John McCain had effectively won the Republican primary in March of 2008. The Senator from Arizona was an ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, calling for more troops to be sent. He had joked that the US should bomb Iran. He claimed to be a Maverick, yet he voted with President Bush's proposals 90% of the time.
McCain was set to go through the symbolic nomination in St. Paul in the first week of September. I was planning on being there to speak out against him and his parties policies of war, homophobia, racism and sexism.
The Democrats had their convention the week before. While it was exciting to see the first major party Black presidential candidate, many were still concerned about Barack Obama's policies. Obama had voted to give immunity to telecom companies which spied on Americans for the Bush administration, Obama made hawkish statements on Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine. Obama also refuses to support full gay marriage rights.
I could have gone to the DNC protests but choose not to because I was worried that any protest against the DNC would be mischaracterized or misunderstood as a racist attack on Obama, and I had friends on both sides. Many of the union activists I know would be inside the DNC politicking to get the best deal they could get for working people. Many of my anti-war friends were outside, calling attention to the Democrats complicity in the war.
I think the protest organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War was the best organized in Denver. They had a list of anti-war demands which they wanted to discuss with Obama. They led a march and attempted to meet with Obama. Obama did not meet with them, but one of his aides did.
I was less divided on what to do with the Republican convention. I felt only a revulsion at everything the RNC stood for and a desire to speak out against it.
So on the last day of August I got on a bus with a few friends to go to St. Paul Minnesota, where the RNC would be held.
It was an 8 hour bus ride from Chicago to St. Paul, pretty short compared to the longer trips I've taken for similar protests to New York City, Washington D.C., and Miami. When we arrived in downtown Minneapolis on the morning of September 1st, we met up with the person we would be staying with and were given a ride to their place to drop off our gear.
Our contact was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a small but militant and radical union. He worked at the Starbucks at the Mall of the America and was attempting to unionize the coffee shop.
We were filled in on the latest police repression of dissent. The day before, a train filled with union supporters was traveling to the Mall of the America to visit the Starbucks where the IWW was organizing. The whole train was stopped and surrounded by riot police who detained union supporters as well as people not involved with the union. In the days before the convention, the FBI had raided the homes and offices of several Anarchists, attempting to intimidate people and prevent them from demonstrating.
One of the Homes the FBI raided before the convention.
We were also briefed on some of the radical history of the Twin Cities. From a Teamsters strike in 1934 to Animal Liberation Front actions at the University of Minnesota in the last decade. The American Indian Movement was found in the Twin Cities in 1968 and there were riots against gentrification in the 1970s in the neighborhood we would be staying in- the West Bank.
There is a large Somalian population that lives there.
The Hard Times Cafe.
After we dropped our stuff off, we were dropped off at a local restaurant the Hard Time Cafe. It was a cool vegan hippie/punk place with great food. We hung out there while we waited for our next ride. We saw someone in the restaurant wearing a GOP collared shirt. We thought he was in the wrong place and probably felt really awkward. We were waiting outside when he left and I asked him, “He where are the Young Republicans meeting?” We ended up chatting, it turned out he was a Ron Paul supporter, a vegan, against the war, and generally more liberal than the mainstay of the GOP. He told us that Ron Paul would be having a rally with former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura this week. We debated the free market though. He was trying to say that the reason the economy wasn't doing well was because of government intervention. I focused on how the Great Depression was overcome- the work of unions and the government investing in the people through the New Deal.
I also chatted with one of the locals, an Ethiopian immigrant who was not a fan of the Republican party. He told me about the large Somalian population in the Twin Cities, and how that was a result of former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. We talked about colonialism in East Africa, and how a lot of the fighting between Somalians and Ethiopians was the result of colonialism, between those who sided with different factions of colonial powers against each other.
Our ride picked up up from the Hard Times Cafe and drove us across the Mississippi river into St. Paul and dropped us off. We got lost walking towards the main anti-war rally and ended up at a Bushville. In the Great Depression shanty towns where the poor and homeless stayed would be named after President Hoover, who they blamed for their predicament. A coalition of human rights groups and poverty advocates known as the Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign created a similar shanty town named after President Bush to bring attention to the impact of his policies on the poor.
