Protesters: We're still coming to Chicago for NATO

TAMMY WEBBER Associated Press Published:

CHICAGO (AP) -- Protesters who've been planning for months to converge on Chicago for a pair of important world meetings this spring say they have a message:

No G-8? No problem.

The decision by the White House to move the Group of 8 economic summit to Camp David while the NATO summit remains in Chicago might have split the reasons to protest. But it won't diminish the number of protesters -- tens of thousands, by some estimates -- who plan to come to Chicago for a rally and march to protest everything from war to poverty, said Andy Thayer, a leader of the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism and the Gay Liberation Network and one of the principle planners of the Chicago protests.

"Guess what? The protests are going to happen anyway because if (protesters) are upset about G-8, they have just as much reason to be upset about NATO," said Thayer.

The Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda obtained city permits to hold a rally in Daley Plaza downtown and march to the McCormick Place convention center about two miles to the south on May 19 -- only now there won't be any meetings that day. The NATO summit will be held over the following two days, and discussions are expected to include the war in Afghanistan.

The presidential retreat outside Washington, where the G-8 meetings will be held May 18-19, is far more secure than downtown Chicago and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for protesters to get close to the meetings.

The White House said the economic summit was moved "to facilitate a free-flowing discussion with our close G-8 partners," on economic, political and security issues.

Some protesters took that as a sign they'd run the summit out of town.

"It's a major victory for those of us who are planning these protests," said Joe Iosbaker, head of the United National Antiwar Committee in Chicago. "The administration is taking G-8 someplace where they won't have to face the people who suffer under their policies."

Rank-and-file police officers are somewhat relieved but still worry that they're ill-prepared to face an unknown number of people, some of whom they fear could become violent, said Mike Shields, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police.

"Nobody knows how many protesters there will be" or how long protest might last, he said. "The problem .... is that cities that have hosted summits in the past began training two years before the event. In Chicago's case, we began training at the end of 2011.

"I think the Obama administration had to pull the G-8 from Chicago over security concerns and the lack of confidence in Chicago's preparedness."

White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said security and the possibility of protests were not factors in the decision. He said Camp David, the rustic retreat in the mountains of Maryland, was a setting that would allow for more intimate discussions.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police officials have insisted they can handle any trouble. Chicago has had fewer problems with the Occupy protests than many other cities, and police officials had been consulting with other police departments on how to handle large protests. Even so, many downtown businesses have been preparing for the possibility of riots and broken windows.

Chicago police spokeswoman Melissa Stratton said Monday's news won't change how the department prepares for the NATO summit. Members of the city's host committee said they still expect about 7,500 people to attend the meetings.

"Our preparation and priorities remain the same -- ensuring the public safety of our communities throughout the city, those participating in the summit as attendees as well as protecting the First Amendment rights of those who wish to exercise them," Stratton said in a written statement.

Joe Lombardo, a retired state worker from New York and co-coordinator United National Antiwar Coalition, said he believes the administration was hoping to divide the protests, especially because the Occupy movement was largely centered on economic issues. He said some people might reassess their plans for Chicago, but he believes "tens of thousands" of people from groups in the U.S. and several other countries will still protest here.

"All around the country, people are very, very interested in this," he said.

National Nurses United, the nation's largest nurses union, is re-evaluating its plans, though union spokesman Chuck Idelson said it may be too late to make a change. The group has been planning to join protesters in Chicago to call on world leaders to adopt a so-called "Robin Hood" tax on major trading by banks and other financial institutions.

"It is certainly striking that whoever made this decision, whether it was the Obama administration or the city of Chicago, would make a decision to isolate the world leaders and move an event out of third-largest city in this country and hide the world leaders in rural Maryland in a place that's inaccessible to the public."

Another group, Grassroutes Caravan, which wants to call attention to environmental issues, has no plans to stay home. Twenty people have signed up so far to join the bike ride from Madison, Wis., to Chicago, said spokeswoman Thistle Pettersen.

She said the group's theme is "No blood for oil. We don't want wars for fossil fuels when we can use our own people power for transportation."

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Associated Press reporters Carla K. Johnson, Caryn Rousseau and Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.