This is first-hand account of the protests against the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the summer of 2008. I wrote these soon after I returned from these events and wanted to convey the raw thoughts I had. Please consider my points and occasional bitterness, it’s coming from experience.
Most of the DNC protests were really disappointing and not surprising. A small number (maybe in the hundreds, certainly no larger) of “anarchists” (meaning punkish black bloc-type young folks) held a few days of protests that had really no apparent political purpose or goals. Each day had a different “theme”, at least on the flyers, but in reality none of the days seemed any different or carried any specific message. The only goals were tactical, i.e., disrupting the convention.
I spent my time organizing with Iraq Veterans Against the War. A lot of members came out and there was some pretty good ideas floating around. The main idea was a letter to Obama demanding that he endorse the organizational goals of IVAW (full and immediate withdrawal, full health care for all vets and service members, and reparations for the Iraqi people) if he is really “anti-war” as he claims to be. So we faxed and email it to him, dropped it off (in uniform) to his campaign office in Denver, and had an IVAW members and folks like Dennis Kucinich handing it out inside the convention. It said we would wait for his response until Wednesday at 3:00, our big action.
On Tuesday IVAW and allies organized what we call Operation First Casualty. This is where vets get back in their BDUs (combat uniforms) and run mock patrols, detainments and such through town, with a whole crew of folks playing the role of civilians. We have about 30 vets here, and an equal number of civilians. The cops allowed it and we did about 6 hours of that. Following that there was a play by an IVAW members showing and folks mostly went there. Then we had a long, long meeting in prep for the next day.
On Wednesday, the day before Obama’s speech, we had our big event. Tent State, one if the student groups, as well as IVAW and folks like myself had organized this huge Rage Against the Machine concert. Entry was free and done on a raffle, cuz the venue only held 8,000 people. The concert was State Radio, The Coup, Flobots and Rage. There were IVAW speakers and Son of Nun MCed and got to spit a piece.
After the concert the whole crowd emptied out into the streets and 70 uniformed IVAW members (some in their battle fatigues and some in their dress uniforms) led the unpermitted march 3 1/2 miles to the Pepsi Center, the site of the DNC. The point of the march was to force Obama to meet with us or endorse immediate withdrawal and such. The cops ushered us the whole way and we get to a Secret Service entrance which they wouldn’t let us through.
There were a few points during the march when the cops threatened to enter it and mess with people. Their main concern was a block-bloc-like contingent of folks who had some padded banners. The IVAW contingent agreed, however, that these folks were not breaking any laws and we would not ask them to leave. We did however ask them to not start shit, and to respect the strategic aims of the march. We explained that this was not because of their politics, after all there were anarchists among the veterans leading the march, but because the cops could justify messing the whole march up because of their gear.
At this point our negotiator called the DNC folks and tried to get in, but they wouldn’t budge.
So after waiting a while, the vets decided to march to another entrance, one the police didn’t want us at. This was a huge entrance and there was a thick wall of Riot police with all the scary gadgets; pepper spray bullets, rubber bullets, tazers, tear gas guns, etc. So they surrounded the park pretty much and the street, and we were almost blocked in. As the police line took a step forward, the vets decided they would as well. The plan was to take 2 steps a minute, until they were either met with or arrested in formation. Their plans was to present a flag to all the fallen troops and civilians, play Taps on the bugle, and salute. this way the police was have to pull down their salutes to arrest them.
We called the non-arrestable IVAW contingent out, and they broke formation and left the street. Most of the other non-arrestables also got out of the street. And then right before the first steps forward, we got word from inside that Obama’s people had cracked; 2 of our folks could come in. So that was it. We had forced them to recognize IVAW’s power, and our march and embarrassed Obama’s “anti-war” facade on national TV. So they went in and IVAW now has a foot in the door.
There was a lot of celebration in the streets. It was quite exciting. It’s not often that you win a small victory in the streets. We set out to prove a point that Obama is not anti-war, and we did. Plus we asserted some power and set IVAW up as a real force for whoever steps into office next.
We heard later from the Lt. that some cops on the cherry pickers, assigned to shoot us with various thing if we came forward, were crying and had to be tapped out by other cops. There was also at least one cops who walked away form the front line saying he couldn’t do it. So there was a powerful human connection between the vets and the police, and the anti-war message seemed to be really appreciated.
