Collateral Damage in the War on Protesters: Neighbors of the NATO3 Cuffed, Held at Gunpoint
Photo Credit: Molly Knefel
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Whether or not they are guilty of illegal activity, the original three activists facing terrorism charges in Chicago and their six apartment-mates are not the only people who were raided and harassed the night of Wednesday, May 16, in the days leading up to the NATO protests. In this exclusive, three neighbors of the accused activists give their stories of aggressive, politically reactionary, seemingly incompetent and extralegal harassment by the Chicago Police Department.
In the apartment across the hall from the arrested activists, around 11:30 that night, Ben (not his real name) was coming out of his bathroom when his door crashed in and 25 to 30 armed police burst into his living room. One of them approached him, pointing a gun at his face and yelling at him to get down. When he didn’t get down quickly enough, the man shoved him to the ground and cuffed him.
“I thought I was being robbed,” Ben said. “They were wearing dark clothes, and I thought if they weren’t police, I was being robbed, and if they were, I didn’t know why this was happening.”
His apartment mate Olli woke up to two guns in his face, and was, he said, “rolled over and cuffed immediately” while other officers started going through the belongings in his room. They brought him into the living room and sat him on the ground next to Ben.
“That’s when the interrogation and harassment started,” Olli said. “It went on for a while, at least an hour and a half of them hurling insults and questions, really leading questions. The whole experience was really terrifying but it was also kind of hilarious, just the notions they have about whoever they were after.”
The police brought out Olli’s books on Marx, Bakunin, feminism and magic, and started asking questions about them. They called Olli and Ben “commie faggots” and “said we were gonna get our assholes widened in County, but we’d probably like that.”
They asked Olli, “You got Karl Marx here, do you like Hitler?”
“They were just rude, cruel and dumb,” Ben said. “Eight dudes would come in, they’d harass us for a while, then they’d leave and eight others would come in, and they’d ask us the same exact things again. They’d be surprised by things we had told them multiple times. They’d be like, ‘What, you guys live here? You don’t know those other people?’ And we’d be like ‘Yeah we’ve been saying that for an hour.’ There was no sense of progress.”
Meanwhile, at the apartment above where the activists stayed, another neighbor’s home was being raided. Jimmy had just gotten off a double shift at work, and heard some commotion downstairs, but wanted to stay out of it. All of a sudden an officer came to his door, and when he opened it, put a gun in his face and told him to come outside.
“He took my ID and my phone,” Jimmy said, “and said he was going to look through my phone, and if he saw something he didn’t like he was going to search my apartment.
“I told him he wasn’t going to search anything without a warrant. The screen on my phone was locked, so all he saw was this painting (Frank Frazzeta, “Flashman at the Charge”). He asked me what was the deal with the painting. I said ‘It’s Frazzeta, it’s for nerds.’ At that point he called for backup.
“Two other officers come up, go into my apartment guns drawn. I’m like really? That’s what you’re gonna do right now, just go in there? They said, 'Well if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about.' They probably searched my place for 15, 20 minutes, went through everything.”
The officer standing outside with Jimmy asked him about the activists downstairs. “I had nothing to do with them,” Jimmy said, “they moved in two weeks before. I work a lot, just see them when I leave, see them when I come back. They asked me why I didn’t call them about the neighbors. I shrugged – they found it suspicious that I hadn’t called them!
“The third officer came up to me and told me he had a hard time believing I wasn’t associated with the people downstairs. His quote exactly was that I had ‘hateful revolutionary things’ in my house. He asked me why I had so many red-colored things (Olli got similar accusations because he was wearing his red work uniform). They were commenting about the red color – I have red curtains and my brother’s an artist, so all his paintings are hanging up, and they found that very suspicious and were trying to say it was part of some kind of conspiracy.
“I was like what the hell, who are you people? All I could think about was McCarthyism, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that our police commissioner’s name is McCarthy. I was like poof,” he said, making a head-exploding gesture.
Back in Olli and Ben’s apartment, the officers were using their kitchen as a staging area for their raid of the activists’ apartment, where they said it sounded like everything – people and belongings – was being “thrown around.” Other officers were continuing to interrogate Ben and Olli.
