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Anti-war march challenges McCain on last day of RNC

Crowd repeatedly tear gassed, 396 arrested as police pull out all stops to prevent anti-war march from reaching Xcel Center
by Brad Sigal |
September 12, 2008
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Protesters stopped by line of riot police.
Above:
"No Peace for the Warmakers" march on Day 4 of RNC, Sep 4, 2008 (Fight Back! News/Eric Gardner)
Jess Sundin
Anti-war marchers
Riot police
Protesters sitting
Upper right:
Jess Sundin of the Anti-War Committee on Day 4 of RNC, Sep 4, 2008
Upper left:
Anti-war march on Day 4 of RNC, Sep 4, 2008
Lower right:
Riot police mass on Day 4 of RNC, Sep 4, 2008
Lower left:
Protesters sitting in intersection on Day 4 of RNC, Sep 4, 2008

St. Paul, MN - On the final day of the Republican National Convention, Sept. 4, over 1000 protesters took to the streets to deliver a strong anti-war message while John McCain was speaking. The march was initiated by the Twin Cities-based Anti-War Committee, with the theme, “No peace for the war-makers.”

Thousands of riot police repeatedly blocked the anti-war march from getting anywhere near the Xcel Center, even though there was supposed to be a ‘public viewing area’ that was to be open to any protesters until 11:00 pm each day of the RNC.

By the end of the march, hundreds of people were tear gassed and subjected to concussion grenades. 396 people were indiscriminately rounded up and arrested, including fifteen journalists. More people were arrested at this march than the rest of the Saint Paul RNC protests combined.

Demonstrators planned to march to the Xcel Center to show dissent while McCain officially accepted the Republican Party nomination for the presidency. Instead, riot police declared the march an ‘unlawful assembly’ and blocked every road leading toward the Xcel Center. Additionally, many workers in downtown Saint Paul were told to leave work early and police largely shut down downtown Saint Paul.

According to Meredith Aby of the Anti-War Committee, “The Republicans must have felt very threatened by an anti-war march during McCain’s speech. The level of repression was shocking to everyone who saw it. A local Fox 9 news reporter referred to it as looking like a ‘police state.’ Even Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s own brother, Nick Coleman, wrote a column calling Saint Paul a ‘police statelet.’ They pulled out all the stops to prevent an anti-war message from getting anywhere near the Xcel Center while McCain spoke, but their plan backfired. Their attempt to silence us only assured the anti-war message would get widespread media coverage.”

Struggle for the right to march to the Xcel Center

The Anti-War Committee received a permit to rally at the Capitol until 7:00 pm in January and applied for a permit march to the Xcel Center. Although they were issued the permit to rally at the Capitol until 7:00 pm, they were only issued a permit to march until 5:00 pm, which was four hours before McCain would be speaking. The Anti-War Committee never accepted the 5:00 pm limitation on the march permit, announcing months in advance their intention to start the march at 5:00 pm regardless and waging a months-long battle for the right to march in the evening while the Republican nominee spoke, not during the day while little was happening inside the Xcel Center.

The morning of the march, Sept. 4, Saint Paul police officials in a press conference signaled that the march would be allowed to happen. At the beginning of the 3:45 p.m. rally, Saint Paul Police Sargent Lazoya approached the organizers and asked what their plan was. They told Sargent Lazoya that they would rally at 4:00 pm and march at 5:00 pm, as had been announced publicly for months. Lazoya responded by saying he just wanted to be on the same page, and never indicated in any way that the march would not be allowed to happen at 5:00 p.m.

Police provocations from start to end

But it quickly became clear that all would not be smooth sailing. During the rally at the Capitol, at one point two dozen riot police swept into the middle of the crowd to arrest two people who were just sitting and listening to the band Junkyard Empire, which was playing on the stage at the time. Many observers saw it as a clear effort by the police to provoke the crowd into reacting so that they could shut down the rally before the march. After a tense standoff, organizers succeeded in returning the focus to the stage and the rally continued.

As 5:00 pm neared, an Anti-War Committee member announced from the stage that the march would begin at 5:00 pm. Riot police had begun massing in large numbers behind the stage, making it seem that the rally would likely be forcibly ended at any moment, even though the Anti-War Committee had a permit to rally at the Capitol until 7:00 pm. Sergeant Lazoya then hurriedly returned to talk to march organizers, saying that he had never said it was OK to march at 5:00 pm and that the permit ended at 5:00 pm and that they would not be allowed to march off Capitol grounds. The march organizers told him they were going to march as planned, the situation was announced to the crowd, and the march promptly began just before 5:00 pm.

According to Jess Sundin of the Anti-War Committee, “It was clear from the police intrusion into the crowd and other attempts to provoke the crowd during the rally, along with the massing of riot police behind the stage before 5:00, that the police had no intention to respect our right to rally or march, permit or not. If we wouldn’t have marched away from the Capitol when we did, the police appeared ready to seize the stage and sweep through the crowd to make more arrests right there at the Capitol before we even marched.”