I really liked these t-shirts that the Bushville volunteers wore.
My friends and I made it over to the Minnesota state Capital Grounds where the rally organized by the Coalition to March on the RNC was being held. The slogans of the March were, “U.S. out of Iraq now! Money for human needs, not for war. Say no to the Republican agenda! Demand peace, justice and equality!” The coalition was made up of many groups, but the local Anti-War Committee was doing much of the ground work. I knew one of the leaders of the group, Meredith Abby, from a delegation we were on to Colombia through the Colombia Action Network.
There were some excellent speakers at the rally including: Nee-Gon-Nway-Wee-Dung or Thunder Before the Storm - one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, Richard Berg- the president of Teamsters local 743, members of the Welfare Rights Committee, rapper Son of Nun, and others gave passionate speeches.
There were great groups in the crowd as well. The Campus Anti-war Network was there, Code Pink was there, I met the Socialist Workers Party's Vice Presidential Candidate Alyson Kennedy and spoke with her about the conflict in the country Georgia. There was a group of Somalians there who chanted “Ethiopia out of Somalia, US out of Iraq!” One of the funniest street theater groups was two guys wearing Bush and McCain masks who danced to songs like “Insane in the McCain Brain” (to the tune of Cyprus Hills Insane in the Brain) and “Bomb Bomb Iran” (to the tune of the Beach Boys Barbara Anne.”
This was made of ice and it melted throughout the day. I called it "If John McCain wins."
The artists, Ligorano and Reese called it The State of Things.
The march was great as well. Organizers had predicted that 50,000 people would attend the rally however the weather in other parts of the country prevented many from attending. The police estimated the crowd size at 10,000, and the organizers said 30,000. I thought 20,000 seemed like an accurate number.
for opposing the UN sanctions on Iraq and was a founder of Creative Voices for Nonviolence.
She marched with several others from Chicago to St. Paul to protest the war, they called it Witness Against War.
The organizers of the march had problems obtaining a permit for the route they wanted. They had to take the city of St. Paul to court, and were still not happy with the route they were given. The organizers wanted to circle the Xcel center, where the RNC was taking place. They ended up not getting that but instead came within sight of the Xcel center, and then the march had to go through a caged off area, turn around, and go back on the opposite side of the street. It was pretty ridiculous and the organizers were not happy with it.
The absurdity of the march route was on display when the IWW organized Anti-Capitalist Block reached the fenced in turn around area. The group was filled with many young black flag waving and black mask wearing Anarchist militants who are often targeted by the police for arrest. When they reached the fence, the group paused and those in the front carrying the banner asked if everyone knew what they were getting into by going into the fenced in area, and whether they were OK with it. Most of the group agreed with it, to the surprise of several in the crowd. One woman, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, chastised the group for not living up to it's own Anarchist principles. She shouted at them that at the anti-war protests at the DNC in Denver, no one entered the caged off “free speech zones” because they viewed them as a violation of their rights. Yet in St. Paul, the militants of the movement were about to enter a caged off area. She called on them to be leaders and to lead the march away from the cage. They didn't follow her advice. Luckily, no one was arrested in the caged area.
I met many friends at the march, some I had not seen in years and had a lot of catching up to do. I followed the march back to the State Capital and chatted with friends. I was unaware of the chaos that was breaking out in downtown St. Paul. I had decided before I went to the RNC protests that I would not get involved with the more militant actions being planned. It seemed to me like they weren't being planned in a very good, well thought out way.
Anarchist groups like the RNC Welcoming Committee and Unconventional Action were advocating blockading the RNC and shutting it down, with all their energy going towards these blockades after the permitted march was over. Different affinity groups put the plan into action in different ways. Some were peaceful and simply blocked streets by sitting in intersections. Others were more militant and broke windows and attempted to create barricades in the streets.
It's not that I'm opposed blockades, peaceful sit-ins, or even more militant actions. I just doubted the short term tactics and long term strategy being employed. I wasn't involved in any of the planning for these militant actions as I wasn't sure until a few weeks before if I would even go to the RNC protests, and yet when I went to my friends place, I saw a printed up flier of a map of downtown St. Paul with comments on which group was going to blockade which intersection. To make militant plans like that without any sense of security culture was more than just bad in terms of making the protest happen, it put all those who participated in it at risk. It practically announced to the riot police and FBI where to be and what to do.
