Tuesday, September 02, 2008

We march in love: Further reflections on the RNC in St Paul

To continue from the previous post, our friend was not arrested and did not have to seek sanctuary in the meetinghouse except for Saturday night. She did have a frightening conversation with the Ramsey County sheriff who told her that she was indeed "on the list" but had not been arrested -- yet -- because she was perceived as a moderating influence on the young people in the RNC Welcoming Committee. So she is safe for the time being. (You can hear from her, and others on the RNC WC in a lengthy and provocative press conference here.)

It's too much for me to comprehensively update on the situation in St. Paul regarding the Republican National Convention and the protests surrounding it. Suffice it to sat that total arrests exceeded 800 and that many people here are very unhappy with the law enforcement responses. Here are some links that tell much of the story:

Minnesota Public Radio has excellent coverage here and elsewhere on its site
Democracy Now! and here and here and elsewhere.
Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com and here and here
Minnesota Independent and here and here and here and elsewhere on its site

As far as I know, there was no organized, corporate Quaker presence or response to the RNC, but many Quakers were involved in the week's events in different ways. Several dozen of us participated in the largest public protest of the week, a march of 10,000 on Monday afternoon.

Some worked as "field medics" to provide first aid to marchers and other protesters and some worked in a healing center across from a hospital the entire week; others worked all week on the Minnesota Peace Team, yellow-tuniced people trained to keep a buffer between police and protesters. Some helped set up and staffed the American Friends Service Committee's Eyes Wide Open installation on the State Capitol lawn on Tuesday. A few of us were legal observers and volunteered with the National Lawyers Guild or American Civil Liberties Union to represent arrestees at bail hearings and first appearances. Others housed out-of-town protesters. At least one turned his bike into a puppet for the week. And probably other things that I'm forgetting or don't know.

Regarding the Monday march, there was nothing terribly unique or remarkable to report to anyone who has attended similar events. There were the usual wonderful variety of signs, costumes, flags and banners, and theatrics. There were marchers of all colors, nationalities, religions, and ages, including many families with children. The overall mood was confident and purposeful, but not earnest or somber. Some might also say not serious. Perhaps so, but I remarked to someone that there was more life in this crowd than there would be the entire week in the Excel Center where the RNC was being held.

But there was a counterweight to this joyful and life-affirming vibe.

Though I don't have any photos of the shoulder-to-shoulder armored riot police that were at every intersection during the march, the police presence was pervasive and overwhelming. To be fair, the people associated with the RNC Welcoming Committee had threatened to use physical force -- whether that force was "violent" or not is a definitional question I won't wade into for the moment -- to prevent delegates from arriving at the Xcel Center where the convention was being held, and I don't think it was unreasonable for the police to be prepared and to try to thwart their plans.

And, to a certain extent the threats came to pass: a few groups broke off from the main march route, broke a window or two, and generally ran wild. There are also reports that some one threw a rock that broke a window of bus carrying delegates, and that another delegation said they were sprayed with some kind of liquid that burned their eyes and discolored their clothing. (Pioneer Press story here.)

But I was appalled at the disproportionality of the display of force throughout the week. It started with forcible entries to four or five homes Saturday morning to arrest RNC WC members and to execute search warrants. Police reportedly used battering rams to break open unlocked doors and came in with drawn guns, despite there being no reason to suspect that the residents posed any threat of violent resistance. There were also many reports of harassment of journalists prior to and throughout the week.

At the march, hundreds of police were dressed head-to-toe in armor and battle gear, far exceeding any danger they may have reasonably anticipated, especially from the 10,000 peaceful marchers. The display seemed clearly intended to frighten and intimidate others by creating a false aura of danger, creating fear and uncertainty in the public mind. I cannot escape the conclusion that the police let themselves be used as part of a larger propaganda and public relations effort to delegitimize the protesters.

From my perspective, the enormous and costly effort to protect the RNC exposed the falsity of it all. The RNC was so sanitized, scripted, and phony that it amounted to nothing more (or less) than a four-day political advertisement in which the "news" media were nothing more (or less) than extras or cameo celebrities. (The same, of course, is true of the Democratic convention.) It had to take place behind an enormous security barrier -- physical and human -- in order to "protect" it -- not from any real danger, but from having to encounter dissenting opinions.

The following statement from the St. Paul Green Party (largely written by a Green Quaker) pretty much sums up my feelings and position on the whole thing:

It is with deep sadness that St. Paul Greens have seen our city become an armed camp during the past week. The presence of the RNC gave St. Paul an opportunity to set a shining example of a community where diversity of opinion and freedom of expression are welcomed and where civil disobedience is handled firmly but with restraint. The result would have been trust and respect for law officers and a long step toward realizing our vision of St. Paul as one of the world’s greenest cities.

Instead we have seen a virtual army of anonymous, heavily armored and armed troopers take control of our streets. We have seen how helpless and compliant our local authorities are in the face of such a quasi-military occupation. And we have experienced a sense of violation as our homes and meeting places have been invaded on the flimsiest of excuses, our roads and bridges closed to traffic without warning, and our jails packed with people who were rounded up brutally and indiscriminately. Some are angry young protesters, some are journalists who were seeking to do their jobs, and some are citizens who simply ventured to ask questions.

We were told it would not be this way. We feel misled and betrayed. We ask that our city council and county commissioners authorize an independent investigation along the lines suggested in Minneapolis by council members Cam Gordon and Gary Schiff./blockquote>


Jeanne said...

Nice post, Paul. A few of your pictures look so much like mine, I thought you'd stolen them! But I saw you hadn't once I took a closer look.

Nice pics! I love the one from the Missle Dick Chick and the storm trooper.

We hosted a writer doing a piece for salon.com that you can read here.

It's all so very surreal. I had no idea the impact the Bush policies would have on how police would interact with peaceful protesters, suspecting everyone of "terrorism." I mean, I knew it in my head, but it was another thing entirely to be blocked from getting out of the city by lines of police, and how worried I felt walking through St. Paul, afraid of doing something wrong.


Phil Grove said...

Thanks for your balanced and thoughtful account of the protest. It's really difficult to maintain any objectivity and perspective in the current climate. I generally don't even try.

I can't resist, however, taking issue with one thing you said. As an "anarchist" Quaker who fully supports the RNC Welcoming Committee, I don't like your statement that they "threatened" the use of "physical force." While it is true that they advocated blockades of transport to the convention, and that this would doubtless include some kind of physical force, the term "physical force" is too inclusive and feeds into the notion that they were advocating violent attacks against persons. There is no evidence whatsoever of this. There is no evidence that the blockades were intended to use any more physical force than has been used for many years by nonviolent Quakers and others at demonstrations. The Honeywell Project, for example, held demonstrations in which people locked arms and blocked the entrances to Honeywell buildings. I don't remember this being described as "physical force" -- it was considered clearly a form of nonviolent resistance. There is no evidence that anything more violent than that was ever planned or advocated by the Welcoming Committee. Choosing the term "physical force" in this case -- although perhaps technically accurate -- tends to justify the very violent police response.

Moreover, your characterization of the police as reasonable in trying to thwart the plans to create a blockade misses the larger context. The Republican Party in general, and specifically a number of attendees at the Convention, has supported and carried out a policy of mass murder, war crimes, and torture. Can it be reasonable for anyone to be complicit with that, by providing support to the RNC in any way, even as part of their job? No, it cannot. The reasonable thing for any police officer responsible for defending the RNC to do would have been to lay down his weapons, strip off all his clothes, and dance with the "Funk the War" pagans. Because it is not reasonable to be complicit with mass murder, war crimes, and torture, ever, not in any way.