September 8, 2008

Report from the RNC Protests

From Joel Sipress, former NAWC steering committee member:

So here is my report from St. Paul, based in part on personal observations and experiences and in part on reports I’ve read and seen since I returned home.

The big anti-war march was great. It started with a rally at the State Capital. We then marched through downtown St. Paul (Ceder and Wabasha Streets to 7th St, then down 7th St. to the Excel Center, and back to the State Capital). The crowd was big and diverse (my honest estimate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000), and there was a really positive vibe. There were ‘lots of people lining the streets, most of whom were sympathetic supporters. There were a few counterdemonstrators, most of whom were pretty mellow.

Because I was asked to speak on behalf of the Northland Anti-War Coalition at the pre-war rally, I got to march at the very front and help carry the big banner, which was very cool. The coolest part, though, was that the veterans contingent was right behind us, and they were very, very impressive.

There were no incidents that I am aware of directly connected with the big march itself. The “direct action” people had agreed to refrain from doing anything to interfere with the march, and they seem to have stuck to that agreement. Downtown St. Paul was crawling with cops, many in riot gear, but their main job during the march seemed to be to prevent groups from breaking away from the march and entering the heart of downtown. I didn’t pick up any tension at all between the cops and the main march. In fact, we got a few smiles and positive head nods from some of the cops. I must admit, though, that it was a big unnerving when we had to march through the cattle pens in front of the Excel Center.

From Carl Sack:

Yesterday, September 1, was the March on the RNC to End the War in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The crowds were very large—smaller than the "up to 50,000" expected by the protest's organizers, the Coalition to March on the RNC, but larger than I had anticipated. Final size estimates ranged from 10,000 (cops) to 40,000 (organizers). The reality was probably somewhere in the middle. The atmosphere was very energetic, with a fairly high proportion of young people. Many of the youth, but not all, seemed to be affiliated with various radical tendencies, the largest being anarchist in nature. All in all, it was a fairly diverse crowd. Predictably, there was a lot of Obama paraphernalia, but supporters of Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, Roger Calero, Gloria LaRiva, and many with no visible election materials were also present.

The march stepped off around 1 PM, led by a sizeable (50-100) contingent of Iraq Veterans Against the War and a similar number of Veterans for Peace. The march was energetic and under very heavy police presence. Several different law enforcement jurisdictions from around this "progressive" metropolitan area were represented, including Minneapolis cops on bicycles, St. Paul Police and Ramsey County deputies. There was nothing "Minnesota nice" about the cops' heavy black body armor, helmets, gas masks, pepper spray canisters and large wooden clubs they held menacingly feet from protesters—toys no doubt purchased with a special $50 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Fortunately, there were no major incidents during the legal march, with the possible exception of an early anarchist-led breakaway that I heard rumor of but did not witness.

As the march approached the Excel Energy Center, where the convention was to be held, a line of a hundred or so counter-protesters was lined up along the street median. The march ran westbound along 7th Street the length of the convention center, then doubled back and ran eastbound. I witnessed what seemed to be a brief confrontation with the front of the march encountering a line of cops blocking the route, but the cops soon yielded to marchers. On the eastbound side, closest to the convention, marchers were forced to walk through a high, heavy portable fence about two blocks long with open gates at either end. This was the freakiest part of the march; if the cops had decided to charge protesters from either end, we would have been sitting ducks.

From Deb Taylor, member of the Minnesota Peace Team:

I was in St. Paul/Minneapolis this past Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday as part of the Minnesota Peace Team.

First a bit about Peace Teams:

The Peace Team’s basic mission is to use nonviolent techniques to protect life and human rights in potentially violent situations. We do this by reducing fear, bringing an attitude of openness and respect for all, increasing trust through building relationships, and, at times, by being a presence or barrier in a physical conflict.

The Minnesota Peace Team is nonpartisan, we protect people on all sides of a dispute from physical violence. We do not interfere with civil rights (including persons engaged in civil disobedience), do not protect property, and do not enforce laws.

We do not work for the police, any protest group, or any counter-protest group. We do not take orders from any of these groups.

