Veterans Return Medals, Protesters Face Violence During Mass March on NATO Summit

Rebecca Burns

A member of Iraq Veterans Against the War throws his medals across the security fence surrounding the NATO summit site as Suraia Suhar of Afghans for Peace looks on. Nearly 50 veterans returned their medals in a protest on May 20.

Update: As of 10:30 AM on Monday, the National Lawyer’s Guild estimates that 13 arrests occurred on Saturday and at least 60 on Sunday. Nearly all of the arrestees have been released and have been charged mainly with misdemeanors and ordinance violations.

In one of the largest anti-war demonstrations in the U.S. in years, thousands marched through downtown Chicago Sunday to protest the opening day of the NATO summit. The permitted march, organized by the Coalition Against NATO/G8 (CANG8), ended with a ceremony outside the security fence surrounding McCormick Plaza, the heavily-fortified site where the military alliance was meeting. Though blocked by barricades and a line of police, nearly 50 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) stood in front of the crowd and threw the Global War on Terrorism” medals that they had received across the security fence, explaining one by one why they refused to wear them any longer.

This [medal] is for the one-third of women in the military who are sexually assaulted by their peers. We talk about standing up for our sisters in Afghanistan, but we can’t even take care of our sisters right here,” Aaron Hughes of Chicago announced to the crowd. And this one,” he said, hurling the last of three medals over the fence, is because I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve been a part of.” Hughes, who was deployed to Iraq at the age of 20, served in the Illinois National Guard for six years. Former U.S. Marine Scott Olson, who was shot in the head with a flash grenade in Oakland last November, also returned his medals to cheers from the crowd.

Though the march proceeded from Grant Park without incident, police began to move in as soon as the permit expired at 5 P.M. This followed similar police behavior at Friday’s National Nurses United-organized rally, where police gave a dispersal order immediately following the permitted rally’s end. Chris Geovanis of Coalition Against NATO/G8 said that organizers had been warned by police that if Sunday’s march didn’t step off from the assembly point on time, rally-goers could also face arrest.

March organizers asked at the rally Sunday morning that all contingents of marchers respect the leadership of IVAW, and a group of about 30 demonstrators in black bloc remained behind the group of veterans throughout the length of the march. But as the veterans and other demonstrators began exiting, one group of protesters advanced towards the line of police — though this reporter saw nothing more than empty water bottles being wielded by protesters — while hundreds more remained behind them as police began to give dispersal orders. Within ten minutes, at least two demonstrators emerged from the cluster bleeding from the head as a result of blows from police batons. Over the next two hours, hundreds more police in riot gear arrived and steadily pushed the remaining demonstrators away from McCormick Plaza with shields.

According to a press release from the National Lawyer’s Guild, there were at least two-dozen injuries, with a few seriously injured protesters taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and treated for knocked-out teeth and broken bones. Police completely overreacted to protesters approaching the security perimeter and unleashed a violent attack on them without an ability to disperse,” said NLG attorney Sarah Gelsomino in a statement. Many of the injuries from the police attack were serious, including several people who sustained baton blows to the head.”

Sunday’s actions also followed a massive police presence Saturday night during an anti-capitalist march where Chicago police beat protesters with clubs and ran into one group with a van. Natalie Wahlberg of Occupy Chicago said that she was in front of the van when it struck and could feel it accelerating into the crowd. One man was hospitalized following the hit, and National Lawyer’s Guild representative Kris Hermes told In These Times via e-mail that he was handcuffed to his gurney, questioned by police and denied access to an attorney before being released from the hospital Sunday morning. Kevin Gosztola also reports that five civilian journalists were stopped and interrogated at gunpoint as they were returning home from the march Saturday night.

You cannot execute a war of violence without that violence coming home as well,” said Andy Thayer of CANG8 at a press conference Sunday morning condemning the police brutality. We are holding Mayor Emmanuel and President Obama personally responsible for violence against protesters, because one phone call could’ve stopped this.”

Meanwhile, politicians meeting inside the NATO summit today agreed to endorse the gradual exit strategy laid out by the United States, which stipulates that troops will withdraw by the end of 2014. In addition to the demonstrations held during the first day of the summit, Amnesty International held a Shadow Summit” for Afghan womens’ rights, calling for a Constitutional guarantee of gender quality and for negotiating teams involved in peace talks to include at least 30% women, among other things. Though Amnesty has clarified that it is not calling for NATO to remain in the country, it was criticized heavily by peace activists for plastering posters reading, Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan. NATO: Keep the Progress Going!” around the city on the eve of the NATO summit.

Ismail Sabaat, an Afghani who is in the United States for three months on an academic fellowship, marched Sunday with a banner that read Afghanistan Strategic Agreement = Slavery and Continued War.”

For 10 years, there has been no security in Afghanistan,” he told In These Times. I’m marching today because [Afghani] people don’t want this agreement, but it’s being made here in secret without us.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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