News photographer gets front row view during NATO confrontation
By Brian Powers firstname.lastname@example.org May 28, 2012 4:56PM
Members of the Occupy movement march from the Petrillo Band Shell on Sunday, May 20, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 3, 2012 10:27AM
When it was first announced that the NATO summit would be coming to Chicago I knew I wanted to photograph it.
The world’s most important people were converging on a city 40 miles away, and trailing in their footsteps were thousands of protesters from across the country. With the haunting thoughts of the 1968 police riots in Chicago on everyone’s mind, history was going to be made, both inside McCormick Place and on the streets outside of it, and I wanted to be there to document it for Sun-Times Media.
A peaceful protest outside of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house on Saturday (May 19) started my weekend. Police officers mounted on bicycles lined both sides of the entire block, but a few harsh words thrown in their direction was as violent as it got. Not exactly the chaotic scenes that I had been envisioning on my drive into the city.
Sunday morning, music and laughter greeted me as I met a group of protesters at their convergence center/headquarters on the North Side. I wanted to see who these protesters were when they weren’t wearing masks and marching through the streets. The few I talked to emphasized the family atmosphere that surrounded the Occupy movement. They were there because they wanted their voices heard and felt they were making a difference.
The destination for the Sunday march was the intersection of Michigan and Cermak, a few blocks west of McCormick Place where NATO dignitaries were discussing issues of the day.
It didn’t take long for tensions to rise with so many bodies squeezed into one intersection and temperatures in the 90s. A two-foot buffer stood between police officers that looked to be in uniform for a football game and protesters locked arm and arm.
Verbal assaults were thrown at the officers, who offered up little to no response.
It felt as if we were standing in the first row of a heavy metal concert, pressed up against a stage made of cops — and with one big surge from the crowd, the stage began to fight back. The statuesque officers held their ground and moved forward one step at a time, compressing the crowd as they went.
Bottles and signposts flew over my head, hitting a few of the officers who fought back in an effort to apprehend those responsible. It was abundantly clear that the protesters were not going any farther east.
I photographed as much as I could while dodging swings of batons and sticks, careful not to lose my balance or my beloved Sox hat.
I was doing well until a baton met my right eye, mashing my glasses to my face. Luckily I was able to pop the lenses back in and could still see enough to keep photographing. Even if I wanted to, there would have been no way to escape the melee as both sides were stacked multiple rows deep.
The clash went on for what seemed like forever, not always physically violent but with a verbal soundtrack that would have made the heartiest sailor blush.
Maybe it was the heat, or the realization of defeat, but as I turned to look at what was left of the crowd, I saw a mere fraction of the group that began the day.
I have been asked several times, “Why would you want to put yourself in the middle of that?” and my only response is that I couldn’t imagine not being there. All eyes were watching to see what would happen, and I wanted to be in the front row.
I learned a lot working alongside other photographers whom I greatly respect and was able to see how they worked in a high tension environment.
I look forward to being able to apply some of what I learned back here in the Fox Valley... just without the fear of being clocked by a police baton.