We’ve gone to some lengths to assemble and presume a variety of personal narratives from participants in the DNC and RNC protests:
- Democratic National Convention
- Two RNC Reports from the Iowa Campus Antiwar Network
- Three RNC Accounts from New Orleans Residents
- Additional RNC Accounts
- After the Conventions
Black Bloc at the DNC, August 25, 2008
Donning a black shirt and jeans, I raced down the street on my scooter, wind in my face, to catch up to my friend. It was the first day of the Democratic National Convention and we were running late for the black bloc protest in Civic Center Park. Having grown up in Denver, an overlooked bastion of liberalism in the Rockies, I never thought I would be able to get involved in a nationally publicized protest without moving to Washington D.C. or New York. This was the first major political action in which I had the chance to participate, and I wasn’t about to miss it.
My friend and I locked our scooters up across the street from the park and made our way through the throngs of people who had come from around the country, and indeed the world, to my hometown. It was 6:30 p.m. and the crowd seemed docile. We sat in the amphitheater in the park watching Green Party Candidate Cynthia McKinney speak about revolutionizing American politics by banding together to vote for a third party en masse. As I listened to the speech I was struck by the banners and information booths flanking the stage. To the right hung banners that read “Recreate ’68” and “Obama – Send Bush-Cheney to: The Hague!” To the left sat a table littered with CrimethInc. literature, making me proud that my fellow dissidents were out in force.
Several minutes later there was an audible disturbance behind us in the park. We rose and walked around the corner to find a small group of about 10 people locking elbows and walking up the middle of Bannock Street, the road that divides the park from the City and County Building which houses the Denver courts. Within seconds the cops, in their “storm trooper” riot gear, were standing shoulder to shoulder to barricade the road.
It didn’t take long for a few obstinate youths to start berating the police, some even deciding to single out one officer or another and scream into his obscured face. When it became clear there was no way through the police line, people began making their way off the street and back into the park, all the while chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” As tensions rose and the police tried to keep us from returning to the asphalt, one demonstrator was maced, knocked to the ground, and arrested.
Watching the spectacle kept my attention, and when I turned to share an off-hand comment with my friend, I discovered that we’d gotten separated in the confusion. I heard my phone ring in my pocket; it was him. As I was talking on the phone with him, I caught sight of him and pushed my way to his side. Just as we were discussing the apparent electricity that was flowing through the park that night, the crowd coalesced and we were off and running through the park and around the police barricade. Once again I was separated from my comrade.
Moments later, at the opposite end of the park, protestors spilled back into the street, blocking the rush hour traffic from exiting downtown and leaving behind their gratuitous office-job weariness. Among the mélange of people now marching down 15th Street, some old some young, some with exposed faces and some with masks, a young man pulled a “Road Closed” sign from the median and tipped it over in the center lane. Above the din of pounding feet and excited gasps and shrieks I could hear a steady voice urging us to lock elbows again, to show our solidarity, reminding us that they couldn’t raze us all at once.
We marched for another block before we were fenced in again, this time by an equine unit. And though the officers were daunting on their high horses, we stood our ground. Or I suppose I should say, we sat, right there in the middle of a street I know to be a major artery into and out of downtown.
Having charged to the front of the march, I didn’t realize until much later that we’d been corralled between the Wellington Webb Building – a government administration building – and the Sheraton Hotel parking lot. The disorganized police presence pushed us this way and that, off the street then onto the street, and then back off again. At one point, I found myself flattened against the wall of the Webb Building behind several layers of other protestors. One of the demonstrators in front of me had his bike with him, and was almost toppled by a cop when his bike tire caught the curb as we were shoved backward by faceless, nameless officers with billy clubs and only a number showing on their uniforms for identification.
As the cops closed ranks around us, they began to break off small groups of us, pushing the press back across the entry steps to the Webb Building. In an effort to document the silencing of the press surrounding our protest, I hastened to the police line to film the reporters being pushed back. The officer whose face I was now in growled at me to “STEP BACK!” He was an unimposing man with a gratified look on his face, as if he was relishing the opportunity to engage in riot tactics he’d only ever practiced at his precinct.
With the press dissipated, the protest lost some of its luster and force. Before long there were fewer protestors blocking the street than cops. Some of us were crossing from one side of the street to the other reciting anarchist chants and trying to rally our troops to regain control of the street our tax dollars paid to pave. We briefly regained vigor, once again locking elbows to blockade the street and display peace signs to the police. A masked protestor bravely stepped out in front of the line to kneel and put his hands together in mock prayer, hoping to appeal to the innate religiosity of police service.
As the sunlight was waning, I spotted a young girl, collapsed and crying into the arms of her boyfriend who was shouting that the cops would not let her out of the police line despite her panic attack. Perhaps it was the camera I was holding, or perhaps it was my manner with the police, but when I asked if she could leave they hurried her out of harm’s way. Her boyfriend thanked me before disappearing into the crowd to find his friends.
I turned back to the street and heard someone behind me say the cops were beating and arresting another protestor. I tried to squirm around those of us who were watching to film the beating, but was only able to catch the end of the arrest. People were shouting, “Tell me what a police state looks like; this is what a police state looks like,” and “Look who’s violent!” As a herd of cops carried away the arrestee, another anonymous voice said, “That’s our boy! That’s our boy!”
With my camera still rolling, I turned to my left where more cops were moving in toward us. Suddenly I felt the cold wet of pepper spray as it struck my arms, my face. The burn didn’t settle in for several minutes, maybe because my veins were already coursing with adrenaline. With that move my group of about two hundred was now severed from the rest of the protest.
Raising our hands high in the air as a sign of passivity, we were marched down the sidewalk approximately one hundred feet to the loading dock of the Webb Building. The crowd was abuzz with a rumor that the cops were finally releasing us. But holding true to the nature of rumors, this was false. I checked my phone to figure the time when I saw I’d missed several calls from the friend with whom I’d begun the evening.
It was about a quarter after 8:00 p.m. I called my friend back to find out that he’d managed to avoid being detained with the rest of us. We agreed that I would call him again when I was finally free, or when I needed him to come bail me out, whatever the eventuality. With no end to the conflict in sight, we sat again. Many of us held peace signs in the air attempting to communicate to the police line, now three policemen deep, that we meant no harm. We were easily outnumbered and posing no imminent threat, completely removed from the street which was now overtaken by men and women in dark navy riot gear with scores of bright blue plastic cuffs dangling from their belts.
I suppose I can understand that the local P.D. had to respond with their modus operandi of overwhelming force when a bunch of punks went rampaging through the streets of downtown Denver without a permit to do so. But by this point, we were no longer the ones barricading the street. Murmurs began to sweep through the protest that we were being detained so that we could each be arrested individually. And while it seemed an overwhelming task for the police force at hand, none of us put it past them.
We sat for what felt like hours. We sat and shared water. We sat and shared cigarettes. We sat and tended to those more affected by the pepper spray than I. We sat and waited.
It was no longer dusk, it was now night. At 9:30 p.m., four cops approached a group of young friends seated on the sidewalk in front of me. They grabbed one boy by the armpits and hauled him away to cuff him. A bit of a hush came across us when the cops returned to drag away another boy from the same group. It was as though the second arrest confirmed in all our minds that we were indeed all going to be arrested.
As I sat on a building vent at the corner of the loading dock, my face and arms now durably burning from the pepper spray, the police line ten feet to my right unexpectedly broke. Instantly we all rose and evacuated, glad to have our liberty returned to us. As I walked back toward Civic Center Park, I came across a journalist looking for someone who’d been detained. She was from a Boulder college paper. She asked me questions as her photojournalist counterpart snapped shot after shot of me. Another young man from Ohio Independent Media jumped in with more questions the moment she’d finished. He jotted diligently as I answered, then thanked me for my time and sent me on my way.
I cleared the crowd and called my friend who was now at a bar around the corner on the 16th Street Mall. When I arrived, he was waiting for me at the front door and chatting up the bouncer. As I showed my ID, my friend bragged to the bouncer that I’d just been released from the protest one block over. We sat with him and smoked a cigarette as I showed him some of the video I’d taken, including the video of the pepper spray coming at me. He leapt up and marched me upstairs into the bar to show his bartender, who’d wanted to attend the rally that night, but was working instead.
I recounted my story to her and asked for some vinegar or lemon juice to mute the burning on my flesh. She gave me a glass of milk instead and sent me to the ladies’ room at the end of the bar to wash up with it. When I returned to my friend, he thankfully had a PBR waiting for me as remuneration for such a grand evening. We stayed for hours, going over and over the affair and praised ourselves for taking action and being a part of something truly historic, rather than sitting safely at home to absorb the events via the television and the local news.
Once home, I sat at the computer and uploaded the best of my video to YouTube. It was not an explicit attempt to endorse YouTube, rather it was the best way I knew how to disseminate the video to the most people in the shortest amount of time. And sure enough, within days of posting, I heard from one of the boys arrested just before the rest of us were released. Through our week of correspondence I found out that he and his friend had been taken into custody because they were not yet 18, and their parents had been informed.
In retrospect, I would not trade that night for anything. As I sit here on my 28th birthday, weaving this tale for you, I am inspired. I cannot say that I think what we did that night had a vast impact on the political process nor the convention itself. But I can say that it made a difference. It made a difference to everyone there, proving that we do have strength in numbers. It made a difference to the country by showing them that we, the modern counterculture – if you’ll permit me to borrow that moniker from the 60’s – have thoughts of our own beyond that which we are force-fed daily by the mass media. It made a difference to those with political power, showing them that nonconformists are here to stay. It made a difference to me. It empowered me to continue forward with action rather than apathetic discussion of possible future tactics. It proved to me that the ideals upon which our country was founded are still alive and relevant to our youth. It made me believe once again in the concept that questioning my government is not only my right, it is my duty.
Campus Antiwar Network Takes on the RNC
Street blockades are a common form of nonviolent protest in Europe and Latin America, and over a dozen members of the University of Iowa Anti-war Committee, a chapter of the Campus Antiwar Network, traveled to St. Paul on September 1 to implement the tactic during a peace march on the first day of the Republican National Convention.
The results were mixed, but on the whole, moderately successful.
Twenty-two members of UIAC car-pooled together up to St. Paul, and fifteen joined CAN’s unpermitted “Mobile Blockade Brigade.” The Campus Antiwar Network’s direct action contingent, along with dozens of other affinity groups totaling between 800 and 1,000 people, attempted to shut down the RNC by blockading interstates, on/off ramps, bridges, and other key intersections to prevent Republican delegates from entering the Xcel Center. Our action was not a suppression of free speech, but an exercise in it. We were forced to listen to the Republicans for the last eight years, now it was time to force them to listen to us.
About 50 CAN members rendezvoused on the corner of 9th and Robert Street, about a dozen blocks Northeast of the Xcel Center, and immediately swarmed into the intersection to seize it. Several members took yellow police “caution” tape from their bags and began wrapping it across the streets. Traffic came to a standstill, and police began to arrive on the scene. Once the riot squads showed up, we took off for the most strategic intersection in our sector, 10th St and Jackson, which held an on and off ramp for Interstate 35E. But we couldn’t hold it for very long because our nonviolent brigade was not equipped to deal with riot police armed with pepper-spray, tear gas, tasers, and rubber bullets.
The next three hours was like a game of cat-and-mouse. We seized intersections at random, halted traffic, and then dispersed when the cops started forming lines to rush us. At one point several people got out of their cars to give us high-fives. Once, we allowed an ambulance through our blockade on humanitarian grounds.
At one point, we doubled our numbers because random crews kept joining us, and we held one intersection for nearly twenty minutes because Slate magazine, MSNBC, CNN, and dozens of other media outlets had swarmed into the intersection with us. The ensuing impromptu press conference allowed us to state our objections to militarism and war, articulate our vision of the peaceful world we wanted to see, and kept the cops from kicking the crap out of us. The police were almost as hostile towards the media as they were to us, but their assaults on the press were limited to verbal onslaughts, with the possible exception of Amy Goodman and the Democracy Now! crew, who were arrested on bogus felony riot charges.
After we were forced off the I-35E ramp, we moved south on Jackson Street to Kellogg Boulevard, due East of the Xcel Center, where one of the six “Loading Zones” for the Republican delegates was located. A squad of bicycle cops successfully divided our lines and our internal communication and coordination began to break down. Things got ugly after CAN members began linking arms and standing in front of the delegate buses. Ten of our members were sprayed in the face with pepper-spray, two were violently thrown to the ground by police officers, and one cop on a motorcycle drove right into our crew, hitting one person, who suffered minor injuries. Two of our members were arrested on misdemeanor charges and were later released.