THE TWIN CITIES CHOOSE THE MIAMI MODEL
The St. Paul police said this “would not be Miami”, but I found this to be the most Miami-like demonstration I’ve been to. Folks refer often to “The Miami Model”, the name given to the recipe-for-repression the City of Miami and the Miami Police Department whipped up against us in November 2003 as we attempted to disrupt and demonstrate against the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations.
The recipe was:
2 parts brutal force (heads cracked open, sexual assaults in jail, tasering and heavy use os projectiles like rubber, plastic, wooden and pepper spray-filled bullets)
2 parts criminalization of legal protest activities (flyering, holding a sign)
1 part criminalization of completely normal activities (getting food, walking to the train, going to the house where you are staying)
1 part misinformation (telling the police we burned down buildings in Seattle, telling the police and the public that protesters would throw feces and urine at police, and telling local business owners we were coming to destroy their shops)
1 part media-blackout (Michael Jackson was arrested that day, so our injuries and arrests were barely mentioned, and all the big media groups were helping fund the FTAA events, so they were by default biased)
1 part mass-arrests (nearly 400 people, some felonies) resulting in 0 convictions
Of course, there was more to the Miami Model than the police. There was us. Our Miami model, sort-of repeated in St. Paul, looked like this:
2 parts heavy focus on tactical street protest
2 parts failure to win “media war” with messaging
1 part unpreparedness for trauma
1 pinch of protesters. Our small numbers was in part due to our failure to really mobilize/organize folks.
So based on the tenets of the Miami Model, one could point to the St. Paul/Minneapolis approach and find many similarities. I would say the police/city studied it and employed it. Word is that the RNC or the Republican Party in general bought the cities insurance for the week, so they will handle the costs of all the lawsuits that will soon emerge. So the police repression here was paid for by the Republican Party and was political in it’s intentions (as opposed to being “law enforcement”).
Mass arrests (or mass detainments) took place everyday of the conventions. To round these folks up (most simply involved in un-permitted marches), rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray bullets and tasers were used (mostly against completely passive people).
Reports surfaced of people being beaten in jail. One arrestee I met outside the jail told of a cell-mate who was making singing in protest of the guards not giving vegetarian food to inmates. 4 guards entered his cell and beat the shit out of him. Other arrestees said they saw him taken out bloody.
The guy who told me this story was driven up to 10 miles outside of the city upon release and dropped off in an abandoned parking lot next to a McDonalds. He had no money and told the police this. They said “we don’t want you joining with the crowd at the jail”, meaning the jail-solidarity vigil waiting with blankets and food for those arrested to be released. He and another arrestee were left here and had to find a ride back to town. They did join up with the vigil, and because of their presence we were able to photograph one of the guards who beat the prisoner up (he came outside looking for someone).
Along with marchers, many journalists were beaten. pepper sprayed and/or arrested; a Fox News reporter, several local reporters, 2 AP photographers, 3 folks from Democracy Now (including host Amy Goodman), and many independent photographers and videographers. The Democracy Now crew and the AP photographers were arrested for Felony Riot charges, which were later dropped to misdemeanor Unlawful Assembly. Out of 130 felony arrests, so far only 13 or so have been actually charged with felonies (none with any substantial supporting evidence).
We got to town to the IVAW/Veterans For Peace convention and got some sleep. Then we figured we’d head into St. Paul and get a feel for the city, get some maps, flyers about the different events, etc. So we went to the convergence center. The place was beautiful, well put together, bright, full of a lot of info and such. Some folks put a lot of work into it.
We got a few flyers, saw some friends, and were telling on friend about Denver when we heard some weird shit at the front door. Before we knew it, about 40 cops with vests and pistols out came rushing in screaming “Get the fuck down”, “Lay down”, “Lay down, heads down”. Screaming. Guns out. It was fucking scary. Then, as we pressed our noses against the floor, we heard them bring a battering ram in and start breaking down doors, detaining folks upstairs. A cops came over and kicked me in the stomach and said “Move over”.
