Thousands of protesters marched through downtown Chicago on Sunday in one of the city’s largest demonstrations in years, airing grievances about war, climate change and a wide range of other issues as world leaders assembled for a NATO summit.

The protest drew together a broad assortment of participants, including peace activists joining with war veterans and people more focused on economic inequality. The diversity of opinions also sowed doubts about whether there were too many messages to be effective.

Some of the most enduring images of the event were likely to be from the end — when a small group of demonstrators clashed with a line of police who tried to keep them from the lakeside convention centre where U.S. President Barack Obama was hosting the gathering.

The protesters tried to move east toward the centre, with some hurling sticks and bottles at police. Officers responded by swinging their batons. The two sides were locked in a standoff for nearly two hours, with police blocking the protesters’ path and the crowd refusing to leave. Some protesters had blood streaming down their faces.

Authorities were seen making arrests one by one and leading individual demonstrators away in handcuffs.

Chicago police said Sunday evening that the NATO summit resulted in 45 people being arrested. Those numbers seemed certain to rise as new skirmishes erupted later in the night.

‘So many people here’
Hundreds of protesters gathered late Sunday night near the Art Institute of Chicago as first lady Michelle Obama hosted a dinner for spouses of NATO leaders inside. At least 100 Chicago police officers in riot gear were also at the scene.

‘NATO is used to keep the poor poor and the rich rich’
—Demonstrator John SchraufnagelEarlier at the protest near the convention center, Esther Westlake, a recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University, marvelled at the size of the crowd. She said she had been involved in marches protesting the Iraq War in Chicago but never one this big.

“It’s crazy. There’s so many people here,” she said. “Having NATO in town is kind of exciting.”

But she wondered whether the political agendas of the protesters were too unfocused to get diplomats’ attention.

“It seems like there’s so many messages and people aren’t really sure what they want to get accomplished,” Westlake said. “People just need to figure out what their argument is going to be.”

Diplomats at the meeting planned to discuss the war in Afghanistan, European missile defence and other international security matters.

“Basically, NATO is used to keep the poor poor and the rich rich,” said John Schraufnagel, who travelled from Minneapolis to Chicago for the march. Since the end of the Cold War, he said, the alliance has become “the enforcement arm of the ruling one per cent, of the capitalist one per cent.”

The march, while massive, was still smaller than the last major protest moment in Chicago, when nearly half a million people filled the city’s downtown in 2006 to protest making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant.

The Associated Press Posted: May 20, 2012 12:19 PM ET

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