Up the street, a “Funk the War” contingent of about 300 black-clad anarchists were having a dance party in the intersection of Kellogg and Wabasha. Police fired tear gas into the crowd, and also fired rubber bullets, tasers, and concussion grenades. Anarchists attempted to slow the police line by dragging newspaper bins, traffic signs, dumpsters, and sandbags into the streets. Skirmishes between protesters and police were widespread by 4 pm, when downtown St. Paul was clearly in the middle of a riot.
According to the Coldsnap Legal Collective, 256 people were arrested on Monday; 119 on felony riot charges. Between 20,000-30,000 people marched in the permitted peace march. Total arrests by Thursday, September 4 exceeded 800. Eight members of the RNC Welcoming Committee were arrested on conspiracy to commit terrorism charges the weekend before the protests began.
The direct action blockades failed to shut down the first day of the conventions, but they should still be considered a moderate success for several reasons. First, nearly 1,000 people engaged in a mass direct action utilizing a diversity of tactics that projected a radical critique of the Republican agenda in a way that was not easily co-opted. We failed to shut down the Republican National Convention, but we still crashed the party. Second, and more specifically, the CAN mobile blockade brigade was able to operate on the streets for over three hours and only suffered two arrests. Our tactical approach was confrontational, but nonviolent. Our methods clearly contributed to the overall effort and demonstrated that our model of direct action has potential for experimentation and growth.
The Campus Antiwar Network also mobilized a student and youth contingent in the permitted march and rally. The permitted CAN contingent marched with over 150 people, and we made dozens of new contacts and added over 40 new people to our email lists. Our holistic, dual approach to organizing proves that there is space in the Campus Antiwar Network for all levels of engagement and participation.
These successes aside, much can still be done in the way of improvement. Most members of CAN’s mobile blockade brigade lacked basic direct action skills such as marching in coordinated formation and knowledge of soft and hard lockdown techniques to hold space nonviolently. More work can also be done to articulate political arguments in the mainstream and independent media spheres.
All power to the people,
[name withheld by editor]
Midwest Regional Coordinator
Campus Antiwar Network
Another Voice from Iowa CAN
I ran with a student group called the Campus Antiwar Network for reasons I won’t get into here. The night before we had contact with another group that was in our sector and agreed to let them use us as a shield and distraction for their activities. Our plan was to occupy intersections until they got too hot and then bounce to anouther intersection and repeat. We agreed that we would go be a distraction when the cops were coming down on them and also a place they could dive into and lose themselves when they were pursued. It turned out that they dressed pretty straight and could change appearance pretty quick.
After marching 5 miles with a large group going to the permitted march we split up and met at a designated location and began to block an intersection. Other than an ambulance and an SUV that would have ran over those of us who were trying to block it we only let through an old couple with perishables that asked politely to pass. We held it for quite awhile while we watched riot cops arrive and then suit up. We basically ignored all day any cop not in riot gear and only moved when the riot cops marched on us.
We did this for quite a while, occupying intersection after intersection, causing the police to close off more streets than we could ever have held without them. Then we hooked up with our comrades from the night before and proceeded to run bloc for their actions, which need not be discussed here. I’ll just say they were effective and elusive. It appeared to me that we picked up and lost different afinity groups as we went.
At some point, it was suggested that we meet up with another student group that was having a wandering street party supposedly a few blocks away. We hussled towards where they were supposed to be, dodging lines of riot cops. Then things got funky, as we had stumbled across the breakaway march. Hundreds of masked people all in black were running down the street in front of a bunch of cop cars. People were throwing anything not nailed down into the street and the cops had officers ahead of the cars moving things out of the way. Barricades were being thrown up at every intersect to slow the police flank.
Our plan for the day had been to run with people and help where we could, but to run from any face-to-face contact in which we might get busted or beaten. At every intersection we took, our group had a plan beyond the greater group for escape; in the end, this kept us unhurt and out of jail.
My 3-person affinity group rushed up for a good look; as the two others were dressed in black and masked up, they looked like everyone else I could see, and I lost track of them at once. Without an agreed upon plan, I ran for the place with no cops which was ahead of the bloc. I ran up the hill at a dead sprint, overtaking most of the bloc; but when I reached the top, I saw people jumping on cop cars in front of a wall of cops in two of the three streets I was facing, so I took the third one. I heard a smash and turned around to see a window go out of Macy’s and a cop car getting trashed.
Since I had my shirt off, I stood out, and my two comrades had followed me; we ducked into a pedestrian mall full of bourgeois cafes and began trying to change our appearances as much as possible before a herd of black bloc’ers swarmed in from a small alley, climbing over a wall or fence. We collected a stray Iowan and began trying to find our larger group through a maze of cops. This streaming horde of hundreds seemed to disappear right in front of the chasing cops as they disperced into a crowd of citizens and presumably all “cleaned up.”
We found the CAN group and ran with them some more, until a friend had a heat stroke and we dropped out. I was more than ready, as we had begun to have to race riot cops who were trying to surround us. That was pretty much it for my affinity group and when we quit running the cops stopped chasing us. The Iowa City faction of CAN stayed out the longest, with a few others, and ended up pushed up against delegate buses by cops and getting maced; one CAN “leader” was arrested. Out of 30 or 40 of us that were in the Twin Cities that Monday, only one person from Iowa City got busted, in a different sector than us.
Personally all my goals were met. We created a radical anti-authoritarian group that will continue to build on the comunity level and are all closer for our shared experience.
Black Bloc, September 1
I wasn’t planning on going to the RNC. While my peers hunkered down in serious looking meeting for years, the whole concept just didn’t light my fire. I’ve attended dozens of major demos, most of them in New York or Washington DC, and the fleeting moments of action that captivated me as a 19-year old no longer hold my attention. In addition to my expectation of boredom, whether in the streets or in jail, the prospect of driving in an overstuffed van full of exuberant crusties from New Orleans to St. Paul extinguished any flickers of enthusiasm. I was a long way from the rowdy kid who used sneer at hesitant friends, “Get off the fence and into the streets!”
And then fate intervened. As the date of the RNC approached, a giant, seething hurricane named “Gustav” (meaning “Staff of God” in German) with sustained winds of 135-miles per hour took aim at my little house on the levee. Reports of the storm’s ferocity and expectation of its landfall near the Crescent City turned me into a useless lump, biting my nails while continually refreshing the image of the projected storm path on my computer.
Still, I vacillated. Emptying my house of its valuable contents would be a strenuous task, and I felt like a wimp for wanting to get the hell out of town at the first sign of water. But as it became increasingly clear that a mandatory evacuation would be ordered in the next few days, I decided to avoid the controlled chaos to come and get out early. I packed up as many of my valuable possessions as I could fit in my car and drove out of the city about 24-hours before the mandatory evacuation was ordered.
The reports days later of bumper-to-bumper traffic for hundreds of miles, cars running out of gas on the highway, and all manner of absurd inconvenience made me feel more prudent than cowardly, even as I worried constantly about the fate of my home.
There were a variety of places much closer than St. Paul I could’ve stayed to ride out the storm and its aftermath, but I figured that while I was leaving town I might as well check out the RNC. So I drove for three straight days through the dreary monoculture of Middle America to Minneapolis, not knowing where I was going to stay, who I was going to see, or what I was going to do. I felt particularly ill-prepared in comparison to those who had been plotting and scheming for months or years: here I was with a car full of my junk and no plan whatsoever, sure that I’d end up a bystander watching my friends get dragged away in cuffs.
I learned on the drive up that several houses had been raided and a number of preemptive arrests were made. This didn’t surprise me at all: the open organizing model virtually guaranteed repression of the most public individuals. Although obviously unfortunate, I found the news almost comforting. The police were showing their hand early, which meant fewer surprises once the action started. In reality, there were plenty of surprises, both good and bad, awaiting me in the not so distant future.
Upon arriving in St. Paul, I stayed at one of the few houses that hadn’t been hit by the cops. It was filled with people, some of whom I knew, some I didn’t. As people filtered in and out of the house, it became clear that there were lots of solid folks in town. I hoped they didn’t all get busted at the same house.
It turned out that many of those solid folks also didn’t have any plans, which was both reassuring and confusing: wasn’t the supposedly unprecedented level of preparedness one of the main selling points of this whole thing? But the people who were the most prepared were also the most likely to find themselves in jail or otherwise neutralized by the truly well prepared police intelligence unit. Those that were leftover did what anarchists do at most summit actions: make vague last minute plans to hit the streets and hope for the best.
Well, as it would turn out, those vague plans went swimmingly. The next day, the first of the Convention, a bunch of shady characters convened around the sound system of the quirky Convention crashers calling themselves Funk The War. Apparently they planned to go on an unpermitted roving dance party through the streets of downtown St. Paul, hoping to shut down the convention with the sheer funkiness of their booty shaking. They agreed to let the Black Bloc jump on their psychedelic marmalade train, knowing full well that some serious gnarliness might ensue with the fuzz. Why they dug our groove, I have no idea, but the word was that they were down.
As the funkalicious sound system kicked on, a handful of young looking kids immediately deviated from Black Bloc protocol and masked up far too early, which almost had me walking in the opposite direction. We were still mere steps from the state capitol building where the liberal yawner of a rally was taking place and cops, both in uniform and undercover, were everywhere. The idea that one might want to wait to put on masks until something shady was about to happen was completely lost on these youths, who also began dancing with the Funk The War hippies, attracting still more attention and making themselves look all the more absurd. Seeing this, my jaw slackened and I mumbled, “We’re fucked” to no one in particular.
The crowd grew steadily and eventually departed through the park surrounding the capitol and down a street that lead right into the heart of St. Paul’s soulless financial district. Amazingly, not a single uniformed cop followed the loud, rambunctious mob, which only served to convince me that the group was littered with undercover snatch squads. Very cautiously, I continued with the group.
After meandering through the streets for about 15 minutes, terrible electronic dance music blaring from the speakers and not a cop in sight, someone ran up to a random car and whacked the window with a hammer, an act they had to repeat several times since it hardly made a scratch (note: Audi’s are equipped with anarchist-resistant glass.) The despondent individual finally gave up, a small mark on the glass the only evidence of their effort, which did nothing to prevent a small crowd of photographers from rushing in for the nonexistent money shot. Also left in its wake was a Funk The Warrior, stopped dead in her tracks, shrieking, “Oh my god!!!” Her mellow looked to be severely harshed.
The crowd turned onto a street lined with banks and department stores and the sound of breaking glass immediately reverberated through the artificial canyon. Every loose object in sight, from newspaper dispensers to concrete garbage bins, was dragged into the street, leaving a path of detritus that both satisfied the need to fuck shit up and made it more difficult for the police to pursue us, whenever they got around to that. For several blocks, the Bloc, still accompanied by many dancing funksters and their two unbearably loud sound systems, rampaged through the St. Paul streets, smashing store windows and slashing the tires on empty cop cars.
A one point, a lone police officer a full half-block away sprinted toward the crowd. Alone and wearing a powder blue patrolman’s uniform, almost everyone saw him coming. He ran up behind the one kid with his back turned to him and grabbed him by the collar. The kid went limp and the cop began dragging him down the street with one hand while waving a can of pepper spray with the other. It was total suicide: he was surrounded on all sides by a hostile crowd with no back-up and was trying to drag 150 pounds of dead weight down the street. Clearly his instincts had gotten the better of his training.
Out of the crowd, a masked hero leaped at the cop and threw a perfect hockey-style body check, sending the cop flying awkwardly to the ground, his unshapely mass of blubber and stupidity sprawled out like a pig at the slaughter. The can of pepper spray farted out an ineffective arc of gas, mostly hitting the midsections of the faultless individuals in front of him. The kid was easily plucked away from the prone sow, who shamefacedly retreated back to his trough, and the crowd cheered its easy victory.
The bloc’d up maniacs continued their rampage through the streets for what felt like ages by American protest standards. Windows were smashed with bricks, road signs, slingshots, and in one insane case, bare hands, which looked metal as fuck but was in reality incredibly stupid, as the window breaker was saved from a pair of severed hands by dumb luck alone. Several times a line of riot cops appeared in an intersection a block or more ahead of the crowd, which the group avoided without difficulty, obviously preferring to smash up a lame Midwestern city than engage in hand-to-hand combat with a bunch of the Empire’s Storm Troopers.