Then we all got handcuffed. My cuffs were too tight on my bad wrist and my partner and I demanded they give me new ones. After first having them tightened by the same dude who kicked me, I got a new pair. After 40 minutes or so, we were sat up and separated male-bodied and female-bodies. It was so interesting to see the gender dynamics; the ladies (all but one) spent most of the time organizing, making sure folks were alright, and agreeing that none of them would give their full info until everyone was brought down from upstairs, so we could make sure they were alright. The men spent most of their times yelling and trying to man-up the police. One dude jept telling this cop to kill himself, that we was worthless, etc. So me and one other guy tried to organize the guys to resist info if they hadnt already given theirs (which I had).
The way this dude talked to this cop actually offended me. As someone with a cop in the family, it’s strange to see how really angry white kids react to the police. It’s easy to dehumanize them (after all, they dehumanize you) but it’s not good. It’s not gonna help us create social change. That doesn’t mean you need to respect their authority or their badge, it means you need to respect that there is a human being under the kevlar that has an experience and a story that will help us understand and alter the social/political power structure in this country.
In the end, about 2-3 hours later maybe, everyone was released and no charges have been give out. I believe that reason for raiding the center, along with being an intimidation tactic, was to get names of folks and then try to charge them later with “conspiracy”. We’ll see if that happens.
This was followed by a weekend of house raids (7 total by mid-week) of activist’s and organizer’s houses, resulting in the “RNC 8”, 8 young folms being charged with terrorism-related charges of “Conspiracy to Riot”. These folks, mostly being held on 10,000 bail, are considered by the police the “inner-circle” of the RNC Welcoming Committee, which according to the Sheriff were infiltrated by at least one undercover agent and two informants.
So it looks like it will be a fight of words and accusations rather than a fight of evidence. The only “evidence”, just as in the house raid before the Miami protests, was a collection of household items taken from several locations (made to look like one big stockpile); some gardening chickenwire, a few bottles, a few buckets of water, one alleged bucket of urine (found next to a broken toilet in a garage), one hunting slingshot (a completely legal item sold as many stores), 2 pieces of PVC, etc. The cops set it all up on a table and too ka photo of it, as if it was all part of some big conspiracy.
Along with these house raids, dozens if not hundreds of people were randomly detained, questioned and searched just for walking or biking around the cities. We met a guy who worked in a clothing store who was just biking home from work and got detained and searched for “looking like a protester”. This was the climate of the whole week. I often held my phone in my hand with the legal number ready to dial, so if we were detained or arrested I could have legal on the line to hear it.
The raid certainly didn’t stop dozens of blockades from happening. Folks locked-down at several off-ramps leading into downtown, and one crew locked-down at the back entrance of the Xcel Center. Then there was a car lock-down in an intersection downtown. There were also several roving blockades, a roving dance-party that blocked delegate busses, and several sit-down blockades. Some of the lock-downs lasted a few hours, most of the other blockades were dispersed or arrested within 30 minutes.
Up by the main entrance of the RNC delegate busses were streaming in, most with only 1 or 2 delegates on them. Some delegates were even hustled in on foot, in between lines of horses and riot police. The roving SDS/Pagan dance party, called Funk the War, tried hard to disrupt this entrance. Folks stood off with horses, stood and sat in front of moving busses, tied yarn and string from light posts and danced in the streets. No one was arrested in the first part of these events, only pushed out of the way. The police didn’t seem to have the numbers to make arrests.
Meanwhile, right down the road, the black bloc was snaking through downtown, tying up intersections. In response, the police helped the whole operation out by blocking a bunch of streets with riot-cops, to make sure the bloc didn’t make any turns towards other parts of town. All this did was tie up more streets and cause more general disruption. After an hour or two of this, the dance contingent started moving down the road and was eventually dispersed. The black bloc split into two at some point, and a bunch of em’ got arrested. The rest kept moving and ended up in a big running march at around 3:30. This was caused mostly by the police firing tear gas canisters and shooting a bunch of rubber and pepper-spray bullets.
