WEB EXCLUSIVE: Democracy in St. Paul - While Republicans gestured inside, police stole the streets from the people
Photos by Sam Stoker
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The bright white light of flash bombs can be seen everywhere among the scattering crowd now. Loud explosions of concussion grenades mix with the lighter, metallic tinkling of tear gas canisters bouncing along the pavement. Lines of police dressed in full riot gear stretch beyond the sulfur-green clouds of smoke bombs. Shouts come from all directions in the darkness, suddenly lit up like a war zone.
“What are you doing? We’re peaceful!” some people scream.
“Turn around! Go back!” police shout.
People are scattering now despite cries from some protesters to stay together. As they retreat, demonstrators bump into police lines blocking off escape routes. The police — on horses, motorcycles and bicycles, in squad cars, even driving dump trucks with lowered snowplow blades — attempt to herd the crowd.
“No more tear gas,” some people yell as they try to escape, their eyes red and watery as medics attempt to help amid the chaos. Others scream, “Where do you want us to go?” as officers plug them with mace.
Still others are getting angry. “Fuck you, pigs!” they shout in defiance, attempting to hold their ground, at times hurling projectiles at the police as the explosions continue.
Despite the police’s attempts to herd the crowd, people are running wild through the neighborhoods surrounding the Minnesota Capitol building in St. Paul. They dart through parking lots and unblocked streets, trying to escape and hoping to regroup. Cars screech to a stop and bystanders are swept into the mass as they, too, attempt to sidestep the onslaught of police now firing from all directions.
Beginning with nearly 1,000 people, this demonstration has been reduced to around 200. It started as an anti-war rally on the capitol lawn several hours earlier, the latest in a week of protests and civil disobedience, a citizen response to the Republican National Convention being held at the Xcel Energy Center here in St. Paul. It is Thursday, which means John McCain will be inside soon, offering his version of the next four years of America.
After tonight, more than 800 people, including journalists, street medics and legal observers, will have been arrested in RNC-related protests, many having experienced a similar use of force by police.
There had been showdowns between zealous police and protesters all week.
Last Friday, police raided the convergence space of the RNC Welcoming Committee, an anarchist organization that says it was here to provide assistance to people who wanted to disrupt the convention through direct action and civil disobedience. Police said the raid was the culmination of an undercover operation that began a year ago, in which officers claim to have heard discussions about plots to disrupt the convention. During the raid last Friday, as well as subsequent raids of the homes of some local activists, police said they found caltrops for popping tires, buckets of urine to be thrown on police and hand links for creating human barricades, among other items that could potentially be used to disrupt the convention.
The RNC Welcoming Committee refuted the police claims.
“The raid was an effort to derail RNC protest organizing efforts and to intimidate and terrorize individuals and groups converging in the Twin Cities to exercise what are supposed to be their basic civil rights,” Tony Jones, a member of the group, said.
“We are not the terrorists,” another spokesperson later said. “The terrorists are inside the Xcel Center.”
Among some 10,000 protesters in St. Paul last week was a strong contingent of self-proclaimed anarchists, whose direct-action style of protesting led to a near-continuous conflict with police. This became the focus of both local and national media coverage, and while it was representative to some degree of the vibe on the streets, there were also thousands there to engage in peaceful civil disobedience.
Despite last-minute revisions to the RNC schedule, thousands gathered on Monday for the “March on the RNC” protest — the largest of the week — to kick off opening day of the convention. Throughout the day, confrontations broke out between police and autonomous groups of protesters attempting to block roads and bridges around the city. Some became violent, and there were mass arrests.
Tuesday night, the “Poor People’s March For Our Lives” protest provoked confrontation, when several hundred people who marched to the free speech “cage” — a barricaded area outside the Xcel Energy Center reserved for protesting — refused to disband after the police issued three dispersal orders. Like the previous day, police began firing tear gas into the crowd, pushing the people eventually to a park, where some 60 were arrested.
Thursday’s rally was permitted, but the march was not. The Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, which organized the event, made clear from the beginning it intended to march to the Xcel Energy Center to try and disrupt McCain’s acceptance speech.
At the rally, which preceded the march, a speaker commenting on the mass arrests of protesters asked the crowd, “Are the people responsible for the criminal war on Iraq and the war at home on the poor ever held accountable for their actions?”
“No!” came the reply.
Police had the rally surrounded and intermittently plucked people from the crowd, placing them under arrest for unknown reasons — the most common charges were unlawful assembly, felony property damage and felony riot. Large clusters left the main body of the rally and surrounded the police, prompting tense stand-offs as the police removed those under arrest.
“Stay together,” Katrina Plotz, an organizer with the Anti-War Committee, screamed from the stage. “They’re trying to steal our protest — we have to ignore the police intimidation.”
What now resembles a battlefield here in the streets of St. Paul began with a series of sit-ins, as impenetrable police lines continually stifled marchers not looking for a serious fight with police. Frustrated with being halted over and over again — a slow process in which police would use horses to divide groups and arrest only some protesters — demonstrators engaged in an improvised maverick march that went wherever it could, for as long as it could.
Now, in the quieter moments between concussion bomb blasts that are pushing this group toward its ultimate fate in the Ramsey County Jail, small debate breaks out among some of the protesters about how effective their direct action is at this RNC.
“It makes sense,” one says of the police presence, “at a WTO conference like Seattle in ’99, where policymaking can actually be halted, but more than anything else the RNC is ceremonial.”
Still, as the police ultimately herd this crowd onto a bridge, which police will soon block on both sides and place everyone under arrest, it is clear those here tonight are angry. Judging from chants throughout the week, most feel they cannot meaningfully participate in the political system in any other way. They obviously want to be heard.
“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” they shout as police shoot pepper spray into the crowd, forcing its last few steps onto the bridge.
Sam Stoker is a freelance reporter based in Chicago. Like many journalists covering the protests, he was arrested and charged with “presence at an unlawful assembly.” Police confiscated his notes and camera gear.