At no point did the cops attempt to trap the crowd or seal off its exits, and whatever snatch squads had infiltrated the group succeeded in making a single arrest, and that of an individual prevented from staying with the crowd by a freak injury. All in all, the police response to this Black Bloc was almost impossibly inept: slow, disorganized, ill-trained, and less agile than a crowd of people who, for the most part, had no fucking clue where they were going. In sum, I have never witnessed a greater swath of destruction and less police repression at a Black Bloc action than that morning in St. Paul.
The reasons for this particular Bloc’s success were numerous. Many people in the crowd came prepared with the tools necessary for an effective action. People watched each other’s backs and stuck together, responding effectively to the few police incursions. Close-in contact with the cops was avoided, negating the effectiveness of their weapons and capitalizing on their slowness. The group kept moving for the most part, crucial to avoiding traps.
And while I hate to flatter anyone, I feel that I can claim without exaggeration that the cops in St. Paul, many of whom were recruited from small towns in rural parts of Minnesota, were legitimately scared of us that day. Clearly the same does not apply to the riot police who opened up on another Black Bloc with a volley of rubber bullets later in the day, but for that wonderful morning, the streets were filled with the sound of shit breaking and the smell of swine fear.
The Bloc eventually ran into a smaller group of riotous ne’er-do-wells who were being pursued by a line of patrol cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing, but the cops themselves were apparently too out of shape to leave their vehicles and pursue on foot. The now larger group dragged tons of garbage into the street to obstruct their pursuers, but it only served to slow them down. The crowd, for no real reason, started to run, and in my experience, when Black Blocs run, bad things happen. So I peeled off from the mob and disappeared into the crowd of slack-jawed conventioneers strolling the streets of downtown.
From that moment on, all the news was bad. Other Blocs formed that day and were punished, viciously, for our sins. Hundreds of arrests were made and nothing else was accomplished. It was more of the same in the days that followed. Many targeted arrests were made and lots of good people are now facing serious felony charges, likely taking most of them out of action for years to come. Infiltrators were unmasked far too late, and basic security considerations were ignored, leading to numerous preventable arrests.
Judging the actions of that week in hindsight, I believe they were not at all worth the cost. Although that one glorious morning was inspiring and motivating and beautiful, the arrests have revealed the bankruptcy of the open organizing model. The police gathered an enormous amount of useful intelligence that will substantially aid their trumped up prosecutions and serve as the foundation for their investigations in the future. The individuals arrested face tremendous legal, financial, and personal challenges, and the anarchist community will have to devote precious time and resources to supporting them.
All in all, I think it’s long past time to bury the idea that direct action can be organized in the open. Anarchists are not activists, and organizing like them will only lead us into the waiting arms of the police. The street action described in this story was organized in secret, one day before it happened, and made no attempt to disrupt the convention itself. The fact that it met with so much success and only a single arrest speaks for itself.
This account is now available as a zine, which can be download in PDF form here.
Bringing the Storm to St. Paul
A Grudge Match Three Years and Three Days in the Making1 or How I Spent My Hurrication
It was on the afternoon of the twenty-ninth of August that I brought my bicycle inside my humble dwelling in the Lower Ninth Ward, then, upon leaving, padlocked the door. I knew that I might never again see my home and the few possessions contained within, and I might have pondered this fact more deeply as I trudged two miles upriver to the rendezvous point, if there were not currents in the great ocean outside the island of my personal reality that demanded my attention.
There was a last minute scurry to acquire the needed vehicles (the ones previously allocated being used by other Gustav evacuees). Once we were loaded and ready to go, we headed to the French Quarter to pay a short visit to a comrade in the employ of local media who was staying to keep computer systems working through the storm and aftermath. After his rousing pep talk, we began the long journey northward.
It is quite unfortunate that, due to present conditions, there is little I can tell you about my comrades-in-arms without the fear that I might “incriminate” them. So, instead of the fascinating survey of our varying backgrounds, personalities, and passions I would like to include, I will tell you only two things we all hold in common: LOVE for our community and HATRED for the cadre of men who, three years ago, stood by, laughing, while the people of our city died by the hundreds.
We drove through the night, the next day and well into the following night before reaching the home of our hosts in the Twin Cities. Due to similar concerns of “incrimination,” I thank our hosts and will mention them no further.
On the afternoon of the thirty-first, we entered the Convergence Center for the first time. The air felt electric as I surveyed the flurry of activity: a loud and frenzied training exercise, a food line, groups involved in heated discussion. With the evening came the spokescouncil and decisions in my group concerning our involvement in the battle plans.
It was during a lull that day that my group took a stroll to survey the terrain near the Xcel Center, and we inevitably stumble upon a feature missing on all the maps we had previously studied: a substantial fence with a concrete base, steel bars and a crown of barbed wire forming a wide perimeter and renegotiating the battlefield as I had previously understood it. It was my first encounter, over the course of this adventure, with the tangible presence of state repression and the resources at its command, but thankfully, in the same glance, was my first glimpse of tangible dissenting resistance and revolutionary analysis. Upon this fence had been hung a single handwritten sign:
MR. GORBACHEV, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!
The next morning, we, who had agreed to form part of the support element for a lockdown blockade, found a secluded spot near the targeted intersection and waited until word came that delegate buses were on their way. As soon as one of our number received the affirmative text-message, we pulled up our bandannas and dashed out of our hiding place toward the blockade site, creating a few improvised roadblocks along the way. There were eight people with “sleeping dragons” in a circle formation, and a supporting black bloc of around three dozen who formed a protective buffer zone and built a secondary blockade by moving large metal benches into the street and locking them together; we took control of the major thoroughfare for over two hours and forced an official closure of the road and (reportedly) rerouting of candidate bus routes. For the first time that day (but certainly not the last), I was overwhelmed by the bravery and determination of ordinary people (and the extraordinary power thereof).
Once the lockdown was established, the black bloc linked arms and began chanting and singing. In short order, our small but vocal contingent began to dominate with our extemporaneous songs concerning our city and her dignity. At this point, I think I should mention that as we sang “You don’t wanna go to wa-a-ar with New O-o-orleans!” the hurricane was hitting the Louisiana shoreline with unknown consequences. In retrospect, I believe that if we had managed to bring enough more New Orleanians, people whose anger and fortitude has been forged in the fires of years of hardships and outrages with the motivation that, on that day, their actions might be the last remaining testament and legacy of the world they knew and loved, the events of that day would have gone very differently, and the stated goal of “shutting down the convention” may have been achieved.
After the blockade was established, most of the bloc headed downtown to join the roving groups while we stayed to witness and (if need-be) protect the lockdown through the inevitable arrests. As soon as the paddy wagon and two platoons of riot cops arrived, we were ordered to move to the sidewalk (or “face arrest”), and we complied. While one platoon moved to arrest the lockdown, the other surrounded and detained the group of us on the sidewalk including a clearly marked “green hat” NLG (National Lawyers’ Guild) legal observer. When we asked why we were being detained, one officer stated that the question could only be answered by the unit’s commanding officer; he refused to identify this ghostly “commanding officer,” then, later, after pressure from the legal observer, he admitted that, in fact, he was the commanding officer.
We were informed that our bags and persons would be searched. Those who resisted would once again “face arrest.” We made a quick huddle, threw our bags in a pile, then, backed away. We were moved to the side while our bags were searched. Afterward, we were invited to came back and retrieve the bags. As our single group representative moved forward and scooped up the pile of bags, the commanding officer, now realizing the extent of our gambit, chuckled slightly in what appeared to be grudging admiration.
Most of our bags were missing from the pile, and we were given the explanation that all the bags containing “instruments of protest” (a short litany of examples was given including: goggles, bicycle locks, cameras, bandannas…) had been confiscated to be held as evidence. By this time, the lockdowners had already been hauled away without incident; the cops decided to forgo further searches and release us.
We walked back to the vehicle, piled in and headed off in the direction of the Xcel Center. After parking and debarking, we wandered the perimeter of the strange cage that the savage beasts had built for themselves for some time. Finally, as we were nearing the State Capital Building, we encountered a sizable column marching behind a large metal shield painted like the red and black banner of the CNT. In the crowd, I recognized a few faces from the CrimethInc. convergence little over a month before (as I did on numerous occasions over those few days). I quietly moved behind one of these comrades and began to sing (in reference to a private joke between us), “Freude, schöner Götterfunken…”
He spun around exclaiming, “Holy shit! No fuckin’ way!” and I replied, in my best Stephan of Ireland imitation, with the movie line:
“Ours is indeed a fashionable fight; it has drawn the finest people.”
The column advanced to a perimeter gate guarded by a small contingent of riot cops. As some people started singing “Solidarity Forever” and apple cider vinegar was passed for soaking our bandannas, the terrible truth presented itself: we did not have a plan. Should we charge the police line? Should we take the street and block traffic? What is our objective? Do we even have one?
As these points were being discussed, a senior member of my group (veteran of two previous RNCs and Miami 2003) deblocked and walked over to the middle of the street beside us to vent his frustration and disbelief. “They’re trying to have a meeting in the street! It’s too late now!”
The gate opened and an empty delegate bus came out, stopping in front of my comrade, still ranting. Seeing the accidental blockade he’d created, he called for us to join him. As I and a few others entered the street to do so, a lone voice in the mob shouted, “He’s a cop! Don’t listen to him!”
This is the point, of course, where things fell to shit. Whereas discussion up until then had been civil, if ineffective, there was an angry roar of argument as the crowd dispersed away from the gate. A small group was rebuking the accuser for “outing a cop” upon suspicion alone, and one of their number called out for anyone who would vouch for the accused.
“I do.” I said raising my hand, “I’ve known him over half a decade.”
The accuser apologized but maintained that my friend “carries himself like a cop.” It took ten minutes or so for bad feelings to be smoothed over and the bloc to reconverge a block away—this time, with a plan.
There was word that another roving band on the opposite side of the Xcel Center had been boxed in by cops, and it was reasoned that if we could make our way around to meet them, the tide would be turned. We set off and a dance of maneuvers began between us and the cops, each seeking to outflank the other as we moved counterclockwise around the perimeter. As the masses rushed through a ravine, I went on top of the ridge beside it to catch a brief glimpse of the formation of riot cops marching in our direction; for the moment, we had the advantage of speed and mobility.
Further down the path, as we neared a bridge, a young middle class couple were watching our procession with marked interest. People in the bloc cheered, “Come along! Join us!” while making arching arm motions. In response, both shook their heads politely and made timid gestures.
Then, I jumped out of the bloc and yelled, “Someday you will tell your grandchildren that you were here on this day, and you did nothing but stand by and watch!”
As strange as it may seem in retrospect, I did not expect what happened next. I had not meant my speech to be a persuasion or appeal; I was expressing my anger at the complacency of so many, and, without waiting for a response, I jumped back into the bloc. The two looked at each other, then, clasped hands and ran into the bloc after me. Upon reaching me, the man stated, “We’re coming with you.”
I replied, “Now, you’ll have a different story to tell,” and, perhaps, their decision and action at that moment changed all of their stories from that point onward. One can only hope. They asked about what we were doing and its significance, and I gave them adrenaline-fueled explications concerning the Spanish Civil War, Hurricane Katrina, and the frustrations of modern American life.
A dumpster with wheels was liberated from its mundane station and joined us in the march. The man, having been videorecording for the last few minutes, headed toward the front of the column, and the woman, anxious not to become separated in the crowd, politely took her leave.
With the cops in lumbering pursuit, we continued to round the Xcel Center, and reached a street that I would later learn from my arrest paperwork is called Shepard Road. There was a continued reluctance to take the streets, despite my comrade and a few others making impassioned entreaties, and the column, confined to the narrow sidewalk, became dangerously stretched with stragglers a hundred meters or more from the front.
We had entered an area filled with many high school and college students en route on foot to a concert on the other side of the river, and a few joined our ranks. One of these carrying a hastily scrawled sign reading, “McCAIN HATES MUSHROOMS” shared his malt liquor with me as we marched briskly along.
We passed underneath a bridge and turned a corner to find our way blocked by a small contingent of heavily armed police and National Guardsmen. I took a few steps into the street to secure a good vantage point for what would happen next. In discussions afterward with my group, it was stated that the best strategy at this point would have been to quietly begin circulating through the crowd (of about fifty) a plan to charge on a prearranged signal, while giving time for the one to two hundred stragglers to arrive.
This, however, is what did happen: Half a dozen people at the front suddenly charged with the shields. Perhaps, they assumed that the rest of the column would follow; it didn’t. Without, effective communication and coordination, we were reduced to confounded spectators. The State’s forces reacted immediately with a volley of less lethal weaponry.
The rapid popping sound of rubber bullets and the thunderous rumble and bright multicolored explosions of the concussion grenades seemed like a Fourth of July pyrotechnics display but from the least comfortable angle. The chargers retreated back into the crowd, and, as the smoke in the no man’s land between us and the cops, began to drift upward, there was a moment of silence, then, another. In the third moment, I filled the silence with my voice. “Is that all you’ve got?” I screamed, “A fucking fireworks show?”
The buzz of life returned to both sides of the street, and, pressing their advantage, the riot cops and soldiers began advancing and firing into the crowd. As the retreat began, enough people had the presence of mind to shout the mantra “Walk; don’t run!” every so often that our movement remained relatively safe and orderly. Although remaining calm and maintaining the integrity of the bloc is an obvious strategy, it requires a great deal of discipline, and I will admit that, when a grenade exploded next to me, I panicked and sprinted four or five steps.
As we passed back under the bridge, there was a particularly loud and sustained barrage, and the grand old cheer of ‘68 erupted through the crowd. The chanting grew in volume and intensity, and I joined in even though I had serious doubt that “The whole world is watching.”
Someone who had merged into the line of stalled vehicles beside us shouted, “Move into the street! They won’t shoot at the cars!” Finally, there was a general willingness to take the street.
Once I had reached a safe distance from the advancing police line, I briefly assisted a medic performing an eyewash, then, went to search for the rest of my group from whom I had been separated in the confusion. After some minutes of unfruitful searching, I headed back in the direction from which the march had come and found that a line of riot cops (probably the bunch that had been pursuing us earlier) had formed, blocking my escape route.
I went to a small hill nearby and climbed to the top to survey the scene. There were police lines on both sides, the fortress wall in front and the Mississippi River at our backs. I scanned the crowd, looking for the middle class couple from earlier. Unable to find them, I assumed that they had managed to escape earlier in the fray, and, with that weight lifted, I snapped a few photographs, then, walked back down the hill. I had distributed disposable cameras among the group that morning with the hope that at least one would make it out. Mine was the only one that did. One reason for this was that I kept it in my pocket rather than a backpack or purse. When our bags were taken in the search and seizure, my camera remained safe and undetected. When I was arrested, it was placed in a bag with my wallet and other items found on my person. The bag was sealed during the arrest and returned to me when I was released. The outcome of the situation had become certain and inevitable. The lines of riot cops looked like Roman centurions, and I was reminded of the plight of Spartacus’s army two millenia ago, trapped with their backs to the ocean. I circulated through the crowd, informing the uninvolved locals of the gravity of the situation and telling them to use their cellphones to contact friends or family on the outside.
Orders came over the megaphone for us to sit on the ground and place our hands on our heads. A local newspaper article the following morning stated that the police had broken up and arrested people at a “sit-in.” I found a group of people I knew and got from them the phone number of a friend who was highly unlikely to get arrested over the course of the day (something I should have had when I walked out the door that morning). Then, I discarded my bandanna and pocketknife, and I found a place to sit next to the college students I had met earlier.
The jagged perimeter moved methodically inward, and, as it approached the people seated on the ground in haphazard rows, here and there, that section of the line would stop. A small breach would be made for the arrest team to enter; the arrestees would be extracted, one by one, and, once the ground was clear for a few meters ahead, the advance began again. As the bunch in front of me were being hauled away, I began to sing, with as much sarcasm in my voice as I could muster,
“God bless America! Land that I love! Stand beside her and guide her…”
People around me took the cue and began to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with taunting boisterousness. As soon as we finished the stanza, it was our turn.
Once my hands were ziptied behind my back, I was told to stand and was directed through a long slow backward walk with a riot cop chaperon on each arm. After, perhaps, fifty meters of walking, I reached a processing station that had been set up in the street. First, I was searched, while the one of the two cops bureaucratically designated as my “arresting officer” filled out forms and asked to verify the information on my ID card. Once this phase was completed, my Arresting Officer said,
“I want to thank you for not resisting.”
I replied that I could not see anything that I would accomplish by doing so, and this seemed to be a satisfactory answer. Seeing no reason to believe my captor had any interest in my politics or why I had felt the need to travel over a thousand miles to end up in police custody in an unfamiliar city, I limited my speech to short, legally prudent responses and procedural questions. To his credit, Arresting Officer conducted himself in a polite and professional manner, and I was willing to suspect that he would rather have been protecting people from rapists and murderers or whatever he thought his job would entail back when he decided to join the police force.
Once I was judged to be manageable, the other cop left to go arrest more people, and my arresting officer and I joined the slowly moving line to the bus. A very angry looking cop holding what looked like a shotgun, which I realized was a grenade launcher upon seeing the 40mm rounds he was porting as well, moved down the line, to our left, making pronouncements concerning each arrestee. He had apparently been one of the ones firing upon us earlier and was now identifying “troublemakers” for “special treatment.” His menacing tone could not hide his bubbling mirth as he derided the captives and chuckled out the level of their charges based upon arbitrary criteria.A certain criterion I noticed as painfully obvious was that all marked medics and people with journalistic paraphernalia were being assigned felonies. When he got to me, he suddenly fell silent and stared at my face. For a few seconds, we were both nearly motionless and expressionless.
“I don’t recognize this one at all.” he said and moved on down the line. My status was downgraded to “misdemeanor.”
At the end of the line, my paperwork and personal effects were handed to an administrative worker. Arresting Officer and I stepped in front of a portable white background screen for my mugshot. It felt like a strange, fucked up family portrait, and, with the surreal absurdity of the situation, I had to smile. In stereotypical “Minnesota Nice” fashion, my arresting officer bid his farewell.
“Have a nice day!”
“Thank you! I hope you do as well!” I replied, as I stepped on the bus, and I actually meant it. Just as the conscripts of opposing nations have no personal quarrel, the tyranny of situation caused us to meet as adversaries. Despite their role as the foot soldiers of oppression, the police are still members of the working class, with as much stake in our struggle as everyone else. I do not place it beyond the realm of possibility that Arresting Officer and I will meet again, one day, on the same side of the barricades.
I was directed to my place and seated. There was a general mood of gloom and frustration until a single person began to sing,
“Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing, ‘cause ev’ry little thing is gunna be alright. Don’t you worry…” within minutes, the entire bus was swaying, tapping feet and singing along.
We jovially welcomed each new arrival, as the bus was filled.
After a while, we tired of that song and began singing another. For the next hour or so that it took to load up the bus and journey to the jail, our “prison bus choir” continued without stop. Whenever one song came to an end, someone would start another, and all who knew the words would join him. These were mostly relatively apolitical songs chosen for their simplicity and general familiarity: pop songs often heard on the radio in years past, children’s songs, songs deemed to have an ironic connection to our situation. One exception to this was Against Me!’s “Baby, I’m an anarchist!” the singing of which was led by by a young man who, judging by his appearance alone, I would have assumed was just another “spineless liberal” like the one denounced in the song.
Inside the jail compound, as the bus was idling in front of the garage door, we finished singing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and had a quick discussion in which an informal consensus was reached that, once we pulled inside, our final song would be “The Star Spangled Banner.” The door to the giant garage rolled up, and the bus went inside. To our right, was our welcoming committee. They were standing in rows next to their staged equipment. There was a very military smugness about them, and some were even standing at parade rest. Then, we began to sing.
“Oh, say, can you see…” Their expressions changed immediately. Some showed guilt at our implied accusation, frowning and hanging their heads. Others went berserk, scrambling to close the bus windows to deaden the sound. In the end, they resigned to the flagellation and held back until we had finished. We put extra volume and emphasis into the final lines, stomping our feet and shaking the bus during the fermatas. Then, the highly demoralized forces entered the bus to unload us.
My experience at the Ramsey County Jail was much like a typical visit to the Jefferson Parish DMV, except I was processed more quickly and afforded more human dignity. In the final waiting area before the release, I found out, from other inmates, that my city had apparently survived Gustav and that the female arrestees, who had been immediately segregated from us, had received much harsher treatment. I conversed at length with a local real estate agent who had been caught up in the the same mass arrest as me and suggested that he should make rearrangements in his life, so that he can have more time for reading and other simple things he enjoys. I plan to be checking up on him soon, to see how this is coming along.
Finally, half a dozen of our names were called. We signed our release papers, were lead through the door, and loaded into an armored transport vehicle. After a short ride, we were released in the jail parking lot and given the plastic bags containing the items found in our pockets and some legal papers. There was, then, an invitation shouted from the prisoner support encampment at the end of the parking lot. There were food, water, and cigarettes for those who wanted any, and volunteers from the Coldsnap Legal Collective took notes on everyone’s case particulars.
With my cell phone back in my possession, I called, first, my friend on the outside, then a Canadian journalist. Last spring, I hosted a bunch of Canadian activists who came to New Orleans for the SPP protests. This gave me friend-of-a-friend status with a TV reporter who was interested in doing an interview concerning the protests, Gustav, post-Katrina New Orleans, etc. It probably would have made for great television, but things kept popping up (my arrest, for example) that prevented us from meeting to do the piece. Oh well, you’re reading my story now; it had to get out somehow. Two comrades arrived, shortly thereafter, with my ride to the house. On the way there, I was told how the rest of the group had avoided my fate. Interesting tales, but they are theirs to tell (or guard the secret tricks for future use), not mine. When we got to the house, I was very glad to be spending the night on a living room couch, rather than a holding cell bench.
On the morning of the second, we had breakfast at the Seward Café, one of several business in the Twin Cities run as a worker-owned collective, and got the photographs I had taken developed nearby. As it was judged best that I avoid a second arrest at all costs, I was dropped off at the Convergence Center, while the rest went to the Poor People’s March. I spent the day helping at the Seeds of Peace mobile kitchen. As I was finishing serving dinner, back at the Convergence Center, the others arrived for me. We made a visit to the Arise! Infoshop, then, continued on to the Bedlam Theatre for a show to benefit prisoner support.
Having arrived before the bands started, most of us made our way up to the top floor balcony to enjoy the view and fresh air, while we waited. Soon after, police began arriving outside and employing intimidation tactics. I learned later that they had intended to raid the building, but agents of the NLG held them at bay.
As the flurry of apprehension swirled among us, I noticed a familiar face. It was a notable folksinger whom I recognized from the photographs on his album covers. Some of his more famous songs concern: Hurricane Katrina, Irish immigrant fighters in the Mexican-American War and, ironically enough, being cornered in a building surrounded by cops. Preferring the adrenaline rush of picking up a conversation with a celebrity of sorts to that of worrying about the police, I went over and introduced myself.
I was rather flustered, at the beginning, but he was flattered that anyone recognized him at all and made reference to Utah Phillips’s joke of having “dozens of fans worldwide.” The conversation drifted toward Katrina, and he was quite amused to hear that I had weathered the storm in an abandoned strip club somewhere between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. While we were conversing, the situation downstairs diffused. Having other places to be, the folksinger took advantage of the window of safety and went on his way.
I set about to wandering through the crowd again; then, suddenly, a man with multiple facial piercings started yelling at me.
“What the hell are you doing here! You never leave New Orleans!” It was a trainhopper whom I had met the previous winter. He motioned me over to the table where he and his associates were assembled, inquired as to how my sister was doing, and proceeded to tell those present of the many gallons of beer we had drunk together in a bar known primarily for the cheapness of its drinks. There were other young hobos, that I had met before, there as well. It seems that, if you live somewhere that people from everywhere come to visit, wherever you go, there will be people you know.
The concert had begun downstairs, and I went down to watch. As I mentally reviewed the events of the past few days, a very beautiful musing came to me:
If our refusal to bow to any master, even God, prevents our entry to Heaven, then, the only suitable place for us in the hereafter would be something along the lines of a Valhalla for anarchists. In the morning, we would set about to gathering food from gardens, orchards and magically abundant dumpsters. We would all work together to make a magnificent feast which we would all sit down to share amidst lively conversation. In the afternoon, we would take to the streets. There, we would face the forces of the fascists with daring and innovative tactics, giving “all power to the imagination.” At sunset, our adversaries would scatter to the four winds as the injuries their weapons had inflicted would spontaneously become healed. The doors of the jail would swing open, and those within would rush out, into the embraces of their comrades. All assembled again, we would celebrate with song, dance, and playful diversions. As the fires dwindled, we would find our places to sleep for the night while excitingly whispering to one another our anticipation for the next day.