When you’re in the street and the cops start firing shit at you, you turn and run, unless you are locked-down or specifically holding a space. So this whole march starts running. When folks start running at a protest, is causes mayhem and police violence. So this whole march is running and the cops are getting real amped up. Tthey ran through this park and up a side street. Then the cops chased them through a parking lot. I was behind the march about a block, trying to monitor the situation and keep an eye on the police violence. What I saw happen was a large group of cops come from the East while this other line continued to chase the crowd from behind. Then a third line was waiting on the northside of the parking lot. As the crowd entered the lot, the cops all moved in and surrounded them. Everybody in that lot, plus many who were standing on the sidewalks around it, including many of the journalists mentioned earlier and several medics and legal observers, were arrested for Felony Rioting. Many were pepper-sprayed. One arrestee, who had been standing on the sidewalk photographing, described a cop walking down the line of hand-cuffed people and pepper-spraying them .
While this was going on, a huge wall of riot-police were storming down the road across from Harriet Island, where SEIU was throwing the “Taking Back Labor Day” concert with Mos Def, Steve Earle,Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and the Pharcyde. So there was a couple hundred folks sitting in the park listening from across the river and the riot-police came through and handcuffed them all, taking about 80 of them to jail for “Loitering”. Most of these folks probably hadn’t even been to any of the protests.
By the early evening, 150 fully riot-geared National Guard troops were lining the main road leading up to the RNC. They reportedly were even more aggressive than the police, but thankfully no major protests ran into them. That night we started getting ready for jail support. 285 people were arrested that day according to the paper and a lot were being falsely accused of felonies.
Tuesday was the “quiet day”, the Welcoming Committee had called for a day off to regroup and the only events scheduled were the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s 4:00 march and the music fest at the State Capitol with Dead Prez, Anti-Flag, Michael Franti and others.
The PPEHRC march went smoothly and seemed to be attended by lots of allies, which is a good sign. It is very common at these types of mobilizations for folks to get real excited about the “militant” demonstrations” and tied up in the rhetoric of it all, and forget about the actual struggles and strategic work of poor people’s and affected people’s movements. An example of this was a young white kid, not associated with PPEHRC, taking their chant of “Stop the War On the Poor” and changing it to “Stop the War, Arm the Poor”. Lots of other white kids joined in on this chant, but no one from PPEHRC did. It was a classic example of someone utilizing what they think is the rhetoric of the poor but is actually a projection of what someone outside of poverty thinks the poor want. But hopefully it was a learning experience for some of the more privileged folks in the crowd in what solidarity with poor people’s movements looks like (for example, supporting them through attending their demonstrations and following the principles and guidelines they’ve devised for them, and supporting their voices by joining in the chants and calls they’ve come up with).
The concert went well until the “special gusts” tried to get to the stage. At about 6:30, Anti-Flag finished and Rage Against the Machine started secretly approaching the stage. The crowd didn’t know and was trying to figure out who was coming on. But a group of about 8 State Police blocked their way. Rage stood there for about 15 minutes trying to negotiate, but the cops wouldn’t budge. The crowd started getting real pissed, chanting “Let Them Play!”. One guy screamed out what I was thinking in my head “If you don’t want a riot, let them play”. These fucking cops were getting a few thousand people completely pissed off at them, and they were definately creating a situation. They turned the power off, so Rage came down in the crowd and had everyone sit down. Zack spit 2 pieces on the bullhorn, with Tom signing the guitar riifs with the crowd. Kinda awesome, kind of a shame, since the permit was good til 7:00 and Rage was ready to play.
When they finished, they led the whole crowd into the streets. Everyone was psyched. They were so pissed off at these fucking cops. What right did they have to do that? They said Rage didn’t have a permit. You don’t need a permit as a band! There was a permit for the show and we had not violated it. The chant “Music’s Not a Crime” was fitting.
So Rage got into their vehicles and rode through the crowd, avoiding the arrest that the police were overheard discussing. The rest of the crowd got behind PPEHRC’s banner and they led a second march downtown, this one un-permitted. When we got to the Xcel Center, a delegation of poor people tried to enter to deliver a citizen’s arrest warrant for the heads of the Republican Party. They were denied entrance but delivered their statement. Then they announced that their actions was finished. Folks started walking back towards the Capitol to go home when the cops gave a dispersal order. A couple small groups were standing around in a few intersections, slowly moving up the hill. We saw what was coming and helped evacuate all the elderly and young folks from PPEHRC’s group to safety.
