained that Black Bloc, which traces its roots to 1930s Germany, is not a group. "It's a tactic.

"The whole point," he said, "is to protect each other so they can't target anybody."

Their role, he said, was to "foster the conditions for a revolution." Asked how far he was willing to go, how violent he was willing to be, he would say only that he was willing to be arrested. An hour earlier, seven Black Bloc activists had been arrested after police say they were found with rocks, spray paint, pry bars and bottles filled with urine and feces.

Soon the group fanned out into the thousands of peaceful protesters, past the veterans and the ACLU observers, their angry voices rising above everyone else: "The fascist state has got to go."

They moved like a train, hands on each other's shoulders, past a boy singing in a baritone voice about love and an old lady in a straw hat with a peace sign attached to her walker.

Bennett trailed behind. He was reluctant to talk about tactics, but it wasn't hard to imagine him thinking how he might deploy his officers as a crowd marches down Tampa Street toward the Convention Center.

"Black Bloc has been cut in half," a shrill voice screamed. "Slow it down."

Soon the crowd arrived yet again to within blocks of the NATO summit convention center. Military veterans gathered on a stage to throw away their war medals.

Police with batons at the ready stood watch next to the stage.

Unbeknownst to protesters, police in full riot gear were sitting in air-conditioned buses on side streets, waiting in case they were needed.

The Black Bloc activists stood in the back of the crowd. As the war ceremony ended, they ignored calls by both the veterans on stage and the police to disperse toward the west.

"NATO's east," they yelled. "Push!"

From where Bennett stood, it was impossible to tell who struck the first blow. The protesters said it was the cops. The police said it was the protesters.

A YouTube video showed a small group in black suddenly rushing toward police. The officers responded by clubbing the protesters with their batons. The demonstrators' signs became weapons. Some protesters hurled a metal barricade at police.

A photo in the Chicago Tribune depicted a protester cracking a stick over the head of an officer who had lost his riot helmet. The next photo shows an officer punching a protester, his lip curled in anger.

Four officers were injured, including one who was stabbed in the leg by a stick. Ten protesters received medical treatment.

As the confrontation wound down, an army of Illinois state police officers marched down the road in full riot gear. A police car pulled up, mounted with an ear-splitting sound cannon.


As those arrested were led away — 45 in all — a young woman shrieked at a female police officer wearing a pale brownish red lipstick: "Think that lipstick is going to help your ugly face? Look at those fat thighs!"

The officer smiled and turned the other way.
• • •
The Loop was empty as hundreds of protesters heeded the Twitter call of Occupy Chicago and gathered at the headquarters of Boeing on the final day of the summit.

The police knew they were coming. In the river below, aboard a Coast Guard speedboat, an officer manned a mounted machine gun.

The demonstrators shot paper airplanes into the air and yelled: "No missiles, no tanks, we'll burn your f---king banks!

It was a Monday and most Chicago residents had stayed home.

"It's like a holiday down here," said Peerce Lake, a stock broker, as he watched the protesters pass. "A lot of people are working from home."

But Chicago is so big, you could have lived downtown and not seen the protesters at all. That's unlikely to happen in Tampa; Chicago's footprint could hold several of Tampa's downtowns, said McKinnon, the sheriff's spokesman.

"What are they protesting?" Barbara Green of New York City asked a park official on the final day of her Chicago vacation. She and her husband of 53 years, Jack, hadn't seen a single demonstrator. But the museums had been closed and the trolley had shut down.
"I think Chicago was overreacting," she said.

At the crowd's edge, Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was doing a TV interview, declaring the event a success.

"We've only had 93 arrests for the entire week," and no major property damage, he said. "I think the news is not what happened. It's what didn't happen."

What did happen went on and on. The marchers roamed the streets well into the night. Unlike Tampa's plans, Chicago officials made no attempt to limit the length of the marches.
• • •
As he sat waiting for his plane at Midway Airport on Tuesday, Bennett said what he'd seen hadn't really surprised him. Tampa Bay officers have been training for the Republican National Convention for months.

But he planned to bring the lessons of Chicago home to Tampa's officers. He'd witnessed the taunting up close, seen the agitating. He knew that confrontations were inevitable.

"And there's no way to make it look pretty," said McKinnon, the Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman. "It's ugly."

Some protesters taunted to get a rise. Some, Bennett said, were looking for a lawsuit payout.

If his officers were too harsh, they would constantly be fighting protesters. Too soft and they would be chasing more demonstrators through a smaller city. Somewhere, there was a middle ground.

"We are going to be very flexible and we are going to be very patient," Bennett said. "But we will be very diligent on things that look like they are taking a criminal tone."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or lapeter@tampabay.com.

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