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Chicago braces for major protests as NATO summit looms

As world leaders gather for the NATO summit in Chicago this weekend, they will be welcomed by thousands of protesters with a litany of complaints. Chief among them: Stop spending money on war and use it to rebuild recession-hit communities instead.

Protesters already have taken to the streets over a number of causes in the week leading up to the summit, including the shuttering of local schools and the loss of homes through foreclosures, and they stormed the building that houses the headquarters of President Obama’s campaign.

But they’re planning larger rallies and marches in the days to come, one to call for a “Robin Hood” tax on certain Wall Street transactions and another led by anti-war activists where a group of 9/11-era veterans plan to return their service medals to protest the "war on terror."

“We’re seeking to show how the policies and the money that goes to NATO trickles down to hurt people in every community in America and especially in Chicago,” said Rachael Perrotta, a 32-year-old receptionist and a member of the press team for Occupy Chicago, one of the two main groups organizing the protests. “Over 800 million in U.S. tax dollars goes to fund NATO each year and our country is crumbling. Here in Chicago, they’re closing schools, they’re closing health clinics and we’re saying that we need our money to stay here to fund services in this country, not to go overseas to kill people on the other side of the world.”

NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, consists of 28 member nations, including the United States. NATO members have deployed alongside the United States in the Afghan war and NATO led last year’s military action in Libya.

Chicago has assigned 3,100 officers to NATO's two-day summit to guard against the kind of violence that broke out in the streets of Seattle at the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999. They will be assisted by hundreds of officers from other cities such as Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., reported, and the city has warned of massive travel disruptions.

The city also has imposed limits on how close the protesters, which include dozens of unions and anti-war, environmental, education, healthcare and civil liberties’ groups, can get to the convention center where the summit is being held -- within “sight and sound” of it, according to the Chicago Tribune -- raising the ire of the demonstrators.

“We’ve had an 11-month fight with the city and with the federal authorities for our right to protest against war and greed, and it’s come down to these days of protests,” which will give people an “opportunity to express their voices as part of this movement,” said Joe Iosbaker, an organizer with the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda (CANG8), the other main group organizing the protests.

Archive video: Look back at the calamitous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago

The National Lawyers Guild, which said it was sending out legal observers to the demonstrations and aiding those who were arrested, said late Thursday that at least 20 people have been arrested so far this week, and two people were still in custody.

The American Civil Liberties Union has released guidelines for protesters to consider under a new federal law that it said has “expanded the ability of the Secret Service to suppress protests” near people under its protection. But a spokesman for the group also said Wednesday that McCormick Place had agreed to let protesters put literature and multimedia materials in the center during the meetings, the Tribune reported.

“This had quite a lot of momentum in the late ‘90s,” he said. “And then the intervention of Sept. 11 just killed that movement -- not permanently -- but it made its goals seem secondary in relationship to what most people in the world were worrying about, which was terrorism, not forms of international corporate exploitation.”

“But it would be foolish to think that that stuff just died,” he added. “And I think we’re beginning to see some of it come back.”

Todd Gitlin, a former leader of the 1960s-era group Students for a Democratic Society and a sociology and journalism professor, noted the high degree of organization and advance planning that had gone into the NATO summit protests. But he cautioned that Occupy and its satellite groups need to come up with “tangible results” rather than demonstrations that will play “as more of the same.”

“What it (Occupy) already has done is big, but diminishing returns will set in if what materializes now is simply one demonstration after another,” he said. “They’ve already accomplished the bulk of what they can accomplish by way of changing the atmosphere. The atmosphere has changed. Now they have to produce tangible results in order to evolve.”

US veterans to return war medals in protest

But Iosbaker said protesting was the only thing that worked to create change, citing the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements as well as Occupy.

“We are just another link in that chain but we’ve already won specific things,” he said, citing the decision to move the G8 meeting, planned for earlier in the week, out of Chicago to Camp David in Maryland. “We have made NATO and war a topic of dinner table conversation in the city of Chicago and I believe to a considerable extent nationally. The anti-war movement had been re-emerging around Afghanistan as more and more people turned against that war and now there is a major sense of momentum for all the peace groups in the country.”

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