Right as we turned the corner with them the cops blocked the whole street off and no one could leave. They gave a dispersal order and then wouldn’t let folks disperse! This is the same thing that happened in Miami when the jail-solidairty vigil on Friday was mass-arrested. It couldn’t have been 2 minutes before the first canister of tear gas went off and the first rubber bullets were fired. We watched from behind the police line as the sticks came out, and we saw one woman rushed through the police line by folks from the Minnesota Peace Team. She had been walking to the store or something, not attending the concert or the protests or anything, and she was tear gassed bad. They rushed her to the hospital nearby and she was treated. The cops of course had no intention or equipment on hand to help anybody affected by their chemical weapons and wouldn’t respond to anyone asking for medical assistance. In fact, I didn’t see the police treat anyone affected by their weapons, protester or passerby, all weekend.
We saw a kid walking down towards the police with a bunch of red, white and blue balloons. I thought to warn him about what was ahead but I didn’t. He turned back though, after realizing you couldn’t get through. He walked down a side street and a large group of PPEHRC folks followed. We heard a scream shortly after that but figured it was coming from the crowd, now dispersing in the streets being chased by riot police going East. Then the PPEHRC folks came rushing from around the corner. We asked them if they were trying to get out and they said they were. Then one of them said this kid with some balloons just walked around the corner and got the shit beaten out of him by police. He was screaming. They beat him up bloody and arrested him. This kid was a teenager and was walking with one friend. There is no chance any cops could have said they felt threatened or had to use force on this kid.
That night ended with only a dozen or 2 arrests and plenty of injuries. Added wit those arrested Monday, there were now up to 300 people in jail.
Many folks spent Wednesday outside of the jail with warm food and blankets for those getting released. There were folks volunteering to help with out-take forms for the legal office, and there were a lot of people waiting for their friends. There were also a couple hundred riot-police, a few dozen rented mini-vans (the signature ride of the St. Paul police during the RNC), and the infamous and mysterious BCA black ambulance. The BCA is the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a wing of the FBI. detained a few people at one point and detained them for about 30 minutes. The whole time we were being videotaped and surveilled from across the street by the SWAT team, State police, St. Paul police and the BCA. Plus the National Guard was on hand to guard the jail.
The arraignments went rather quickly, but there’s no quick way to arraign 300 people. So folks trickled out. At one point, supporters wrapped two released arrestees in a blanket to photograph wounds they received from being tackled and beaten by the police. So this freaked the cops out cuz they though we were hiding some big secret from them, as if we had a “secret weapon” we were preparing to use. So they lined-up and got real serious; rubber bullet guns, tear gas, sticks, everything. Then the blankets were taken down and we found a ride for these poor kids to get out of harm’s way. After 30 minutes the cops went back to sitting around and videotaping us.
Many had to find ways to raise bail money for their friends. I’d never seen someone get a misdemeanor unlawful assembly charge and have to pay bail. It was absurd. But they were setting bail for plenty of folks.
SOME LESSONS AND THOUGHTS
My story stops here. We left before Day 4 (Thursday) cuz our ride east was leaving. And we were kinda done for the week. Denver and the few days in St. Paul had driven us into the ground, and my paranoia/stress levels were high enough already.
An overall lesson I learned from these demonstrations is that the general rhetoric of most of the anarchist groups, or at least the ones getting their messages out there, is generally destructive to them and to others. The general calls for semi-violence and threats to shut-down the meetings led to police justification for their actions. What I mean is that the police are far more powerful, physically, psychologically, economically and politically, than small groups of anarchists or activists. Every time one of these small groups tries to “up the ante” or raise the stakes, the police can escalate 5 times that amount with public justification and political backing. So we shouldn’t be making threats we can’t follow through on, and to follow through on most them we need massive numbers of people who are invested and confident.
So the answer is to build numbers through building stronger social movements that can escalate without losing support. It’s not about how radical what we say we’re gonna do is, or radical our intentions are. It’s about how many people we can mobilize to take effective action, how much power we can really assert through that, and how effective that action and mobilization is towards our social/political-change goals. That’s organizing.
The story of “anarchists coming to town to cause havoc and damage property” is not just media-hype, it’s how a lot of these anarchists present themselves! We’re making it really easy for the police to come down on us. What happens is that rhetoric inflates the police budget and simultaneously makes the public weary or scared of anarchists/anti-capitalists. A lot of folks outside of this scene have a lot of trouble understanding our politics, let alone the styles and methods we use to go about doing things, from clothes to music to lingo. So we need to be really aware of that and put the politics before the scene.