For communication and protection purposes, Peace Teams divide up into smaller groups of five to seven people, called Affinity Teams, which keep in constant sight of each other while on the streets. We make our decisions within Affinity Teams by consensus, and keep in touch with the person(s) coordinating all the Peace Teams on a given day. A St. Paul church had generously allowed us to headquarter out of their basement during the RNC.

The Minnesota Peace Team affirms human dignity by training Minnesotans in nonviolent techniques and responding to community requests to be present in potentially volatile situations.
We have benefitted greatly from the experience and training help of the Michigan Peace Team, which has been established form some time and has helped out at many gatherings, including those with very high potential for violence, such as KKK rallies.

Monday morning my Team arrived at the permitted-march parade route, and spread out along the street, trying to position ourselves between the counter-protestors on the curb and the street where the protestors would be marching.

Police were there in force, with complete and very scary-looking riot gear. I told myself that it was overkill.

A few minutes later, the so-called anarchists march started. Now, to me, this looked mostly like a bunch of traditional-age university students, who were truly angry about the course of their country, not some sort of well-organized anarchist group. The counter protestors behind me aired their opinions, but I managed to hold my tongue ---- my nonviolent communication (NVC) communication training has taught me to look at all judgements, evaluations and hostility as a "tragic expression of unmet needs" — and remembering this helped me look at these counter protestors as humans who were desperately afraid of some sort of bad people getting them, and who saw their only security coming from striking first. I hurt for them.

Eventually the so-called anarchists passed that the thousands of peaceful demonstrators began flowing by — the energy was coming off them in waves — again, it was a struggle to remain impartial. During the permitted march, I, myself, experienced only one situation where I felt that violence could be imminent, when a protestor left the march and confronted a particularly vocal counter protestor. I walked up to the two of them, gave them both a big smile, upon which they both must have decided that they had better things to do, and the protestor left the curb and rejoined the march.

We just kept trying to explain to both protestors and counter-protestors that the Peace Team’s purpose there was simply "to make sure everyone got heard and no one got hurt".

After the permitted march rounded the triangle, our Team decided to follow the protestors back to the Capital. On the way there, we decided that it looked as if confrontation could be brewing down a side street so we split the Team, had those who were more comfortable with fast walking head down the side street and those who wanted to move more slowly continue to the Capitol.

When we arrived at Kellogg (I think that is the correct name, it’s the street right down by the river), we saw that violence could be imminent. The protestor group included some of the same individuals that I saw in the pre-permitted "anarchists" march earlier, and probably number about 100. Some had bandanas over their lower faces, some had large objects (looked like big storage bins, obviously weighted down with heavy contents), most were yelling at the police, most, but not all, were in the under 30 age range.

Our (four persons now) Team fanned out along the river side of the street.

The cops outnumbered the protestors, were in riot gear, and included horse, foot, and bike patrols.

The cops ordered them to clear the street. The order was repeated at least once, along with a warning that the protestors would be subject to chemical deterrents if they did not clear the road immediately.

They did not. The protestors continued to march toward the stationary line of foot police.

With my Team’s consent, I called the Peace Team Coordinator for immediate backup.

When the two groups were about 25 (?) feet apart, a single protestor, near the front, charged at the first row of police, screaming. He was shot with pepper spray in the face. He began to scream "I can’t see, I can’t see".

The two lines were now about 15-20 feet apart. I was the closest Team person to the sprayed guy, so I ran out into the street to grab him and get him out of there, since I knew he couldn’t get himself out of there blind and in pain and he would soon be caught between two groups of people, one very determined and angry and the other carrying enough artillery to annex Wisconsin.

I grabbed him with both arms around the shoulders, and had started to turn him toward the curb, when we were hit by a blast of pepper spray, at only about three to four feet. I had my head down, and my hat protected my face, but I got a lot of spray on both my arms. It stung. Fortunately, the guys eyes were shut and his arms down, I’m sure he got some but at least no more in the eyes.

I don’t know if we were hit intentionally at that close a range or if the police were aiming at someone else, or just blasting pepper spray into the front of the protestor line in general.

