The mindset of a cop and a protester going into NATO weekend

May 17, 2012

Download Story
(AP/Kiichiro Sato)
Chicago police take a protester into custody, as Occupy Chicago demonstrators took off into downtown streets on Tuesday. The demonstration was one of many protests planned in the days leading up to the NATO summit.
(WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)
Officials will be monitoring the Chicago region during the NATO summit from a secret communications center in the suburbs

There's a lot of speculation about whether there will be violence between police and protesters in Chicago over the next few days, so we decided to talk to a cop and a protester about what they’re expecting this weekend.

Sergeant Richard Williams, (a pseudonym we're using because he didn't get permission from the brass to talk to us) said a few months ago he went through eight hours of training for the NATO protests this weekend. He said the officers will start in soft uniform, regular pants and shirts and hats, no riot gear.

“You just can't go in there as this big militant force flexing your muscle because they already don't like us. They're really not gonna like you if you do that,” Williams said.

His training also focused on a soft approach to crowd control.

“How to move and how to keep people back. It's with less lethal force. It's just a matter of pushing 'em back,” he said. “You're not hitting them.  You're not trying to arrest them. You're letting them do what they want to do and shove you, whatever, you don't want to become confrontational with them but you just want to contain them and allow them to continue on their way.”

Williams talks about the protesters and protecting their First Amendment rights to free speech. He's intent on not escalating situations, but a more passive role is clearly at odds with how he's used to operating as a cop. 

“The way the city's approaching it and it's a hard thing to understand because being the police, it's like, we never want to let anybody get into our personal space," he said. "We always want a certain distance between us and them because we need that as a safety gap but at the same time understand what they say, you can't go out there, you can't go like you're ready to fight and you want to fight them because you will fight.  It's inevitable you'll start the fight yourself.”

Williams said officers did get some training on how to handle more aggressive protestors. He said they watched videos of protests that turned violent with people throwing soup cans at police, and they're also bracing for the rather strange possibility of being hit by bottles of urine and bags of feces.

“Your natural instinct, just as a human being would be like, 'You can't do that, you're going to jail for that.  I'm going to get you and I'm arresting you because that's wrong!  That's just wrong!” Williams said.

Sergeant Williams says police want to focus their arrests on individuals, not whole crowds. He says he and other officers have been trained to work as extraction teams who assume special formations to go into the crowd and remove individual provocateurs. But Williams said if someone throws something at the cops and then disappears into the crowd, it would be foolish to follow them because the officers will be far outnumbered by protesters.

“There's people around you that are waiting at a moment's notice to jump into this fight.  So, it's no longer one guy that threw this and one policeman.  It's a multitude of people and it just snowballs and turns into a huge fight,” he said.

Standing opposite the cops at a protest on Sunday will be Andy Thayer, one of the lead organizers of the anti-NATO protests.

“The city really ramped up the fear factor and basically herded a lot of people out of town,” Thayer said.

Thayer says there's been a lot of hype about what the protesters will do. Historically, he said, it's been the police who kicked off the violence and the overwhelming majority of demonstrators are peaceful. He allows there may be some who want to be violent or stoke a confrontation with police by throwing bags of feces or urine, but he said protestors have devised plans to deal with those people, though he wouldn't elaborate.

“We're cognizant of our responsibilities for our fellow protesters and our fellow Chicagoans. We have a large team of people that are prepared to deal with either potential violence issues or actual violence,” he said.

Thayer says he's bothered by the fact that the local media have concentrated on the mechanics of the NATO summit and the mechanics of the protests instead of the message of the protesters.

“Why the focus on the issue of violence here in the United States?  Are we so narcissistic?  The violence that we see at NATO's behest, we have a conscience, government policy of violence and it's about time we started that problem of violence, which surely overshadows anything that's going to happen in the streets of Chicago over the next few days,” he said.

Both Thayer and Sergeant Williams say they want the protesters to be able to march peacefully. And both say they have plans and means to identify and isolate protesters who are violent.