The Battle of St. Paul
"If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain’s resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry Left never will." – President Bush addressing the RNC via satellite feed, September 1, 2008
"I Am The Angry Left" – T-Shirt seen at RNC demonstration
To casual bservers, the most enduring memory of the 2008 Republican National Convention is probably the chorus of Republicans who interrupted McCain’s acceptance speech chanting “Drill, Baby, Drill” while pumping their fists up and down, like a sea of oil rigs on the Alaskan tundra. For 19-year-old Elliot Hughes, one of 800 protesters arrested during 4 days of street protests outside the convention hall, the memories are somewhat different. Speaking at a press conference immediately following his release from jail, he told reporters, “Six or seven officers came into my cell and one officer punched me in the face…. And the officer slammed my head onto the ground. I was bleeding everywhere. They put a bag over my head that had a gag on it. And they used pain compliance tactics on me for about an hour and a half.” When asked about the incident, Ramsey County Sherriff Bob Fletcher neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, but noted Hughes was “extremely disruptive in jail,” and “it took some force to control him.”
Elliot’s experience was but one of the more dramatic examples of an exceedingly brutal police reaction to militant protests. While in recent years most police departments have become increasingly reliant on de-escalation tactics and so-called “soft” repression, the RNC seemed to signal the reversal of this trend. Police unleashed their full arsenal of “less-lethal” weaponry, deploying tear gas cartridges, pepper spray canisters, smoke bombs, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets with little restraint, not to mention the liberal use of nightsticks. In one of the most widely reported incidents, police used snow plows and dump trucks to trap a group of 300 protesters on a bridge and ordered them to lie on the pavement with their hands over their heads. Most disturbing, police seemed to deliberately target the alternative media, shutting down the offices of the Twin Cities Independent Media Center and raiding I-Witness video, a NYC-based video journalist collective with a record of documenting police brutality at mass demonstrations. “Democracy Now!” radio broadcaster Amy Goodman was also arrested in the course of the demonstrations, along with two producers.
All major party conventions are now deemed National Special Security Events, which means they are allocated special funds and overseen by the Joint Terrorism Task Force—a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security components (Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Secret Service), and state and local law enforcement. In preparation for the festivities, the city temporarily deputized 3,000 officers from across the state to supplement its 600 regular officers. Meanwhile, 1,200 members of the Minnesota National Guard—many fresh from a tour of Iraq—waited in the wings. To fund these expenditures, St. Paul asked for and received $50 million from Congress. On top of that, the Republican National Committee had bought a $10 million insurance policy from the St. Paul police, pledging to spend its own money to stop any civil rights lawsuits. This insurance policy seemingly gave the police freedom from the fear of lawsuits.
The ironically named RNC Welcoming Committee was formed as “an information and logistical framework for radical resistance to the RNC.” The Welcoming Committee (WC) did not actually organize the demonstration, but instead provided a support structure for protesters coming to the Twin Cities. But because the WC was the public face of the demonstrations, police quickly labeled it an “organized criminal enterprise” with plans “to utilize criminal activities to disrupt and stop the RNC.” Even before the festivities began, local police were conducting preemptive strikes against known organizers.
In mid-August the WC opened a “convergence center”—a space for protesters to gather, eat, share resources, and build networks of solidarity. On Friday, August 29, as folks were finishing dinner and sitting down to a movie, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department stormed in, guns drawn, ordering everyone to the ground. This evening raid resulted in seized property (mostly literature). After being cuffed, searched, and ID’d, the more than 60 individuals inside were released. The next morning, the Sheriff’s department executed search warrants on three houses, seizing personal and common household items and arresting five suspected leaders.
An affidavit released several days later revealed that police operatives had successfully infiltrated the WC one year before the convention, gathering information that led to the preemptive raids and arrests. Many of the allegations in the affidavit are patently false and strain the imagination, such as the claim that anarchists planned to kidnap delegates and blow up tunnels leading to the convention center.
A spokesperson for the National Lawyers Guild, which defended some of the protesters, told the press, “This is a political prosecution in its purest form, because no one is actually accused of physically doing anything that would be violent…. They’re being prosecuted specifically for their political activities and what they advocated.”
September 1 protest at the St. Paul Caitol building—photo by Andy Singer
Although some of the more prominent organizers had been taken out, the WC’s decentralized structure and careful planning made it invulnerable to complete decapitation. The WC had divided Saint Paul into seven sectors, so organizing bodies throughout the country could coordinate their actions and blockade as many access points as possible. Operating in small, autonomous affinity groups, protesters with the stated goal of disrupting the convention blockaded highway on-ramps and busy intersections and destroyed corporate property. Others improvised barricades out of street signs, road closures, and newspaper bins.
At one intersection, protesters dragged a dumpster into the street and overturned it, filling the street with trash and debris. Elsewhere, a car was driven into the center of a busy intersection, diagonally blocking traffic under a banner, No War But The Class War. Eat The Rich. Feed The Poor. A video circulated on YouTube showed a protester jumping an officer from behind as he attempts to make an arrest. (The officer subsequently retreated empty-handed.)
On the afternoon of September 4, thousands of Twin Cities youth walked out of their high schools and colleges in a citywide student strike against the Republican Convention, organized by Youth Against War and Racism. Despite threats and public recriminations from the mayor and superintendent, many high schools across the metropolitan region were reportedly shuttered.
The award for Most Creative Protest Tactic went to “Bash Back,” a Chicago-based collective of trans-folk, queer youth, and anarcha-feminists clad in pink and blue, many brandishing magic wands and some with fairy wings. When confronted by the members of the incendiary anti-homosexual Westboro Baptist Church, the bloc chanted “We’re here, we’re queer. We’re anarchists, we’ll fuck you up!” while pantomiming gay sex acts, much to the consternation of the churchgoers.
I attended the convention as a member of a political marching band known as the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. We usually stand on sidewalks and pump out tunes to diffuse tense situations while our friends in the street do the dirty work. Our repertoire ranges from a cover of 1980s band Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to a reimagining of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” (with anti-war lyrics).
At this writing, eight activists face charges of Conspiracy to Commit Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism, a second degree felony that carries the possibility of over seven years in prison under a “terrorism enhancement” clause normally reserved for prisoners of war. The last use of such charges in Minnesota was in 1918 when organizers with the Industrial Workers of the World on the Iron Range were charged with “criminal syndicalism” for organizing unions. In an open letter to allies, the defendants wrote, “These [conspiracy charges] create a convenient method for incapacitating activists, with the potential for diverting limited resources towards protracted legal battles and terrorizing entire communities into silence and inaction.”
In an email message circulated widely just after the convention, a collective associated with the demonstrations wrote, “The upsurge associated with the anti-globalization era was not a flash in the pan. If anything, we are stronger today than ten years ago.”
Abe Walker is an activist and member of Rude Mechanical Orchestra. To support the RNC arrestees, visit www.RNC8.org.