Word circulated through the crowd that, once the concert finished, people would take the public transit train to downtown Minneapolis for a spontaneous action. Our group separated into those interested and uninterested in participating (a close to even split) and made arrangements for meeting afterward. We, the non-participants, got drinks at the bar and went back to the top floor balcony.
Before long, one of our cellphones rang. Things had gone horribly wrong! There had been a tipoff, and the police managed an ambush. Group members had scattered to escape arrest. Luckily, amidst the tense confusion, we managed to move through the neighborhood as an inconspicuous group to our friends’ hiding places; so they could deblock and blend in with us along our winding route back to the vehicle.
The next day, we took a break from protest activity to split up and explore Minneapolis on foot. While sheltering from the rain under the awning of a large tenement building, my group of three met two residents, Somali immigrants named Muhammad and Ahmed. Muhammad found the political situation in America to be, in certain ways, even more confounding than that of his wartorn homeland.
“I saw you guys on TV last night. There is something I do not understand. You protesters are white people. The police are white people. I do not understand. Why are they shooting their own people?” We explained that, in this country, there are many factors which outweigh the bonds of ethnic kinship and that it was our ideas, more than it was ourselves, that the police were trying to kill. Muhammad pondered this briefly, but it did not seem to answer the central point of the quandary to his satisfaction.
After the rain subsided, we spent some time at a nearby playground, then wandered streets lined with businesses run and frequented by the city’s Muslim immigrant population. In this rambling, we stumbled on a stalwart fixture in the Twin Cities radical community, the Mayday Bookstore, where we lingered for some time.
After wandering further and becoming somewhat lost, we went into the Hard Times Café (another worker-owned collective featured in the famous RNC Welcoming Committee video “We’re Getting Ready!”) to ask directions. Inside, we found not only others from our group but also, at another table, the lockdowners from two days before. I gave them prints of the more interesting photos I had taken and discussed the possibility of traveling to each other’s cities for future actions.
Once we were all reassembled, we went to the Ramsey County Courthouse to watch arraignments. We witnessed the proceedings for (among others) a New Orleanian friend who had moved to New York after The Storm and the people now known as “The RNC 8.” To learn about their cases and how you can help their cause, visit www.rnc8.org. The naked aggression of totalitarianism in that courtroom was the most frightening thing I saw on that trip (or, quite possibly, ever), and it fed my nightmares for weeks afterward.
We spent the fourth sorting out problems with the vehicles and making other preparations and arrangements for the long journey home. On the return trip, we could afford a more leisurely pace. We spent to night of the fifth in Chicago. The day and night of the sixth were filled with the long journey southward.
As night fell, and we came within a few hours journey from home, sending word to friends to herald our arrival, we began to receive phone calls and text messages concerning the state of the homefront: Despite Nature’s sparing the city, Katrina-style martial law was in effect. A gentle friend of ours had been beaten severely by the police for being found outdoors after curfew. Another hurricane, Ike, was in the Gulf and headed our way.
We stopped at a gas station on the northern shore of Lake Ponchartrain to wait for the sunrise (and, with it, the lifting of curfew). Stark realization gradually shifted into grim determination, and we began to make plans. It was then that we knew: our battles were only beginning…
This story continues here in DOCUMENT FOURTEEN as “The Beginning of Our Battles.”
Disclaimer: The following is completely a work of fiction. Any resemblence to real people, places, or events is entirely coincidental.
Definitely Not Riot Porn:
A NOLA Dispatch from the RNC
I’m not sure how I convinced myself to go on this trip. Oh yeah: that whole mandatory evacuation thing. The news stations announced yet another cataclysmic storm’s trajectory heading for New Orleans. The mayor, who had monumentally failed his citizens during the previous diasaster, appeared on TV announcing that anyone staying behind should not leave their house or face immediate arrest. Yeah, that was it. I could either go East with my family or head up North to Minneapolis with a merry band of radicals to disrupt the 2008 Republican National Convention. Tough call.
I’d originally had to babysit the week of the scheduled departure. But circumstances had changed, the stars had aligned, and I was now forced to leave town anyway—again, with the threat of not coming back to one. What did I have to lose? Although if anything went down, a couple of us decided, we’d make sure to head back early to take advantage of the city-wide anarchy, loot the shit out of chain stores and maybe have a standoff with National Guardsmen who’d been occupying our city for the last three years.
I couldn’t tell whether to read the warnings of looming disaster as destiny or a really bad omen. On the night of departure/evacuation, things got off to a rocky start. I say “rocky,” but actually the whole plan almost fell to pieces because of me. I’d had the lack of foresight to beleive my consistently non-supportive parents would—might—go complacently along with my lending out of their car in exchange for a van. As it were, Brannon had had a hard enough time convincing the van’s owner that, no, we would not set it on fire; we would use it strictly as a blocakde and shield—and of course we would flip it over afterward! Sheesh! Now we were out of the van, with only one small car to transport almost a dozen people, and instead our original trade-off car would sit parked in my parents’ driveway in the suburbs. Part of me hoped the flood waters would come and wash it away.
But it all worked out—sort of. Sylvia was house-sitting for one of her co-workers and in possession of his two vehicles. She left him a dire phone message asking permission to borrow it, and without waiting for a reply, drove over to our meeting place around midnight with his Jeep! Technically I guess this is considered “theft”—but hey, this was also a state of emergency!
When he did call back, he told Sylvia we could take the Jeep under one condition: he wanted to come along. As a Republican supporter. Errr… Sylvia was somewhere between “stretching the truth” and outright lying: spouting off some nonsense about driving the car to “safety” a thousand miles away (into the midst of a mass protest) and some empty promise about getting the guy into the convention through a connection with her cousin. Sort of the opposite goal of the trip, but—you know—give and take. I welcomed his coming along out of the sheer, abusrd irony of the situation. A Republican aiding and abetting a group of hostile protestors across the country in his Jeep! In the end—much to my dismay—the Republican didn’t accompany us. But somehow we were still taking his car!
We crammed our two vehicles with a motley crew: some radical college students, a couple insurrectionary anarchists, one lawyer, one loud and lovable drunk, and one objective kid on his way to his first protest to document and take it all in. After a twenty-hour, almost incident-free drive we reached the Twin Cities late the next night.
Street by Street, Bloc by Bloc
The hour of reckoning drew nearer and still we couldn’t track down a wrench. Gas stations and shopkeepers either didn’t carry them or were just unwilling to help us subvert the RNC. Plus it was Labour Day. But after driving all around town in a panic, we found an open hardware store on the corner. The clerk questioned Sylvia and Harriet as to why they possibly needed both an enormous wrench and a bag of roofing nails.
“I dunno, that’s just what my dad told us to buy,” lied Harriet innocently, reinforcing that old stereotype about men and tools.
Now that we had what we needed, it was time for phase one to begin. Assessing that I was the only one in the car not dressed like a cat burglar, we decided I should be the Wrench-Bearer. They let me out a street over from the intersection where the blockade would ensue shortly. A cop car sat parked on the corner, waiting to pounce. I walked right past it along the pedestrian path toward the benches.
A couple were fixing an overturned bike not too far up. I recognized them as Ingrid and Alex, members of a seperate NOLA affinity group who’d driven up as well. I sat down on the bench and covertly slipped the wrench out of my pocket and into Alex’s hand. When each side of traffic was clear, he began turning the bolts of the benches loose. Ingrid sitting on the ground kept an eye on one side of traffic, while I watched the other as I casually munched on an apple.
Informants had infiltrated the aptly-named RNC “Welcoming Committee” in its planning stages and arrested its organizers, so they knew pretty much what to expect. Cop cars—marked and unmarked—swarmed the area, which hindered our progress. More than one jogger asked if we needed help.
After about twenty minutes of working in tandem like this—check each way, confirm the coast is clear, churn baby churn—a teenage couple sauntered up and decided to stop at the scenic overlook of the industrial yard where the benches lay. The boy took out a pad and began to draw. The storm came closer with every ticking minute and we wasted five just waiting for the two straggling kids to clear out. Finally Alex gave me a look and said, “Can you ask them to leave? Make sure to mention cops and danger.”
I walked over to the two adolescents. “Hey, something’s about to go down here, I think,” I told them, trying to give them some unpoken hint. “Lots os cops are about to descend on this area, so you might not wanna be here.” The blank stares told me they didn’t get it. “Are you serious?” the goth girl asked snidely.
Realizing that if we didn’t move we would miss our cue and hoping these kids were “down”—or at least as oblivious as they seemed to be—we continued. Suddenly a man in a tucked-in shirt with matching khakis and dress shoes came unassumingly walking by. We all stopped and picked up our bike-repair routine when out of the corner of his mouth he said, “I’ll give you the signal, across by the tracks.” It felt like a scene from Mission: Impossible!
Alex managed to unbolt the two benches completely from the cement right before Ingrid stood up. “It’s happening,” she said. The young couple ran off in the direction of the protesters took to the street on the route of the delegate buses. Like clockwork a heavy concentration of police had made their way there. As the activists began locking down in circle formation, creating a huge diversion, out of nowhere black-clad figures wearing bandanas over their faces charged toward us. The notepad boy and his girlfriend were running with them yelling “Fuck the RNC!” It’s true; anarchists are everywhere.
As the police busied themselves a block away, we pulled the benches out into the roadway and U-locked them together. Cars honked, people hollered, and the cops quickly spotted what we were doing. But we managed to escape up the street to mingle with the onlookers and offer support for the blockade before they could arrest us.
Although the benches were quickly cleared from the roadway, the blockade lasted a crucial twenty or so minutes. A paddy wagon arrived filled with back-up and the demonstrators were asked to either leave the street or face being physically removed. We stood by as they complied. As soon as the most cumbersome individuals were dealt with and on their way to jail, the cops encircled our group and confiscated every bag, which they threw in a pile next to us and searched. Due to some of the more incriminating items they found therein—including but not limited to: dark clothes, locks, nails, and doe urine—we were returned only a few. The rest, as you can imagine, no one bothered collecting later from police custody. After Sylvia negotiated with the commanding officer (who, minutes before, was confronted by another legal advisor during the blocakde dispersion for covering his badge number), we were released. Off to a great start, I thought.
We’d managed to narrowly escape with the pigs confiscating only a few of our possessions instead of any of us, so who in their right mind would have expected us shortly thereafter to drive across town and into another fray?
Brannon suggested we make our way to the Capitol Building and merge with the Anti-Capitalist Bloc. Actually, Brannon pretty much served as our tour guide and travel agent for the whole trip, recommending this march and that protest, this restuarant, that arraignment. He drove us around in his noisy stick-shift—that is, until he “donated” it to an interstate blockade. A seasoned anarchist veteran, I could tell how peppy he was to take part in another national protest, eager to challenge power, and I could appreciate that about him. Even—especially—when he made rash descisions like giving away his car to strangers for the good of the movement. Someone—maybe Sylvia, the “responsible” one of the group—piped the rational question: “So, how are we going to get home?”
Brannon didn’t even blink. “I’ll just rent us another car!” he declared.
And if the cops don’t give it back?
“I’ll just buy another car!”
We caught up with the Anti-Capitalist Bloc as they marched toward downtown. As they reached the brink of the business district—and the Orwellian perimeter fencing that those in power had erected to keep us out—the cops were lined up to—uh—block us. The Capitalist Bloc, if you will.
The anarchists were baffled. At this point I imagined someone at the front of the line pulling out their worn copy of Emma Goldman for reference on what to do next. They were so befuddled everyone began having little collective meetings in the street with their affinity groups, as if they were discussing nothing more than the dynamics of white privilege in a game of kickball. Brannon grew fed up and took to the streets, trying to incite the crowd who were having logistical discussions on tactics in the middle of a march. When this failed, he then just began verbally insulting sign-holding liberals in the median. “You’re the reason shit doesn’t change!” he yelled, taking out his anger on the easiest target. “You just sit on the sidelines and don’t do shit!” Someone criticized his method of “rallying comrades” and someone else called him an undercover.
I should have forseen the rest of the day unfolding badly. Like a sheep I followed the crowd around a circuitous route into a residential neighborhood. Two masked people pulled a dumpster into the road behind us and overturned it. We emerged on a long boulevard along the Mississippi river. And like good little sheep, we stayed on the sidewalk and never broke rank—as though this might make us look more favorable in the eyes of our oppressors. A few even went so far to tell people to take down their bandanas so we would appear more presentable and not “looking to cause trouble.”
We’d also given the state’s foot soldiers plenty of valuable time to strategize and the fact that we were now walking unhindered seemed more like a dark foreshadowing than anything else. As we shuffled down the busy road, running parallel with us were the commuter trains chauffeuring in delegates by the dozens. It was an ironic slap in the face: that despite the months of planning and the mobilizing they were getting in almost entirely unharrassed.
Finally we reached the overpass which would take us into the heart of downtown. And wouldn’t you know it, there they stood in formation, those mannequins of power gleaming in their full riot get-up. Somehow I’d made my way to the front, where the red and black banner stood, obstinate to our foes. When we began crouching down behind the tin sign while the police across from us ready themselves, I knew in that moment the inevitable was coming. Our backs were against the river and I didn’t dare move for fear they would open fire.
Time stood still for a moment and all around grew quiet. The ones in front took a few steps into the intersection. And then—all hell broke loose. The police fired green pepper balls resembling large pieces of chalk which made me tear-up and choke. Someone next to me limped past screaming “They shot me in the fucking leg!” The crowd began pushing and shoving back from whence we came. Shots rang out behind me. People began running through the now-backed-up traffic yelling “This is your government! Look at your government!” as our “protectors” fired unmercifully in our direction regardless of civilians. One man proceeded to run over the hood and roofs of cars fanatically yelling “They’re coming!” I found Elsa briefly who was also crying from the gas and trauma before being seperated again.
The protestors were dispersing; up the street a ways—once I began to feel a relative degree of safety—I found Ingid and Alex. We collapsed onto the sloping grass of a nearby park to bring our heart rates back to normal and assess what just happened. The sleek facade of “justice” had reared its ugly head for all to see and the protestors had realized this when they chanted “The whole world is watching!” Eventually Harriet—separate and dangerously apart from the crowd across the street—walked up huffing and beet-red in the face. She was tough. Only a few months before she’d been radicalized and now she was hyperventillating after an attack from riot cops.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened. Or rather, I’m not sure how we didn’t see it coming. One moment we were resting in a park resting, asking one another if we were okay, and the next bike cops had started herding and boxing us in. They dominated the circumference of the whole park, their bikes turned sideways and acting as make-shift barricades. Before any of us realized what they were doing, it was too late. Even the water was dotted with police and the National Guard—boats fully mounted with machine guns!
I looked around at the hundred or more people also realizing what was happening. What were they going to do, arrest us all?! Apparently so. I looked up from my position at two girls in bright skirts with designer purses, obviously not involved in the festivities. “Oh, my god,” one remarked. “Are they going to arrest us? I need to call—” she scrambled around in her purse for her cell phone and her face became stricken. Then the fit of panic and crying. “ Oh my, god, where’s my phone?! Where’s my phone?!”
Nothing to do but wait. Diggory had strolled up nonchalantly as though nothing quite eventful were happening. Perhaps he was trying to pretend he didn’t have a clue what was going on, but the black coveralls he wore betrayed him. Those carrying anything that could remotely be construed as “incriminating” began setting them in the bushes and in the trash cans.
Meanwhile across the river we could see and hear the tents where Atmosphere and Mos Def played to a cheering crowd. The night before I left town to go on this adventure, I’d seen Mos Def play in New Orleans. All night I’d wandered around outside the show trying to get into the club for free. At about 1 am that night, precisely as Mos Def took the stage inside, they waved the $20 cover and I walked right in and caught his entire set! Midway through he asked the crowd to “do that Katrina clap” following which everyone in the audience did a synchronized clap, clap clap clap. Over the past hours, we’d been receiving mixed updates from family and friends about the condition of the city: some said parts would certainly be wiped out, others said they predicted it would pass us and opt for Cuba instead. Still up in the air. Now as I sat on the ground in the sunshine waiting for the cops to move in, I heard Mos shout “This is for the city of New Orleans!” What I wouldn’t have given to be on that side of the river. And the thought occured to me: after all I’d done, after all the mischief I’d caused and evaded being punished for, I was going down for this. For sitting in a park after a symbolic march against some delegates who were going to meet anyway. This was my first protest experience, and I certainly didn’t feel empowered or liberated.
We listened to the “power to the people” shout for which applause rose into the air across the water, and at that moment it seemed so hypocritical. I imagined college kids pumping beer-clenched fists while just on the other side of the water people were being repressed. I guess that’s pretty analogous for more than just Minnesota.
I had resigned myself to the fact that I would get arrested in a few minutes. Alex passed around the last of his water and a few other kindred souls shared their Cliff Bars and trail mix with us. The cops had already zip-tied and led away some of us one by one. I looked at them closely as they stood like Robocops behind their gear, trying to detect some semblance of humanity. I looked at their skin, their faces, to confirm they were in fact flesh and blood human beings. I overheard two of them talking to one another. “Do you recognize him?” one said, referring to someone some feet away. “I saw him earlier…” the other replied.
It became clear to me their motives. Mass detainment and arrest for the purpose of gathering key people and gaining a comprehensive list of everyone involved in the struggle. One officer snapped pictures; another held a video camera. I recognized one of the officers who’d been present earlier in the day when they’d surrounded us on the sidewalk and taken our bags. Well, so much for my “just taking a stroll in the park” stand-by…
Gradually our numbers diminished and eventually they led my two NOLA comrades away. Around me foolish individuals had written the number for the legal collective on their arms—another piece of incriminating evidence for the police to deduce just who had been breaking the law. Instead I’d written them on the inside of my boxer shorts and prepared for what was next. Harriet who sat next to me, asked if I was okay. I felt really calm.
An officer told me to stand up. He turned to one of his buddies and remarked, smirking, “Look at this one.” He faced me and asked derisively, “How old are you, Pee Wee?” I told him.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Just walking around,” I told him, cautiously.
“Just walking around, huh?” I could tell he wasn’t buying it. If I didn’t have a fighting chance of talking my way out of this, I wouldn’t answer any further questions. But after a minute he said, as an aside, “Get out of here, Pee Wee. And don’t come back.”
It took a nanosecond to register before, stunned, I scrambled up the embankment to the street, to freedom. I couldn’t beleive my luck.
“Wait. Hold on a second, Pee Wee.” Really, do these guys get off at the station exchanging bad jokes? Another acquaintance later reported being called “chowder head” by one of them.
I guess they thought they could ring some more information out of me. “So who are you staying with?” he asked.
This time I didn’t answer.
He grew belittling. “What are you, scared? Or are you invoking your rights?” “I’m going to remain silent.”
Now his tone just became mocking. “You’re not under arrest. You don’t need to evoke your rights when you’re not under arrest, Pee Wee.” Another interrogation trick. I kept walking.
At the edge of the park I reunited with Brannon, Sylvia, and Elsa. I think they were more surprised I’d gotten away than I was. Sylvia had managed to pass herself off as a “legal advisor,” and Brannon and Elsa had fled before they’d closed in. I informed them that Diggory had been taken away and Harriet was still in there.
A moment later Harriet strode up and described how she too had slipped by. The officer had asked her too why she’d come here. Applying her “dumb little girl” act, she told them she didn’t know.
“You don’t know?” the cop repeated.
“I was evacuating from New Orleans and this is where the car was headed.” Solid. He asked what she had written on her arm. Lucky for her she hadn’t scrawled the legal collective’s number but Sylvia’s, a number they didn’t recognize.
“I dunno, this is my friend who I’m evacuating with’s number. They were pasing around a marker to write numbers on their arm and I just wrote my friend’s.”
He just let her go. Unbelievable.
After our brushes with the law and subsequent non-arrests, it was high time for celebration. We spent the next half-hour on the sidewalk in downtown St. Paul bumming for “spare dollars.”
“Why would I give you a dollar?” said one smug man in a suit as he continued walking.
“BECAUSE YOU’RE A FUCKIN’ TOOL!”
Bullfighting in the Twin Cities:
How to Avoid Mass Arrest
“This is your third and final warning.” It’s hard to make out the voice from the megaphone in the midst of all the noise and confusion; there must be a couple hundred of us now. “…order you to disperse, or you will be subject to—”
Yeah, I know, I think to myself, or we will be subject to arrest—but he surprises me: “—chemical weapons.”
Chemical weapons! My heart skips a beat. We’re in front of one of the most prestigious delegate hotels—if they gas us here, they’re practically admitting defeat! I haven’t been tear-gassed since Quebec City, and I have such fond memories of gas-masked anarchists throwing back the smoking canisters. Too bad I’m not really dressed for it.
“Whose streets?” I yell, hoarse but enthusiastic. “OUR STREETS!” everyone answers, making good on it by holding their ground as the first shots ring out. As clichéd as it sounds, I could do this all day. It beats gnawing my nerves in private rage, wishing for a chance to engage with the murderers who are destroying the planet.
On reflection, it’s not surprising that they’re trying to force us back—with an open park to our left, there’s no way they could surround us. They need to get us onto terrain they can control.
We fall back slowly, medics rushing to attend to the injured and get them out of harm’s way. Everything that isn’t bolted down is dragged into the street; the sound of scraping metal mingles with the explosions of concussion grenades and tear gas canisters. Eventually, rather than retreat from downtown, we turn the corner and begin to move north.
Now it’s a different ball game—the city is a grid of closed walls, and they could box us in and mass-arrest us in the middle of any block. My partner and I are constantly checking in, keeping abreast of police movements in all four directions. Every time we see a solid line of cops form, we make sure we have at least two escape routes open. A couple times, they form a line ahead of us when we’re between intersections, and we have about thirty seconds to run out the other end before they close the line there as well; as fast as their orders go out, our legs are always faster. It can be frightening to run right through forming lines of police, but riot police are extremely predictable if you can tell what their orders are. At one point I practically crash into one officer, but as his task is to block the way rather than to make individual arrests, he doesn’t react.
We’ve been doing this for over a week now, first in Denver and now here. It’s worth noting how much less experience the officers on the street have than we do—for many of them, this is their first time, while I’ve been playing this game half my adult life.
Now they’re setting up lines at every intersection—closing down the entire area. We separate from the rest of the crowd, moving as fast as our legs will carry us, passing through line after closing line of riot cops. Finally we’re in the clear.
The city around us is suddenly eerily empty. We walk arm in arm, letting our breathing slow. Later, we discover that police had sectioned off an area of several blocks, mass-arresting many of our comrades, and we were the only ones free inside it.
Turning a corner, we come upon a wagon upended in the street, its contents scattered everywhere along with a single lost shoe. “Is that the Funk the War sound system?” It is. We turn it back on its wheels, load the speakers and piles of fliers back in, and walk it right up to the line of police with their backs to us. They let us through without a thought.
A Love Letter To Keith
After the first day of coordinated action at the RNC, we all wearily returned to the house where we were staying. Coming back one by one or in small groups, everyone excitedly shared stories and wild tales from the day, smiled to see that their friends were alright, cringed at the news that some hadn’t made it back, and started making plans for the days still to come.
Amidst all the conversation and commotion, someone turned on the TV to see what the local news had to say about anarchists wreaking havoc and swarming the streets of downtown St. Paul. When the news segment came on, it included a montage of clips from over the course of the day. The newscaster deadpanned a narrative as the video jumped from scene to scene: “Some protesters locked themselves to a car in the middle of an intersection”—cut to muddled video of riot cops starting to remove lock boxes—”some protesters dragged items into the street and confronted riot police”—cut to video of police charging horses into protesters wearing colorful clothing—”some protestors damaged storefronts”—cut to video of someone shoving a sign through the Macy’s window. The narrator then continued, “…and then there’s this man, Keith.”
The video cut again to show a single teenager sitting cross-legged and completely alone in the middle of an intersection downtown, calmly beating out a feeble-sounding rhythm with a small jingle-bell stick, surrounded by a large circle of imposing but confused-looking riot police. The reporter managed to get into the circle of police to interview Keith, who simply said “Well, I just wanted to come up here and show them that they can’t get away with whatever they want.”
The video dragged on as Keith continued sitting in the intersection, lightly shaking his jingle-bell stick amidst the otherwise-silent stone-faced glares from the police, having obviously been there quite a while. We watched with wide eyes at the gall Keith had managed to muster by himself, and laughed at the absurdity of so many unamused riot police standing around sweating through their gear in response to a single rogue teenager.