Further there was no real plan if there were contingencies. The blockades were planned to shut down the RNC on September 1st. But the RNC practically shut itself down out of respect to the people of the Gulf Coast who were facing Hurricane Gustav. If the militant protests were planned better, they might have been able to call off the protests, avoid the arrests, and make better plans for a different day.
Also, one of my big criticisms of the way many militant Anarchists organize large disruptive actions is the anonymity of those involved and the security risks that creates. It was found out later that the FBI had infiltrated the planning meetings, collected information for indictments and acted as agent provocateurs.
I planned on just wandering around the different protests throughout the week and touching base with the different groups there. So I was at the State Capital when I started wondering where the friends I cam to St. Paul with were. After a few phone calls I found out that they were in downtown St. Paul and that teargas and rubber bullets were being used by the police on protesters. I attempted to head down that way to see some of the action, but was stopped by police barricades.
When I was finally let through, I headed towards the river, where my friends said they were at, and where the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was hosting a “Take Back Labor Day” Rally. Playing at the rally was guitarist Tom Morello, Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco. I was curious about going to it, but found out tickets were sold out. I also found out that the concert created a controversy among those opposed to the RNC. Many saw it as being planned to divert people away from the Anti-war March. It was also distressing to find out that SEIU was one of the sponsors of the RNC. To think that the country's largest labor union would support the most anti-union political party in this country in any way, is worrisome.
I made it to the Mississippi River where I waited at the entrance of a bridge to hear from my friends. I could overhear a bit of the SEIU concert, and saw tons of Republicans getting off their buses and walking around. I was at the RNC in 2004 in New York City and it was totally different this time since St. Paul was much smaller, all the Republicans were much more visible than in a giant metropolis such as New York.
I met a few people while waiting there. One was a train hopper who had a big backpack. He was making his way from the farm in Montana where he lived by himself to a job in the north-east of the country. He was a real do it yourself mountain man with a big beard. Using his binoculars I was able to see the group of protesters detained by the police on the side of the river. I was also able to see a boat which with a banner that read “End Torture Now” which was surrounded by police boats.
I also met some lesbians who worked at the local GLBTQA center. They offered me a ride back to the West Bank area, where my friends and I were supposed to meet up at a local bar in the evening. On the ride they told me about the local GLBTQA scene in the Twin Cities and recommended some good bars in the West Bank area. While I was waiting to meet up with my friends, I checked out the Bedlam Theater, one of the bars they recommended. It was pretty cool, they had a mock news show on, with liberal comedic views. Then they announced a special musical guest- David Rovics. I had no idea this great folk singer of the people was going to be there, but there he was and he led the crowd in song.
I was really starting to worry about my friends. I thought they might have been arrested and called the Coldsnap legal collective, who had no information on them. I walked over to this dive bar where the IWW was having an after-protest drink and my friends eventually met me there. Their cell phones had run low on batteries and were unable to call me. However, one of my friends had been arrested. We drank beer and ate pizza, debriefed on the events of the day and started to make plans for the next day.
The next morning my friends went to the jail to see if they could help out with the jail solidarity and to get our friend out. Since the car they rode in was full, I ended up taking the bus, and since I didn't know where the prison was, I ended up going to the protest concert on the State Capital grounds called the Ripple Effect.
When I got off the bus I was in downtown St. Paul and hungry. I wandered around and saw only fast food restaurants. After some time I found a diner called Keys. I walk in, and find out that MSNBC was finishing its taping there for the morning. Two anchormen, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough were there. As I was standing in line to order breakfast, Scarborough was leaving, and I was wearing my Che t-shirt, a gift from my mom. Scarborough is a former Republican Congressman who hosts his own shown on MSNBC.
I thought it would be funny to get my picture with Scarborough in my Che shirt. I thought it might embarrass him. So I asked him “Hey Joe, would you mind being in a photo with me? He agreed. I gave my camera to one of his aides, and he tried to put his arm around me, I was a little weirded out by that and was like, “Lets do a handshake instead.” Breakfast was pretty uneventful. Keys is apparently a family owned establishment and all the locals were super cool and liberal. I talked with a woman firefighter and her boyfriend.
Here I am meeting Joe Scarborough.
On my way to the State Capital, I saw a monument that had been built to honor the womens suffrage movement.
Some pictures of the Minnesota Women's Suffrage Monument.
After that I headed back to the State Capital where I saw Dead Prez, Wookie Foot and Matisyahu, perform. Speakers included Winona LaDuke. While I was there I bought a copy of Harry Haywoods Autobiography from Freedom Road Socialist Organization. I left before I got a chance to see Michael Franti and Anti-Flag.
Wookie Foot and Matisyahu perform at Ripple Effect.
Somalians rallied at the Ripple Effect before marching to the Poor People's March.
Native American and Environmental activist Winona LaDuke. She was also Ralph Nader's running mate in 2000.
I left the Ripple Effect concert to go to the Poor Peoples March organized by the Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign. It had a smaller crowd than the march the day before, and the concert I had just left. But it was spirited and had a good message. I got a plate of food from the Food Not Bombs group there and chatted with some friends. The march got going, and ended up passing by the county jail where the police had brought many of the arrested activists from the day before. The march stopped and chanted some slogans outside the jail before moving on.
This guy was flying this pro-immigrant kite at several marches that week.
I however met up with my friends who had been staying outside the jail and stayed with them. Outside the jail they had food and legal observers to help those protesters getting out of jail. We heard that Rage Against the Machine was playing a surprise show at the Ripple Effect and rushed over to catch the show. We got there and found out that the plug was pulled on the show by the police two songs into a set, because the permit for the show ended at 7:00 pm. Rage then performed acapella in the crowd. We missed it all though.
However the Poor Peoples March was passing by and we followed it into downtown St. Paul, however the police blocked off the march and were refusing to let people join it. We found out later that the march was going to the Xcel Center to present a letter with demands to the RNC. The march was tear gassed by the police and many were arrested.
Frustrated by our inability to join the march, we decided to follow up on a rumor we heard that the rap group The Coup would be playing at a coffee shop. We went to the Black Dog Coffee Shop, and sure enough, the street was blocked off and there was a stage set up that musicians were playing on.
We got some beer and had tons of fun watching the Coup perform for the small crowd. We were dancing and getting funky with the anti-establishment hip-hop. One of my friends was able to get Boots Riley from the Coup to make an announcement on the stage to have volunteers join the jail solidarity. Boots also had a member of IVAW speak on stage. Among those at the show was Medea Benjamin and other Code Pink activists who were just enjoying the music.
The Black Dog Cafe, where we saw the Coup.
The Coup perform.
After the show, it was pretty late and we didn't have a way back to Minneapolis, so we walked back to the jail and bundled up and slept outside with the other people doing jail solidarity.
The next day, September 3rd, we hung out at the jail and helped out with the jail solidarity. We went into the courthouse and were checking names and finding Chicago people who were arrested. The courthouse wasn't used to having this much craziness. The protesters were having their bails set and initial hearings, and there were a host of volunteer lawyers there to represent them. The American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild turned out several lawyers to help defend the right to dissent. It was interesting talking to them because many of them were from diverse legal backgrounds that you wouldn't normally expect to represent activists.
When the court began going through the cases, we saw how the system was going to work. Basically the activist would be accused of something pretty ridiculous, ranging from general public nuisance to the absurd flinging feces charge. Then the defense attorney would rip apart the case. Then the judge would say, we're not here to make the case, but determine the likelihood of this person coming back to court. Most of the judges put pretty high bails on the out of state activists, many of whom were college students, held jobs and were quite respectable. One of the public defenders was very assertive in claiming that the higher bail for out of state activists was unconstitutional. Apparently one of the judge that I didn't see went very light on the activists.
Many of the activists who were arrested used John and Jane Doe as their name, and another group used the gender-neutral queer positive name Jessie Sparkles.
After hanging out there for several hours our friend from Chicago had his appearance. Bail was set at five thousand dollars for him. According to my other friends who were with him when he was arrested, he wasn't even doing anything illegal. He was literally at the wrong place at the wrong time and he fit the profile of a punk. We went to the bail bondsman across the street, who fronted the money for five hundred dollars, on the condition that our friend went to his court date.
