For weeks the papers had been talking about how the Republican National Convention was going to be in St. Paul, MN. Hundreds of high-powered Republican politicians and their supporters would be in town. For weeks, we'd been reading about all the protestors that would should up. And then, finally, the Convention was upon us and, from the perspective of someone in Minneapolis you felt… nothing. There was no sign that anything about the world was different.
I had been planning on going to protest at the Convention myself. At the time, there was a big push to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a massive area of protected lands in the northeast part of Alaska. Conservationists are fond of showing pictures of the scenic parts of the refuge…
…as well as its charismatic mega-fauna. But focusing on scenery and animals encourages a kind of trophy-preservation focusing on that which can be seen and accessed. Wilderness which does not fit such criteria is undervalued as an unused hinterland rendering no service to society. Most of the ANWR drilling, if it happens, will be either off-shore or in the less visually-stimulating coastal plain shown at left (naturally, it's hard to find a picture of this that isn't scenic or with animals).
For me, the animals and scenery were not the point. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part. I was much more concerned with whether or not we would renege on the protections that we had given this area. Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow. Invasions can be arrested or modified in a manner to keep an area usable either for recreation, or for science, or for wildlife, but the creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.
So I planned to go raise an ANWR sign at the convention.
I had planned on doing this on Friday, at the end of the convention, but, when I explained this plan to a friend they looked at me and said, “But the convention ends tonight!” I was startled, but I knew what I had to do, “You'll have to excuse me.” I walked out the door, got on a bus, and headed for St. Paul. At Snelling, I stopped at a Wal-mart to pick up a big piece of tag board and a huge, black marker. Then I got back on the bus, ready to wave my sign and save ANWR.
The bus stopped short of downtown St. Paul; apparently, buses were not running there. So I had to get off and walk. And I walked directly into this.
Dump trucks blocking the road. I passed them and continued on, carrying my unpainted tag-board and markers, looking for a way to cross so I could wave my sign and save ANWR. When I got to the next eerily empty bridge, I found police blocking that as well.
Hopefully, I continued on and came to another bridge: also blocked. In fact, all the bridges into downtown St. Paul were closed from this direction! It was left as a kind of isolated island where the elite were planning versions of the nation's—and ANWR's—future in insulated safety.
As I continued along the street, I heard the noise of a crowd in front of me and discerned a kind of front. The capitol grounds were filled with protestors, many of whom were waving signs! But between me and them, there was a veritable army of police.
I looked for a way to cross so I could wave my sign too, but didn't find one. A group of people were sitting with linked arms in the middle of the road chanting about peace. The police kept asking them to move, but they didn't. Finally, I think police got tired of asking them, so they began arresting them, which didn't really seem necessary. A group of four officers would go in, ask a person to get up, and then walk them away. Some people got up; others refused to, and were carried away, either quietly or kicking and screaming.
Once that was over, the police army moved out of the way…
…and I was able to go join the other sign wavers. I stood by some people screaming about Iraq and some other people playing a guitar and singing about Jesus. Nearby, a number of protestors stood a few feet from the police, the two groups staring at each other with a kind of stoic animosity. Now, I thought, I will make my sign and wave my sign and save ANWR.
But no sooner had I formed this intention, then the dump trucks which had been blocking the bridges began slowly driving towards the crowd while police on megaphones told everyone to move or be tear-gassed. The Iraq-shouters stood their ground for a while before retreating shouting things that weren't so much about Iraq anymore. The Jesus-singers floated away, still singing. The stoic protestors held their ground for a few minutes as well, before stoically filing away.
I still didn't have my sign painted, and didn't really feel a lot of solidarity with the other groups who were, after all, not visibly interested in ANWR. In fact, I hadn't seen anyone with an ANWR sign. But the group of riot-gear-wielding people bearing down on me didn't seem in a mood to discriminate, so I beat a retreat as well.
I continued to seek a place to make and wave my sign and save ANWR, but, shortly thereafter, darkness fell. Before long, there were large, furtive groups of people moving quickly in the night. From a distance, it was hard to tell if they were protestors or police.
Regardless, I avoided them and walked towards the Cathedral, but, on my way, I suddenly heard loud bangs and gunfire. Looking in the direction of the Sears building, I saw protestors and police clashing on another bridge. Farther along, what looked like a dozen police cars with wailing sirens sped into the Sears parking lot with dark, furtive shapes dispersing in front of them.
(Image by Robert Stolarik for The New York Times)
It became suddenly clear that this had long-since ceased to be a well-ordered protest and had degenerated into conflict without well-demarcated fronts. Being in the area was risky. But, to catch the bus home, I'd need to pass through the capitol grounds one last time. I ducked back across the deserted street, hearing more gun-pops to the left. The capitol grounds were dark and abandoned. As I walked towards the building, knowing my bus was somewhere in the area, I was the only person around.
As I drew near, I saw that the capitol, a symbol of democracy lit up by bright spotlights, was surrounded by marshalls of some sort. Spaced every five or ten feet around the whole building, wearing wide-brimmed hats, holding batons. I walked around to the front of the building and then asked one of them where the #16 was. She pointed across the street, “You can catch it at that stop. But wait for the light, so you don't get schmucked by a car!”
I waited for the light and then sat on a bench and drew out four giant letters: ANWR. I waved the sign until the bus came.
It's hard to say if a sign can make a difference. Or even a thousand noisy signs. John McCain, did say, earlier in his campaign for the nomination that, “As far as ANWR is concerned, I don't want to drill in the Grand Canyon, and I don't want to drill in the Everglades. This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world.” Maybe those were just his convictions, or maybe he saw enough signs or heard enough voices. Either way, drilling still hasn't happened there as of 2013.
Much later, I learned some details as to why things happened like they did. During the course of the convention approximately 10,000 protesters marched against the war in Iraq and 2,000 more to end homelessness and poverty. They represented a number of organizations opposed to the Republican Administration including the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, the Teamsters, Code Pink, the American Indian Movement and the RNC Welcoming Committee.
On the first day of the convention, a black bloc smashed windows in downtown businesses and slashed the tires several police cars, lit one police car on fire, and used a garbage dumpster as a battering ram against another.
On the final day of the convention, over a thousand people gathered for a third major march. The permit for the march ran from 2–5PM. This meant that the last of the marchers needed to be back on capitol grounds by 5PM. By 4PM, the march had still not left the capitol grounds. Understanding that the protesters were interested in being near the Xcel Energy Center when delegates were, police offered a compromise: march leaders were told that if they started their march before 5PM, police would allow it to continue past the permit time. March organizers refused.
When the final protest march permit expired at 5PM, overpasses over Interstate 94 leading into downtown from the state capitol were closed. I arrived sometime after 6PM. At about 7PM, when the final assembly permit on capitol grounds expired and protesters refused several commands to disperse, police used tear gas, smoke bombs, pepper spray, flash bangs, mounted police, paint marker rounds, and rubber bullets to prevent an antiwar march organized by the Anti-War Committee to march on the Xcel Energy center. I observed part of this from the bridge leading to the Cathedral. Between 300 and 400 people were arrested or held including 19 journalists, among them AP reporters Amy Forliti and Jon Krawczynski, reporters from Twin Cities Daily Planet and The Uptake, and Paul Demko of The Minnesota Independent.
Oblivious to the legalities (and lack thereof) of the protests, I blithely wandered into the midst of a tense situation that rapidly degenerated… and then wandered out again.
Here are a few other images from the earlier days of the convention.