I don’t know anything about Keith, where he came from, or what compelled him to take his stand in that lonely intersection downtown. But I like to imagine that he lives in a small Midwestern town not too far from Minneapolis, and that somehow he came across an Unconventional Action paper or the RNC Welcoming Committee website which, for one reason or another, he found deeply inspiring. Maybe he read about the proposed plan: pick a sector, find an intersection, and shut it down.
And I like to think that, wanting to know what that felt like, but not really having any co-conspirators amongst his friends at home, he just fucking did it. He didn’t sign up for a ticket on an activist bus that would dump him into the march, and he didn’t give up on being a part of it because he was alone. He somehow traveled to St. Paul, found his intersection, and perhaps with some uncertainty of what was going to happen, sat down with his jingle-bell stick. And he stayed there.
Keith, wherever you are, I hope you keep following your urges—even if you have to start alone.
So there we were, Z and I, in downtown Saint Paul, separated from the relative safety of the throngs of protesters, walking briskly out of a parking lot, breathing heavily and talking to each other about where we were headed next. The Mississippi River was two blocks ahead of us and it seemed like a good time to slip away into touristville. Walking close together the two of us were a block away from people leisurely strolling along the riverbank when I noticed a man biking a short distance behind us. He was a middle-aged male, scruffy, smoking a cigarette and watching us with a decidedly unfriendly consistency. I guessed him to be a loyal Republican local, and the way he seemed to be following us gave me an increased sense of urgency to disappear into the non-protesters. I pulled Z’s shirt slightly, but before I could explain my concerns, they turned from thoughts to threats. We had reached the riverbank and were waiting impatiently for the light to change when I saw the biking man approach two stout men with short hair and similar outfits. The do-gooder pointed towards us and my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t know if the men he was talking to were cops, but didn’t stick around to find out. “We gotta go,” I said as I grabbed Z by the arm and pulled him up the street, away from the men and parallel to the river. “What?” Z said, as we shuffled as quickly as possible without drawing attention to ourselves; but after only a few feet a loud “Hey!” came from the opposite corner, and the chase began.
I distinctly remember thinking “Okay, it’s happening. This is what you were preparing for. This is it.” All the jogging and talking, stretching and practicing was for situations like this: trapped in an unfamiliar setting, with enemies at nearly every corner and a few coming for us. My mouth went dry as we ran. I looked back to see the two men about a block behind us. Z and I were committed to staying together throughout the RNC, but hadn’t explicitly discussed scenarios such as this. We ran together, following each other’s lead in a fluid manner with little verbal cues, friends in struggle, in fight and flight. We took the first turn available, a right turn away from the river. A quick block and a left turn later I surveyed the scene: no friendly faces in sight, and delegate busses at the end of the block with accompanying militia… the reality really set in: we were alone and in danger.
Luckily, we found an alley to the right and ducked into it before the pursuers had made the previous turn. The alley was one block long with a dumpster on the right and cars parked on the left at 45° angles. We hid in a slight alcove made by the closest car and a cut away in the building and changed our clothes as best we could. We seemed to have lost them for the moment, but weren’t well hidden enough to stay where we were. I wanted to jump in the dumpster across the alley but hesitated because there was a camera nearby and I didn’t want to be so confined. I let my idea fall without sharing it with my friend, a decision I regret upon reflection. We could have similarly slipped underneath the cars we crouched next to, but without knowing where the thugs were or if and when any aid would chance to pass our way it didn’t seem to be a smart decision to hole up where we were.
Our best chance of escape was in anonymity, but we had to find a background to encompass us. Z was ready to leave and I, feeling indecisive, went with his lead. We popped out onto the street at the far end of the alley and found another wall of busses and police to the left. We turned and walked anxiously away from them. The walls of the buildings on either side of the street were made with the type of dark, reflective glass characteristic of downtown high-rises. I used them to check our surroundings and my heart sank deeper. In the window of the building across the street I saw one of the men from the corner running down the street towards us, no farther than half a block away.
Again we ran, wide-eyed deer in a concrete forest trying to understand an incomprehensible landscape while fleeing imprisonment. We raced forward towards what I recognized with a tightness in my chest as the intersection one block above where all of this started. We ran across an empty lot and turned right, away from where we had been. Downtown seemed to be an endless ghost world full of hollow, metallic trees raised high to drown all shadows, antmen of blue or black hue carrying weapons and enmity, and a feeling of oppressive emptiness. The streets were void of the boisterous possibility carried by the thousands of individuals creating and redefining their lives. As we looked up the street only to find small groups of the antmen scattered here and there, it seemed we were going to have to risk proximity to them to make it out of the nowhereland we were in. As I processed what I saw and what I felt was possible, Z, a few steps ahead of me, stepped into a building and as the door closed behind him so did my hope. I saw the place as a box without an exit, only a doorway to another box—one with bars. I did not want to go in, but I didn’t feel comfortable leaving Z. In an excruciating few seconds I weighed my options and chose to stay with my friend over splitting up without communication.
This is my second regret, and the one I have thought the most about since September. I know Z would have understood my decision to leave him in hopes of finding sanctuary. From the beginning of the chase, if we had split up we would have been less easily identified—no longer the pair the biking man pointed out—and would have been harder to follow going in different directions. The possibility of one of us getting caught would have still been high, but better only one than two. I knew that if we were caught it would be a lot easier to face jail and the legal system together, but I didn’t consider the fact that we would have support either way.
Inside, I tried to find a rear or alternative exit but to no avail. The rest of the story goes as one might imagine and can be summarized in a single sentence. We lost this time.
This time. There will be more opportunities in which we will confront the state face to face, and next time I will not make the same mistakes. The key to growth is to learn from experience; there is much to learn from the experiences of Saint Paul.
Here are a few conclusions I derived from this specific instance:
Talk over as much as possible with your friends. Be specific. Try to imagine as many potential challenges as you can.
Determine everyone’s hard boundaries. When is it OK to break your basic guidelines or rules?
It has been said before, but it begs repeating: take space to center and ground yourself before approaching conflict situations. Try to refrain from getting caught up in external factors and momentum to the point of forgetting your original intentions and thoughts. This isn’t to say one should hold back when feeling excited or inspired in a moment.
Riding in the back of the squad car, sweating in handcuffs and September heat, we speed through the St. Paul streets. Past broken windows and overturned trash cans, we reach the fortress of the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center. The National Guard waves us on through the snaking barricades. They picked us up and spat us out, the Feds mingling with the sheriffs. Once the initial force of arrest has been exerted, I find myself pacified. They’ve got riot cops and National Guardsmen everywhere, thousands of burly white men with tear gas, guns, and a bloodlust for anarchists. I don’t want to submit to their brute force, but the fear of bodily harm is a strong instinct, so I let them order me around.
Inside the jail there’s a motley assortment of protesters and thickly accented Minnesotan cops scurrying about. I look around for friends and find a few in holding cells across the room. I sit on a bench and wait to be booked. The people that the cops perceived as female are in a holding cell together, a rowdy bunch of Jane Does. They write messages on the window and wave at passing prisoners. I grudgingly get booked and decide to be vegan for my stay. Next I’m moved into a holding cell, friends old and new by my side. We share news from the streets, the frustration of custody. I get fingerprinted by a bumbling guard, then I’m shuffled to another cell. Someone I met recently on the outside speaks to me through the vents, and I quote a song he wrote back to him, “You may well put me in jail but you will never touch my heart.” As cheesy as it may be, it’s fucking true. Through the window I see a sweetheart in another cell, and we trace notes to each other. “Riot in sector three!”
Even behind bars we find bits of joy and camaraderie. In the midst of violent repression there are still ways to subvert authority. In the cell block with dozens of radicals of all stripes, there’s an atmosphere of rebellion that persists through our chains. The jail is on 23-hour lockdown, and we spend our free hour each day carousing about the cell block, going door to door to spread news and rumors, and secretly passing pens under doors. When I’m alone is sing every song I can remember, wishing the jail would come under siege—but I know this is one of the most fortified places in the country right now. They have an army of cops and all we have is spontaneity, and sticks and stones.
On the second day, word spreads that not all the vegans are receiving vegan meals. Even though the meals are just PB & J in a paper bag, sometimes with a moldy orange, we’re taking any reason to put pressure on the jail and running with it. As the next meal comes vegans and non-vegans refuse their food, no one will eat until we all can eat. We keep up this solidarity until the guards cave and bring us more vegan meals. It’s important to recognize that we probably got treated, on the whole, better than most inmates at the Ramsey County Jail, due to the media attention and our skin and class privilege. But in a county that recently had an outbreak of tuberculosis in the jail workhouse and rents out beds to ICE, there’s plenty of reasons to pressure the system.
One night, the television says protesters have reached the Xcel center. On the outside I wouldn’t care so much, but here this is big news. The noise begins with someone howling and banging on their door. The guards tell him to shut up and we all start making gorilla noises, a celebratory ruckus from every cell. At first I’m hesitant to join, but soon I’m yelling and kicking and the one guard in our cell block leaves. The panopticon is ominously empty. We keep on with our imprisoned festival.
Quickly, a dozen guards march into the cell block, spread out, and comb the area, silencing us and searching our cells. About two thirds of the guards encircle someone’s cell, targeting him for being an agitator. One guard lunges into the cell and I hear our friend shouting. I can’t see into the cell but the cop is clearly assaulting him. Others enter and after a few moments they drag our comrade out, one pig to each limb. He screams for help, but we can’t do anything besides feel our hearts drop and let our voices ring with his. Soon a calm settles over the cell block, a social peace imposed by the threat of violence. It’s clear who’s in control here, and our resistance dwindles down to scattered cat meows. Whenever the guards order us to be silent, we respond by meowing at them, like kittens with no respect for authority. Our friend doesn’t return; he must be in solitary. We later hear that he has been tortured.
After four days I’m bailed out and I know I’m lucky. As of this writing three people are still in federal custody from RNC-related charges, thanks to FBI informants. An entire class of our society remains behind bars, without the support that young white activists get when faced with state repression. As insurgents, the state will try to crush our dreams and lock us up. Dissent may not be a crime, but resistance is. The sooner we come to terms with the fact that we could all end up in jail, and that we could survive the experience, the more chance our resistance has to grow. The state considers us outlaws, so let’s wise up and act like it.
Yours Truly, Nobody
Elsewhere in Town…
On the afternoon of Thursday, September 4, dressed in our finest civilian attire, three of us took the bus to meet friends due to be released from jail near downtown St. Paul. Soon after we sat down, a woman across from us in her late twenties made a sound of disgust. She had sighted a cop car in another lane of traffic.
An older woman on an adjacent seat chimed in. “I know, they’re everywhere. You can’t go anywhere without seeing a damn cop.”
“I was in St. Paul on Monday,” the younger woman replied, “and what I’ve seen those cops doing makes me ashamed. I saw one girl, beaten and bloody on the pavement, with three cops standing over her.”
“I believe it. And I haven’t read a thing about it in the papers.”
“And they just get away with whatever they want…”
This dialogue continued for a few minutes as the bus slowly made its way through traffic. Gradually, other riders began offering their own accounts of police brutality. Finally, a man roughly in his sixties, with a white beard and a large Episcopalian Church pin on his hat, spoke up.
“I would never go to a protest without packing.”
At this point, everyone on the bus, most of whom had been minding their own business, visibly shifted attention to the older man in the front.
“I’m serious, I don’t trust them cops one bit. I’m telling you, if you ever go to a protest, always be able to defend yourself.” The rest of bus was silent, but some people nodded. ”I was living in Chicago in 1968, in law school at the time. I remember the Democratic National Convention was going on, and Mayor Daley had the National Guard out on the streets. One of those days I was driving through town, trying to get to class, and got stopped by a National Guardsmen redirecting traffic. I rolled down my window and told him I had to get through. He refused, and then I refused to go the other way. Eventually he pointed his rifle at me, saying I better move my car down the other street. Well, I just pulled out my .45, pointed it right back at him, and said, ‘Mine’s loaded, how ‘bout yours?’ And then he let me right on through. So I‘m saying, always be prepared. .45 ACP.”
My friends and I had been content to listen to the discussion in silence until then. But I couldn’t help smiling: “Naw, man, .40 Smith and Wesson, that’s where it’s at.” He smiled back, and the entire bus broke out in heated discussion about police brutality, little of which was actually centered around the unusual events of the preceding few days.