Routes blocked but marchers persist

The march set off on the grassy area on the Capitol grounds and made it into the street, cutting over toward John Ireland Boulevard. After arriving at the bridge that goes over Interstate 94, riot police scurried around and assembled on the other side of the bridge, blocking the protesters’ path. The front of the march hunkered down on the bridge, with about a hundred protesters sitting down in front of the police at the front of the march.

In the back of the march, protesters held the intersection leading onto the bridge while riot cops assembled on two of the three sides of the intersection around them. After a while one set of riot police withdrew as protesters on bikes started circling the intersection, slowly claiming more space for the protest and preventing police from blocking the protest in as easily. At the entrance to the bridge the protest took on a festive atmosphere as people began chalking anti-war messages on the street and a group of protesters on bikes and skateboards rode around singing Solidarity Forever and other protest songs, while anti-war chants continued so the message of the march was clear.

After about an hour at that intersection, the marchers sitting down at the front of the march voted on whether to hold their ground and possibly get arrested there, or whether to try marching a different route to the Xcel Center. The people voted to march, so the march suddenly sprang back to life, first heading back onto Capitol grounds then swinging back around and surging into Cedar Avenue, heading toward 12th Street. Marchers tried to get across 12th Street before riot police could block the bridge there as they had done at John Ireland Boulevard. The protest succeeded in taking the intersection but couldn’t get across the bridge before the police formed a line and blocked them from going further. A line of riot police on horses formed to hold back protesters, leading to the march’s second standoff, at 12th and Cedar.

After taking over the intersection, dozens of protesters again sat down in front of the cops on horses, preventing the riot police’s horses from stampeding and holding their ground and avoiding being pushed back. Over a period of an hour or so, the police arrested all the people sitting in the intersection there, which included most of the leadership of the march from the Anti-War Committee. A few minutes after finishing that group of arrests, riot police surged deeper into the crowd and plucked out and arrested the remaining Anti-War Committee members who were leading the protest. Then police then attempted to push the whole crowd out of the street, pressing hundreds of people up a small hill.

Returning again to Capitol grounds, the protesters then regrouped and attempted to turn back down John Ireland Boulevard heading toward the bridge where they had initially attempted to cross over Interstate 94 to get to the Xcel Center. Marching in that direction, all routes leading down toward the Xcel Center were heavily fortified with riot police and the police even fortified some intersections with heavy machinery such as bulldozers and snowplows.

Unable to continue down John Ireland Boulevard, the march turned right toward Marion Street, which police hastily blocked off in the direction heading toward the Xcel Center. So with all possible roads toward the Xcel Center blocked, marchers instead turned away from the Xcel Center, going right on Marion and heading toward University Avenue, a major Twin Cities thoroughfare. This seemed to confuse the police, and allowed the march to regroup, opening the possibility of either heading back to Capitol grounds, or taking a longer route swinging back toward the Xcel Center a different way.

Teargas and mass arrests as night falls

At this point it was getting dark outside. Marchers took over the east-bound half of University Avenue. After marching a block to the east, riot police decided to take drastic measures to end the demonstration before McCain’s scheduled speaking time. They blocked marchers in front and behind, leaving no street to escape down, then began a fast flurry of teargas and concussion grenades.

This sent the bulk of the marchers streaming into Sears parking lot, with others streaming from there across Marion into the McDonalds parking lot and onto surrounding neighborhood streets. Those that couldn’t get across Marion were rounded up in the Sears parking lot then blocked in on the Marion bridge. Over 100 more people were arrested one by one, bringing the total number of arrests for the whole demonstration to 396. This included arresting fifteen journalists who were covering the march.

Meredith Aby of the Anti-War Committee concluded, “The march sent a sharp and determined anti-war message to John McCain, the RNC, and all politicians who refuse to end the war. In spite of a climate of intense police intimidation and repression, over 1000 people put themselves on the line on the last day of the RNC to send a strong message that the war must end now. It’s outrageous that a peaceful anti-war march was tear gassed and almost 400 people were arrested. The protesters showed tremendous solidarity in the face of massive abuses by hundreds of terrifying-looking riot police. Those that went to jail chanted, sang and shared stories together as they were carted away from the demonstration and processed. People who were at this protest, who were tear gassed and arrested, share an experience and bond that won’t go away and will only make the anti-war movement stronger and more determined.”

The Sept. 4 “No peace for the war-makers” demonstration was initiated by the Anti-War Committee and endorsed locally by the Welfare Rights Committee, Communities United Against Police Brutality, Freedom Road Socialist Organization and the University of Minnesota Students for a Democratic Society; national endorsers included the Colombia Action Network, the Troops Out Now Coalition, the International Action Center and the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition.