CHICAGO (Reuters) - An estimated 2,500 people, including hundreds of nurses, protested peacefully in a downtown Chicago plaza under the watchful eye of police Friday, chanting mostly about economic issues that have little to do with the summit of the NATO military alliance starting this weekend.
The rally, which Chicago police estimated at about 2,500, was the largest so far in a week of daily protests before representatives from 60 countries arrive for the two-day summit to discuss the war in Afghanistan.
Some 150 blue-uniformed Chicago police officers ringed the square, named after Chicago's legendary former Mayor Richard J. Daley, who presided over bloody clashes between police and anti-Vietnam War protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention.
Political activist Tom Hayden, who was among the leaders of the 1968 anti-war protests, spoke to the rally, reminding the demonstrators of a chapter in history that has sullied Chicago's reputation ever since.
"It's been 44 years since I had a permit to speak in Chicago," Hayden said.
Thousands of security personnel are gathered in Chicago for the summit, ready in case protests turn violent.
But the mood was mostly festive on Friday, with groups of nurses dancing and singing. A few young protesters shouted at police, which attracted more officers and at one point about 50 black-clad protesters entered the plaza.
Barricades surrounded a ground-level fountain and a large metal sculpture by Pablo Picasso. One man who had jumped the barricade around the sculpture and had the words "kill" scrawled on one cheek and "cops" on the other yelled epithets at police, who appeared unfazed.
"We're not trying to provoke the police. We don't want trouble. But if they push us we're ready to respond," said a young man in a skull mask and black hoodie, who gave his name as Damien.
"We're here because we're sick of Wall Street profiting off the wars that NATO starts," he said.
The nurses' group, which is holding a convention at a nearby hotel, paid for a dozen buses carrying hundreds more protesters from around the country that began arriving on Thursday.
'ROBIN HOOD' TAX
The nurses called for what they term a "Robin Hood" tax on financial institutions' transactions to offset government funding cuts that have affected healthcare, education and social services. Many sported green hats and masks.
"The solution is a tiny, tiny tax," said Deborah Burger, president of the nurses' group, who complained that healthcare patients are skimping on care because of the cost.
"What we want to say is our priorities are upside down and we need to make sure we focus on our communities," she said.
A banner reading, "Nurses campaign to heal the world, An economy for the 99 percent, Tax Wall Street, National Nurses United," was displayed in the plaza.
Ninety-nine percent refers to the slogan of the anti-Wall Street Occupy movement which says that 1 percent of the population control too much of the wealth.
The protest coincides with Friday's start of the Group of Eight economic summit, which was moved to Camp David, Maryland, from Chicago. The G-8 is grappling with the worsening economic crisis in Europe that could drag down economies around the world.
The largest planned protest was expected on Sunday when the two-day NATO summit begins. It was scheduled to form in a lakefront park and conclude with a march and rally outside the security zone around the lakefront convention center where 7,500 delegates are to meet.
Police said a dozen people have been arrested, mostly for trespassing, so far in the run-up to the NATO Summit. One man was arrested for battery against a police officer.
A group of defense lawyers said police raided a Chicago apartment building earlier this week and took away nine protesters. Four of them were released on Friday but the five others have yet to be charged, said National Lawyers Guild defense lawyer Sarah Belsomino.
The FBI said on Thursday that there was no indication of threats of terror during the summit, although they were on high alert.
Military aircraft were to conduct exercises on Friday over the city in preparation for the summit, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command said.
There was a "no fly" zone declared over a section of the city during the summit, and military jets were on hand in case any wayward planes needed to be intercepted, Lieutenant Commander Bill Lewis said.
(Additional reporting by Nick Carey and Eric Johnson; Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)