This only took a couple of seconds. A second later, my Team partner Melvin was between me that the sprayed guy and the police, shielding us on our way to the curb. I guided the guy under a small tree, not enough to protect us from gas or spray but enough to allow him to look up but not into direct sun. I did my best to wash the guy’s eyes out with my water bottle, and someone (I don’t know if it was Street Medic) stopped and helped me.

Behind me I could hear more screaming, and I could smell pepper gas. I heard extremely loud noises (concussion bombs?). A cop was suddenly there and told us we had to move right now. I wanted to snap at him and inform him that the guy was in no condition to be moved, but I stuffed it and got the guy over to the railings by the river, told him to stay faced toward the river and BREATHE. He said he was okay, he looked better, so I turned back to the crowd.

On my way back to the street, I got the outer edge of a blast of tear gas, enough to partially impair my vision but not enough to totally blind me. The crowd had now been subjected to multiple chemical weapons and was running away in every direction. Something dropped close to me (maybe 15 feet away) and made a very loud noise. It seemed to drop from a high trajectory (a concussion bomb thrown off a roof?).

My eyes stinging.

Our Team ran across the road to our backup Team which had now appeared on the corner — I definitely needed to get my own eyes washed out by this point.

We regrouped on the corner, assessed the situation, and decided to keep both Teams together until we could figure out where the next hot spot was likely to develop. We walked the streets for a while, saw several grouping of foot, horse, and bike police, but things had settled down, so we called for a ride, got those who were the most tired or who had to get home first a pick up point, and the rest of us continued walking. Then we got wind that a group of people had been detained down by the river front park area again, we tried to get down there, but the police had sealed the area off. We decided that if there were people who needed us down there, we couldn’t get to them anyway, and besides, we were beat.

Later that evening, it finally hit me, three hours after the fact, that we had pulled a guy out of a street "riot", had been subjected to pepper spray and tear gas, and possibly concussion bombs.
At this point, I finally began feeling emotions about the "riot" — and the incredible reality of what we had experienced finally started to sink in.

Then I headed back to Duluth, I had to work Tuesday.

Most of Wednesday was pretty boring (not a bad thing !!!), moving around the streets and talking to people camped out at the jail. Had a bit of excitement down at the MSNBC stage in some park (I regret that I am not more familiar with downtown St. Paul) but the protestors voluntarily gave up use of their bullhorn at police and MSNBC request when the technicians stated that it was interfering with their broadcast.

We decided that those who would be going out again in the evening should go back to the church for some R&R and eventually dinner while some people stated at the jail.

So we went back to the church, debriefed and regrouped up Teams for the evening. I was in the group (two Teams) that went to Mpls for the concert-related work. When people started pouring out of the Target Center concert, many gathered in the streets, which, once again, were full of intimidating police in riot gear, vehicles, horse, foot, and bike patrols. Some protestors taunted the police (which was not very bright, in my opinion). The two Teams went out into the streets, not telling people what to do, but explaining to the people the very stark reality of the police threats and letting people know the consequences of their choices (yes, you will be sprayed, gassed, and/or arrested, and you be trampled in a rushing crowd).

After some time, most of the people got out of the streets, the police advanced, and I did not see any chemical/sound weapons used at this point.

There is something very holy (if I dare use that so-often misused word) about a group of people, bonding together to share strength and energy, and then dedicating themselves to nonviolent protection of others. I was proud to be a part of the MN Peace Team !!!!!!

For that evening, my Team consisted of Jim, a 76 year old retired OB/Gyn, Peter, a 72 year old retired priest with a great deal of work in social justice, Jason, a 34 year old who eventually wants a career in international relations, and myself.

Peter spotted a group of about 150 people re-forming up and heading down another street, so the two Teams agreed that Peter, Jim, Jason and I would follow them down the street.

The cops (who were in front, and, seemingly, on all sides) let them run down the first three blocks or so, and Peter pointed out that that was a wise police tactic — the police were keeping everyone physically safe and not intervening in a way that anyone could get hurt – but then the group ran down a street that was not closed off, between vehicle traffic (some protestors were carrying banner). At this point, I was getting concerned – a group of mostly 18-24 year olds, just out of a wild concert, many drunk, running through traffic – albeit stopped — is not a safe situation.