“It definitely felt politically motivated,” Olli said. “They definitely had made these assumptions that we were something, and if they were able to determine that we were of some certain stripe of politics that people find repellent, then they would feel justified in what they were doing to us.
“I asked to see their warrant and they said, ‘Yeah we’ll show you a warrant when the lawyer gets here,’ in a really mocking way.”
“They acted like asking for a warrant and a lawyer was unreasonable because they hadn’t charged us with anything,” Ben said, “but they didn’t seem to realize that they had kidnapped us in our own home. We were handcuffed on the ground in our own living room.
“It was them harassing us, bullying us, mocking us, and trying to find anything they could hold over our heads. It worked alright because I felt like they could just take me to jail – if this was possible, how could that not be possible?
“They made fun of the way Olli smelled – they said, ‘We should throw you in a laundry machine.’ They said, ‘Do you want to leave here with pants on?’ Neither of us knew what that meant… Olli said, ‘I don’t know if that’s a threat or some kind of weird joke.’”
Unlike the activists, whose beer brewing equipment is being used as evidence of their alleged terrorism plot, Olli’s home brewing equipment was simply another butt of the officers’ jokes. “Why don’t you just buy Bud Light?” the officers asked him.
Upstairs the cops were almost done with Jimmy. They told him they would let him go if he opened up his phone for them and showed them all the pictures on it.
“I just got a new cell phone and I didn’t have to open it for them,” Jimmy said, “but I just wanted them out of my place, so I showed it to them. All the cops stood around me and it was like showing your friends photos. I went through each one and gave them descriptions of it: ‘Here’s a picture of me in a house with a mirrored ceiling, here’s a picture of me taking a shit, here’s a picture of my new tattoo – what’s that? That’s two slugs having sex!’ That was the most entertaining part of the night for me.”
“It was an hour and a half cuffed and they kind of hung out with us for another half hour,” Olli said. “I kind of got the sense of ‘We got the wrong guys, we gotta make nice for a little bit.’
“Near the end, the white shirt came in and said, ‘Sorry boys, you all were collateral damage.’ Those were his exact words.” Ben reported being told the same.
“In the other apartment [where the nine were arrested] I thought they’re probably being taken in,” Olli said, “even on flimsy evidence that’s probably political. That’s enough for people who don’t need warrants.”
The police returned a few hours later, around 3 a.m. They had “the most phony looking piece of paper that they claimed was a warrant,” Olli said. “It had a big blank space in the middle that should have been a list of what they were looking for, and they said, ‘Yeah we write that in after we find it.’” Ben said they had written the area to be searched as the entire second floor, and saw no signature on the warrant.
“We’re gonna get in here either way,” they told Ben. “We figured they were going to finish off our door,” he said, “so we let them in and watched what they were doing.”
On their return trip one of the cops made a comment about a smell of gasoline, which they claimed was their reason for entering the activists’ apartment. But all three neighbors interviewed for this story, whose apartments are across the hall and above the one in question, said they absolutely did not smell gasoline that night.
“It seems like the cops are fabricating some of the story,” Olli said. “I can’t say whether [the activists] were guilty or innocent, but I can say to me personally there’s a smell of something that’s not quite right with how the police went about everything. Something seems off.”
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Jimmy said of the charges. “You don’t brew a Molotov cocktail.”
The experience seemed to have a strong impact on all three neighbors.
A week later Olli still has a mark on his wrists from the handcuffs, and finds it hard to talk about that night.
Jimmy said, “My takeaway is if it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody. It was just very, very unsettling. I’ve definitely been looking over my shoulder a bit; it’s hard not to. And when I get home, peeking my head around the gate, checking the lock. Going through and checking every room in my house before I go to bed.”
Ben, who claims no interest in politics whatsoever, said, “It’s a really basic civil liberties issue. To me the bottom line is that you don’t have to be political at all to be affected and see that this was obviously wrong.” He declined to give his real name for fear of police retaliation, and said he’s considering leaving the city or even the country. He’s been having dreams about the raid since it happened.
“Originally my plans for NATO were to come home from work, drink some beer and watch Star Trek,” Jimmy said. “At the time I had no plans, but after that I decided that I would go to the protest. I had to voice my opinion somehow, so I went and joined the march on Sunday.”
“In my view it’s not that there were terrorists next door,” Olli said. “It’s that the cops were terrorizing us.”