The idea of shutting down the RNC, without the huge numbers we would need to make this possible, should not have been pursued. There was a myth developed that hundreds of thousands of people were gonna converge on St. Paul. This did not happen. The largest march was maybe 10,000 people, which is tiny compared to the 2004 RNC crowd of over half a million people. This myth of numbers led to folks inflating their capabilities, and also led to a lot of disappointment.
Seattle is always the model for these big shut-down actions. And the RNC folks did a good job in the lead-up trying to travel and organize, explain to folks the general ideas for the protests and network with groups who might attend, but this stayed largely inside of anarchist circles, and was often quite vague. Face-to-face interaction is really helpful in mobilizing folks to travel somewhere and join a demonstration. However, the demonstrations were not well attended, leading me to think that even though efforts went into organizing the framework, the idea itself or the rhetoric associated with it was not popular enough to bring folks out.
Tactically, the goal of shutting down the RNC without huge numbers would have required a lot of methods that are highly illegal and risky (though little-to-none of these tactics were used at this RNC, the police claim they found molotov cocktails, sandbags, tire-popping devices, etc., which may or may not be true but is certainly not beyond consideration). It is these things we need to stay away from. These types of tactics don’t build popular support for us or our allied movements. They also risk getting folks in a lot of trouble. One thing that was inspiring to young people about the WTO protests, those of us who came up in the post-Seattle excitement, was that so many people took part using mostly just their bodies to blockade the meetings. When folks use tools and gadgets, though they may work towards the tactical goal in the immediate sense, it causes a lot of people to see us as “professional” protesters or just effective criminals. They don’t see themselves in our shoes and can’t be part of what we’re doing.
It can also be true that building for people-powered shut-down actions also builds movements. If you need 50,000 people to be effective, then you need to bust your ass organizing and networking to figure out how to get those numbers. That means coalition-building, being open to changing rhetoric and/or organizing principles and goals, and paying attention to the currents in society. If you are only thinking “what can my small group of people do to disrupt the convention”, you are walking down a dangerous road. This means you use methods that only a small group of people think are good ideas to try to make change. The more people you have, the more popular your tactics and actions will be in society. Sure that will take a lot more time and process, but groups like the Zapatistas seem to prefer it. Maybe we should take note.
Short of shutting down the RNC, the most folks could do was disruption, and a lot of this worked. The blockades and the wild marches, along with the associated police violence, painted the RNC in a bad shade. That was part of the strategy of disruption, so the Republicans couldn’t look back on a flawless convention, but one marred by protests and police violence; a reflection of the effects of their policies.
However, the disruptions were mostly symbolic, meaning they didn’t have much of a direct effect on the actual plans of the conventioneers or the schedule of events inside the Xcel Center. Their effectiveness, as is usually the case, was based on media attention. This is a hard topic for most young anarchists, but it’s the truth. Some of the media attention made the protests look far worse, more violent, and more intense than they actually were. This actually helps them in their strategic goal of disrupting the Republican agenda, but the problem is that so many people refuse to talk to the media and the messaging of anarchists/anti-capitalists is usually created by the media or by a 3-second video clip of an anarchist saying something stupid.
Doing large-scale actions that are dramatic in their imagery, like black blocs fighting with the police, are media-stunts as much as they are attempts to directly effect the target. So you end up with the black bloc and the militant anarchist contingents getting almost all the headlines, photos, and stories in the media, with no messaging directed towards either the target or the general public. There’s a small window there to the world, where someone could have spoken eloquently and explain the principles of anarchism or the general social principles we identify with, and explain why we are so angry at the Republicans. Someone could have helped connect society to our ideas by finding common ground and giving a face to an otherwise faceless group (it is true that many cover their faces constantly. This may protect them from the police intelligence network, but it also disassociates them with most of society who cannot take seriously someone who wont show their face). This would help grow radical culture, instead of giving the media and the police the fuel they are looking for to paint us as a bunch of vandals and anti-society kids.
It’s sad to say that we often live up to this stereotype.