One guy (I did not see this myself) got pepper sprayed in the face and Dr. Jim and I washed out his eyes, for which he was grateful.

We kept trying to engage people and explaining the consequences of not getting back onto the sidewalk. After the "riot" that I had been part of on Monday, I wanted to be sure that these people did not get hurt unless they fully understood the consequences of their actions and were willing to take that risk. Peace Teams do not tell people not to engage in civil disobedience – we are there to prevent human hurt. In addition, I wanted the police to see the Peace Team in action, and show them first hand that determined people CAN clear a street with words, not tear gas.

At some point, the group must have turned down another closed-to-traffic street, because, before it, the protestors and the Team were on/near a street corner, surrounded by bike police, and someone was telling us over a bullhorn that we (everyone, who, for any reason, happened to be on/near that corner) were all under arrest.

We were ordered to sit on the ground and put our hands on our heads. Someone (Peter? Jim?) asked if this also included the Peace Team, and the replying officer said yes, at least for now. I could not see this from my position, but I heard the sounds of a scuffle and Peter calmly imploring the police "Please don’t hurt him". Later, Peter explained that the police had taken a half-drunk mouthy guy down on the sidewalk with considerable (and, in Peter’s opinion, unnecessary) force. Later, we noticed that this man was bruised on his face.

So we sat. One by one, we were handcuffed (those zip-tie handcuffs really HURT, especially when they are tight) and lead over to another sidewalk, where we were again ordered to sit. I was concerned about Jim’s overall physical condition and age, and Peter’s bad back, but fortunately, the cops let them sit in the back row, against the buildings. Jim was almost directly behind me, Peter behind and about ten feet away, and Jason maybe 20 feet away to the other side of me.
Now, I’ve only been taken into custody once before, and that was protective custody, entirely different from this, so this was all new to me.

So we sat and sat. The concrete was getting cold, even to my Duluth butt. Several people asked that their handcuffs be replaced (you can’t loosen those zip-tie types) and not tightened so completely. The cops complied, at least until they ran out of new, unused handcuffs.

I tried to make some very brief and polite conversation with both the police man and woman guarding our portion of the group, she was somewhat friendly, but he was decidedly tough/macho in his responses to anyone in the group who tried to ask him anything. Following Peter’s example, I tried to reduce the tension by talking to those around me — at one point I was talking to four young guys and a young gal about our favorite types of doughnuts (a conversation that was started by one young guy since he apparently believed doughnuts have magical powers with police) — the female cop was amused, and it was a nice moment of bonding between all of us — at least for a brief moment, both sides saw each other as human.

So there I was, discussing what types of sprinkles and frostings made for the perfect doughnut, on a cold concrete sidewalk, handcuffed with about 100 other people.

As time went on, more people started to get angry with the police, and for good reason. The mail cop responded to one person’s complaint with something like "Yeah, get arrested really stinks" – not the sort of response that helped the situation any.

I tired to think of the people who I care about and who were not there, and I found myself hoping that they were in warm safe beds.

I tried to keep in contact with Jim (who was not looking too good by this time) and Peter, being careful to ask the cops if I could talk to Peter since his distance required a yell and I didn’t want the cops to get anymore edged up than they already clearly were. When I asked, they did allow me to speak to Peter. Jason was a bit to far away from yelling but he looked fine, so I just tried to keep checking on him periodically.

My cell phone had gone dead but Peter said his was going off multiple times in his pocket.

They began taking us away, one or two at a time, to be booked and photographed, and they took our personal possessions at this time.

Jason was the first in our group to be taken away (Excuse me, but dammit – why did they take the health 34 year old to a padded, warmer bus seat before the two seniors?).
Jason was eventually put on a City bus with a number of other arrestees, the destination sign on the front of the bus said "Police Bus".

Some persons who had been arrested were put into cop cars/vans, I do not know why some were put into buses and others seemingly segregated into smaller vehicles, perhaps (total speculation on my part) these persons were somehow deemed more dangerous.