As the conversations got more and more intense, we arrived in downtown St. Paul only to find our way blocked by a large contingent of cops and National Guard in riot gear. They were preparing to attack an antiwar demonstration, which later came to include many nearby residents angry about the police state around them. A audible groan was heard on the bus as we were forced to park on a highway on-ramp facing the wrong way. Five tense minutes later, a cop ran up to the bus driver and yelled, “You gotta get outta here, we’re gonna gas the whole area in a couple minutes!” People on the bus started yelling and cursing and, as this was the closest they would get to their destinations, getting off the bus. We did the same.
My friends and I weren’t able to get into the downtown area, much less to the jail, but we did manage to pull off a banner drop from a nearby overpass, thanks to unused materials stashed earlier that week. We had been frustrated by feelings of helplessness as we watched the pigs suit up in their fascist uniforms, but were excited by the conversations we’d overheard. They reminded us how the discussions and desires of the broader public often parallel those of anarchists in remarkable ways, requiring only the right circumstances to come to light. As attested by the participation of Seattle and Quebec residents in riots during mobilizations in those cities, the police state created at protests can provide these circumstances. In this instance, levels of repression normally reserved for poor people of color had been temporarily extended to practically everyone, and the resulting tension and resentment was electrifying. Police harassment, and the potential for resistance, became unifying rather than dividing.
It’s also worth pointing out that this police state, and the resentment it generated, was a direct result of the militant tactics used on September 1 and the embarrassment of the police after they were consistently outmaneuvered during the first few hours of the RNC. This serves as a reminder to anyone who thinks that street fighting, property destruction, and blockading alienate the public or reduce public sympathy for those who oppose authority. This conflict also shifted the focus for many outside observers from the Republican Party to the police and the state in general, demonstrating the importance of making sure our tactics match our desires.
On the plane back to CA, I was in a plane full of people from the RNC. I sat next to two delegates. They were mostly talking and trading business cards, that sort of thing. I noticed that the delegate sitting on the farthest away seat, who I thought might be from Nevada, was reading a book. I looked closer at it and realized it was Recipes for Disaster! He wasn’t just flipping through it, he was reading it. I knew he wasn’t a protester because he came on with a bunch of McCain and Palin stuff and was talking with other delegates.
I wanted to say something, or make some joke, but figured it was probably better to say nothing. Later in the flight the guy to my right looks down at the book and says, “What are you reading?” The other guy responded, “Just reading up on how the bad guys organize. I’m not a bad guy, I’m a good guy, but these are the bad guys.”
The Beginning of Our Battles
This story is continued from “Bringing the Storm to St. Paul in DOCUMENT SIX.”
I had originally intended to end this story there, on the Northshore, with a literary cliché akin to “The Cliffhanger” or “The Hero Rides Off into the Sunset.” However, in real life, heroes tend not to have the luxury of riding off into the sunset but must, instead, stay and make a stand; if you ever find yourself hanging from a cliff, you can safely expect to have one of two possible outcomes: either you will fall to your death or you will summon the strength to climb up to the ledge. With anarchists across the United States asking a collective “What do we do now?” in the wake of the 2008 Party Convention Protests, what happened next may be the most important part of the story.
Within a few days of our return, we held an affinity group meeting. Out of this meeting came the conception of four projects that would be implemented over the following weeks. First of these, we decided to create an educational pamphlet concerning the government’s opportunistic use of Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav to institute oppressive, militaristic policies. Second, we held an “RNC (and DNC) Reportback” event in which we showed video footage culled from various internet sites; then, we (and other locals and visiting travelers who had gone to the Convention Protests) talked about our experiences and answered audience questions. At this event, we passed out copies of our pamphlet, which had been completed by that time, entitled “End Homeland Occupation!” Third, we created an email listserve to discuss and coordinate future plans and events. Fourth, we put out the call for a citywide anarchist meeting (something which had not been done since before Katrina).
With October, came the arrival of the Bay Area based activist, Kirsten Brydum. On her second night in New Orleans, she was murdered under mysterious circumstances. An informal memorial service was held near the home of her hosts. Had she not been killed, she would certainly have met most, if not all, of us who came to her memorial and, by all accounts, would have been well liked among us. Unfortunately, like most people who were there that night, the only time I had the opportunity to spend with Kirsten was a few moments in front of a candlelit altar on which were placed various mementos including fliers for the Really Really Free Market and other events she had helped organize, a few pieces of modest jewelry, and a neatly folded, black bandanna.
While we were assembled to mourn that which might have been, someone mentioned that some other cities, such as New York, have volunteer escort programs, so that people do not have to bike alone at night (Kirsten was shot on her way home from a show). Immediately, several people expressed a belief in the need for a similar progam here and, what’s more, a willingness to help make it happen. Material for writing was gathered, and contact information was collected. At the time of writing, this program, dubbed the Brydum Tandem Project, is nearing the end of its planning stages and, with a pool of over fifty volunteers, is projected to launch in early 2009.
We scheduled the first Citywide Anarchist Meeting on the twenty-sixth of October, to coincide with the Starbucks Corporation Convention. In the early afternoon, we held a potluck in City Park which was attended by thirty to forty people, some of whom were people to whom we had no previous connection that were drawn by our flyering efforts. For the meeting portion, we held a round of introductions with a listing and explanation of each person’s current projects. There was a mediated discussion, from which the main point that arose was the need for continued and wider outreach. The meeting was drawn to a close, and thirteen of us went across town for an action on behalf of the IWW/SWU (Industrial Workers of the World, parent organization of the Starbucks Workers Union).
With picket signs, leaflets, chants, and a giant banner bearing the slogan “Starbucks, stop your union busting now!”, we greeted the convention delegates as they arrived at the Sheraton Hotel. Then, we took the street and marched to the Ernst Morial Convention Center. Once we got there, waiting police threatened us with arrest for “trespassing” if we did not move away from the Convention Center. There was a Starbucks across the street, and we gladly moved our picket in front of it, much to the police’s confoundment. Deciding that we had made our point and were, now, greatly outnumbered, we moved down the sidewalk to peaceably disperse. As we were doing so, the police arrested one of our number, traveler who had stopped in town on his way home to Vancouver.
Within an hour, we fired up an impromptu legal support operation. It took several days of work, but we managed his release and, later, the dropping of all charges against him. Our Canadian friend ended up staying in town much longer than we had anticipated and becoming very much a part of our community, but he hopes to be heading home soon to help plan and coordinate the momentous protests which will be happening in his city in February 2010.
In the early hours of the sixth of November, on my way home from my job at a bar where, that night, TV election coverage had been projected on a screen, and the patrons reveled joyously as the results were announced, a coworker wanting to be in on the adventure and I went to newspaper distribution boxes and wrapped their contents with pages of counterfeit newsprint bearing the headlines “Capitalism Wins at the Polls” and “Anarchy Brewing in the Streets.” It was a small prank that received only slight, passing notice. However, it was an action of historical significance in that it was the first instance of an organizational network created to coordinate the activities of activists from various cities at the Party Convention Protest, Unconventional Action, directing simultaneous actions in, at least, twenty cities.
That November was a time that stirred the imagination with the promise of infinite possibility. On the first, Prospect One, an international art exposition patterned after the Biennale di Venezia opened at venues across the city. In addition to the official exhibits, hundreds of independent displays could be found throughout New Orleans. The New Orleans Fringe Festival, a theatre and performing arts festival affiliated with an annual festival of the same sort in Edinburgh, Scotland, also made its debut that month. The energy of these two European imports merged with the growing energy of homegrown institutions, the Seventh Annual New Orleans Bookfair and the Third Annual Press Street 24 Hour Drawathon, to usher in a short season that was no less than a veritable Mardi Gras of Art. Just as the Lords of Misrule emerge from the wintery shadows each spring to achieve their whimsical conquest of the city, the spirit of boundless creativity laid siege to New Orleans, and people moved about with the constant risk of a beautiful and thought provoking assault upon the senses lying in ambush around every corner.
Shortly before the arrival of Gustav, New Orleans was visited by the internationally renowned guerrilla artist, Banksy. The scenes he left on the walls of various buildings (such as two National Guardsmen looting a TV and stereo, a child with a refrigerator floating on the end of a string like a kite, and a man in coveralls painting grey over sunflowers) showed uncanny knowledge of and insight into our city’s recent history. This artistic rampage and its aftermath marked a turning point in what the Times-Picayune fondly calls “The Graffiti Wars,” a long standing conflict between the civic vigilante, Fred Radtke (commonly known as the “Grey Ghost”), and his group of protegés, Operation Clean Sweep, who paint grey primer over graffiti and street art versus advocates of freelance city beautification typified by the local artist, Rex, and his organization, Nola Rising, which promotes the use of public art to catalyze the city’s recovery. With public opinion swinging firmly to their side, the city’s many artisan ninjas increased the quantity and quality of their work. One day in November, while I was walking through the Bywater, I stumbled upon a larger than life image of two lovers embracing with meticulous detailing reminiscent of an Oriental woodblock print, on the side of an abandoned building. Two passing bicyclists screeched to a halt at the sight, and, upon closer inspection, pointed out that the wheatpaste was still wet. With the knowledge that the artist must have been standing in our places just minutes before, and we were the first to discover his work, we stared, transfixed with the kind of awe one might have at finding the visage of the Mother of God burnt onto one’s grilled cheese sandwich.
As is typical with the City’s seasonal flux, many long-term projects were energized that fall. The New Orleans Independent Media Center increased activity; their coverage of the Starbucks Convention Protest was featured on the national Indymedia website. Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners has adjusted to the moving of their workspace from the 511 Marigny building to Nowe Miasto, in Midcity, and had great success with fundraising at the Bookfair. Many local community resource projects such as our local infoshop, the Iron Rail Book Collective, have received a fresh crop of volunteers among the influx of people who had spent the summer elsewhere.
Plastic distribution boxes for real estate publications and other pathetically disgusting wastes of our continent’s forests, such of those which were so famously thrown into the streets of St. Paul to make improvised barricades, have begun appearing at busstops in Midcity, repainted and filled with free radical literature. It is planned to make its first appearance soon after our second Citywide Anarchist Meeting on, this, the first week of December, where the manuscript will receive its final review before publication.
In conclusion, having recovered much of the energy of the Summit Protest Era a decade past, American anarchists must carry on our momentum by establishing needed infrastructure in our own communities. To make lasting gains, this must be done in ways that engage and involve our neighbors and address issues important to community members—e.g. violent crime, homelessness, educational shortfalls.
American anarchists have, of late fallen under the spell of idolizing the spectacles made by our European cousins without serious enough study of the methods by which they achieve their goals. We, as Americans, tend to speak with glib admiration of the “Battle of Ungdomshuset” in Copenhagen, Denmark, but, all too often, we gloss over the years of daily work by generations of Danes that made that epic struggle possible.
To the extent that large public confrontations are useful, to show our strength and determination, to cement our sense of history and common purpose, to draw new recruits with the prospect of facing their oppressors, to practice and refine tactics, we must tap from the 2008 Party Convention Protests all that we can. As the memory of Seattle 1999 fades into nostalgia and subject matter for Hollywood, and the momentous events of 1968 become as distant and abstract as those of 1917-1921, our memories of this summer are still fresh and vivid, even as the chill of winter sets in upon us. Therefore, let us proclaim to all who would listen:
“Last summer, we fought in the streets of Denver and St. Paul, and we are still fighting!”
Five months had passed since the convention and I was sitting down for a pancake breakfast at the local anarchist community space. The local crew was there and dozens of folks from other cities had joined us for a weekend of play and mischief. I’d met many of the people in the room through the organizing and network-building leading up to the conventions. As we were enjoying the food and each other’s company, a friend’s phone rang; a few seconds later he was cursing and slamming his fist on the table. He hung up and informed the room that warrants had been issued for two of our closest friends. There were gasps and disbelief. My heart dropped. How many times now had I felt this since the RNC, the realization and fear that people I loved could be going to prison?
Everyone immediately shifted into crisis mode. Devastated, we informed our friends about their warrants. We arranged their rides to Minneapolis and made sure lawyers and loved ones would meet them there. We raised their bail within hours. And of course we cried, held each other, and cried more.
It amazes me that a single day in September continues to shape our lives so dramatically. In the year before the convention, we declared our intention to build relationships and infrastructure that would live beyond September 1. That morning five months later proves to me that we won on that front. Despite the state’s continuing efforts to imprison our friends and lovers, the friendships and affinities that formed during the anti-RNC organizing continue to deepen, while our infrastructure for handling state repression—and attacking the state—is stronger than ever. So many of our people are currently in the clutches of our enemies, but it has become increasingly clear that we are all in this together.
29 August 2005 - 1 September 2008 ↩