The riot police would come and go throughout the day, periodically massing up to intimidate the 200 person crowd outside the jail. We also found out that many of the people the police were letting out, were being dropped off at random spots around the city. These were people who didn't know the city, didn't have money, didn't have a phone, and the police were trying to cut them off from the support network we had outside the jail. Some of the people there started to tell the media this, and once it got on the air a few times, that practice stopped pretty quickly.
As night came, we were getting pretty antsy. While a slow but steady stream of activists was being released, and people were eating food, cuddling to stay warm, singing songs and cheering when the next batch of protesters was let out. We heard news about the Rage Against the Machine concert in Minneapolis and how the police attacked concert goers after they left the show. We also heard about how Sarah Palin was speaking at the RNC that night.
It was late when our friend from Chicago was let out. After a big group hug, we hitched a ride back to Minneapolis and ate out at a vegan pizza place- Pizza Luca.
Our friend who was in jail told us what it was like being in jail. How he was with a group that kept messing with the police by singing old radical songs and how the police moved him to another cell. It was lucky they did, because the cell they moved him to was one of the few that was able to hear the Poor Peoples march which passed by the day before. He also told us about some of the police state tactics used in the jail. In the morning, he was greeted by ICE- Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Our friend was born in the Ukraine, and even though he moved to the US when he was three years old and was now a citizen, they were trying to intimidate him into confessing to all sorts of stuff by threatening him based on his immigration status. He didn't buy it though, he knew his rights as a citizen and refused to be intimidated.
Our last day in the Twin Cities started with us going back to the courthouse so our frined could get some of his personal items back. After that we headed towards the Mall of America to see the Starbucks that the IWW was organizing. There was a rally and march that day organized by the Anti-war Committee, but since we had to catch a bus back to Chicago that night, and our friend had already been arrested, we decided it would be best to skip it, especially since it was planned on being an unpermitted march.
Usually I'm one of the group of people blocking traffic, however our bus ride from St. Paul to the Mall of America was stuck in traffic due to the protest. It was a funny situation, particularly how the different people on the bus felt about it. There was one lady who was talking on her telephone and complaining about the marchers. She was saying that they need jobs and to get an education. I told here that of our group of four activists on the bus two of us had our college degrees and one was in school and we all had full time jobs. She snapped at me and said she wasn't talking to me. I said she was just talking about us. She complained some more before getting up and moving to a different seat. A few stops later a guy sits down near us and he was totally cool. He started telling us how Obama had three times the crowd of the RNC at the Xcel center a few weeks ago. Yet the traffic and all the other problems weren't there. He said the police presence at the Obama rally was tiny compared to the number of police protecting the RNC. He blamed the police for creating so many problems.
The Mall of America was surreal. In many ways it was just like any other mall, but bigger. It wasn't bigger in the sense of more variety of stores. It was bigger in the sense that it had three Starbucks in the mall, two McDonalds, two Gaps and so on. We met up with some IWW supporters and over lunch chatted with them about union strategies and tactics before we headed out to catch our bus.
There is much to talk about in the aftermath of the RNC protests. I do want to emphasize how important it was to get all the protesters out of jail and how we need to defeat the charges against them, and press forward with police brutality lawsuits. No matter what I think of the tactics used against the RNC, these are good people, from our movement and even if they made mistakes- they deserve to be free to learn from those mistakes and continue the struggle against capitalism.
In the movement we should debate strategy with those who engaged in the blockades and engage them with questions like "What did and didn't work about this protest? Why or why not?" I question the strategy of attempting to shut down the RNC, but even if shutting it down was the right thing to do, how come more people didn't join in attempting to shut it down? What could the militant groups do to gain the support of the community so the community knows that these militant actions aren't done by crazy people or done against the community, but are done for the community against the crazy people in the RNC.
There is a lot of work to do still. Forty years after the 1968 DNC protests and the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial, the RNC Welcoming committee 8 have their own indictments with conspiracy and terrorism charges being placed against them just for organizing a protest. It is important to defeat these charges.
Defeating those charges will still just be a beginning. We still have to end the war and fight for our rights.
For more updates on the aftermath of the the rnc protests and other twin cities progressive news visit Twin Cities Indymedia.