After about two and three quarters hours sitting on the cold concrete, handcuffed, the female cop asked me to get up and I was photographed, etc. While I was standing in line waiting to be processed, I saw Steve, a Peace Team person, across the road, asking to talk with me. I didn’t hear the full officer’s response, but it clearly translated to "no". Other Peace Team people were across the street. One of them must have told the cops that I wear a Medical Alert tag, because I was soon asked about this, upon which I explained that I would be okay if i could get my prescription and food in the morning.

Peter was taken in line right after me, and I will always be amazed how he was able to talk to the cops in a strong, but not threatening way about everything from where he comes from in MI to the fearful rise of a police state in the U.S.

Finally, about three and one quarter hours after being arrested, I was put on a bus with about 40 other people, they kept the five women on the bus in the face-the-aisle seats in the front. By this time my arms and shoulders really hurt, and my hands were cold and partially numb, but I tried to follow Peter and Jim’s example and talk with the women across the aisle — the four of them were all about 20, and I suspect they had had a drink or two. Now they were just in pain, cold, and tired.
Our busload included, among others, a soldier who done two Iraq tours, a man who claimed that he just been passing by and happened to be on that particular street corner at the wrong time, and a guy who said that he, too, just happened to be on that corner and was taking photos when the cops surrounded and arrested us.

I don’t know their while life stories, but no one on my bus seemed to be a great threat to anyone.

I tried to remember the cops situation, they, too, were tired: I caught some conversation and the cop at the front of our bus said to another cop that he was on his 19th consecutive hour of duty, with no rest.

After sitting on the bus maybe 25 minutes, we were taken to the Mpls City jail, where we quickly given written warrants with the charges against us, reunited with our smaller personal belongings (my fanny pack and water bottles ended up at some property collection place, I was told, I understand I can get them later) and finally, after about four hours, those handcuffs were removed.
The Peace Team has lawyer who will try to get the charges against us dropped. I will keep all of you informed.

I was the first of the three Peace Team people on our bus to be de-cuffed, and the head officer at the jail was sympathetic. He had already talked to Jason, and between us, we tried to give some understanding of what the Peace Team was — another great chance to share what we are doing !!!!

He stated that he was going to get Peter and Jim next. I thanked him.
Peter, Jim, and I regrouped out on the sidewalk, took advantage of a last chance to talk with some of our fellow jailbirds, and called Jason, whose car was nearby since he was staying with friends in Mpls.

I recognized one tall, young man in the group coming out of the jail — I had tried repeatedly to help him understand the consequences of his actions earlier — he told me "lady, if you ever tell me to do ANYTHING ever again, I am doing it !!!!".

We finally got to bad about 04:30.

Thursday morning, we got up about 07:30, the whole household (most were part of the Peace Team) where I was staying was getting up to check on the people outside the St. Paul jail prior to our 10:00 Peace Team daily grouping/orientation. Some people had been holding an all-night vigil outside the St. Paul jail, waiting for news on friends/family that had been arrested earlier.

There was only three (?) young people at the St. Paul jail — they looked so cold and lonely and tired, poor things — we got them some hot coffee and I just had to hug the two women and tuck their quilts around them.

So, we had our daily start up back at the church, complete with a photo of the now-released jailbirds for Peter and his MI Peace Team. Several Teams were heading to the Capitol, I was going with them but and I knew I couldn’t work the whole day/evening Thursday — I had to get back to Duluth while I could still drive (two-and-half-hours is not much sleep) and work on Friday. Besides, even though I did not want to admit it, I was still keyed up about the arrest situation, and added to the events of Monday and the physical exhaustion, I wasn’t in the best emotional, mental, and physical shape.

The Peace Team woman from Grand Rapids, MN and I had a short interview with a reporter Sandy Drag from WDIO-TV.

I knew I was falling apart emotionally, mentally, and physically by this time, no denying it. Daniel and Katherine, two experienced Peace Team people, suggested that I get ride back to the Church and head back to Duluth.

Fortunately, another Team needed transportation back to the Church and then out to another venue, so I could ride with them.

Time for self-care. Time to hit the road. I said my goodbyes and set out for Duluth.

1 comment:

Sheri said...

thank you for posting this. i was able to come to mn. for some peace team training and was so upset about not being able to return for the rnc itself. reading your post made it very real.