Friday, September 5, 2008

The last night was a bang

While Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain spoke inside on peace and prosperity Thursday night, outside the few blocks away from the 2008 GOP convention, it was a return to the past.

Police from near and far, came loaded for bear, as over 200 protesters were arrested during demonstrations.

As I left the Xcel Energy Center for the final time this week, walking down the narrow passageway created to keep those not wearing convention badges from entering, I watched scores of police dressed in war-like garb from head to toe. Helicopters constantly surrounded us from above.

After finally being allowed to leave the 'compound,' I got to see first-hand what was happening.

A group, estimated at over 700, had a permit to rally and march, but according to police, it had expired at 5 p.m. Thursday. The demonstrators wasn't taking no for an answer, and neither was the police, who lined up across the John Ireland Boulevard bridge over Interstate 94.

One officer dressed for war, complete with gas mask, told me that they stopped the demonstrators in their tracks.

"You can check CNN's web site," said one officer when asked for some details. He and two fellow officers -- all from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were diverting traffic elsewhere: "We don't know," chimed the other two as they walked away from me.

Since I parked in the Sears store's parking lot, I had to choice but to get in the midst of the mess.

It was nothing short of a scene from those 60s protest marches:

"The whole world is watching," one of the repeated sayings bellowed among the crow

A 30-year-old man, originally from Kenya, who now lives in St. Paul, stood and watched what was going on. He and others wanted to join the protesters but were blocked by police.

"We are just shocked to see what's going on here," he notes. "This is the same as Zimbabwe."

What happened to free speech, asked another 30-year-old, who migrated here from Cameroon.

"We think this is just a method of . . . not allowing the GOP to see people protesting," he adds. "That is so wrong."

Apparently the police earlier decided that they were not going to allow another incident that took place on Monday, where windows were broken and tires slashed in downtown St. Paul.

"They didn't marched when they supposed to, so this is what is happening now," says Marvin, who was among the citizen "Peace Team" that St. Paul police often employ to help with marches and large gatherings. "They (the police) got (the crowd) in an holding area. This is a big night for McCain."

When asked, were all these folk the troublemakers the media has spoke about all week, Marvin responded, "You ain't ducking are you? We are (standing) talking. I would think it is pretty safe. You always have a few folk who does the alternative, but I think most people want to stand up for their rights."

Later, as the protesters retreated off the bridge, being told by police to move, they headed east to another bridge, cutting through the ground around the Veterans Affairs building. It was like following golfers around, I and others followed closely behind, while the police did a John Wayne and headed them off at the pass, stopping at them at the next checkpoint.

"Let us march," said the protesters before they plopped down and sat en masse in the intersection -- police instead stood in a Black Adder array: the first line with officers on horses, who used the street as their convenient restroom, with two more lines with clubs and pepper spray. As most of the crowd members sat unarmed, the police were strapped down like they were about to be dispatched to Iraq or Afghanistan, not downtown St. Paul.

And the crowd chanted: "Whose street? Our street. Whose war? Their war?"

"I think that when the sun goes down, it is going to get crazy," predicted a photographer.

He was right. It did. On this night, it was war in these streets.

Almost 90 people later were arrested, including two reporters. About a dozen more media members were also issued citations but later released.

"I'm seeing police acting like we are in another country," observed a 28-year-old male onlooker. "They are arresting people for nothing. They are using horses to knock people over. This is really weird."

I constantly took pictures (which my newspaper plan to run in our next edition) and recorded sound. At one point, I watched police intensely searched a man for dangerous weapons or something. He didn't have any, and they pushed him along. The police, however, allowed me to keep taking pictures uninhibited.

I spoke to two local reporters were roughed up by the peace officers.

"We were in the circle, and they asked us to leave," explained Jeff Shaw, a City Pages web editor. "I showed them my press pass, and they told me that I had to leave the circle. I told them that this is a public street. I got shoved, and I fell down. The next thing I had three to four cops were shoving (me), and one cop was shoving me with his billy club. Then I got throw out of the circle."

"I kept saying that I was a member of the media and not a protester, but they kept shoving me around," continued Shaw.

Andy Mannix, an intern at City Pages, got maced. "One guy told me to get down (on the ground), and I put my hands behind my head. They started macing me from behind and at the side of my head and face, and told me to get the f*** up. He helped me get up by grabbing my body and hoisted me."

"We didn't nothing to provoke them," says Shaw. "We repeatedly said that we are not resisting and just doing our job."

While McCain spoke of change, and balloons and streamers dropped from the ceiling, was he and the GOP convention goers aware of what was happening outside? Did they really cared during the coronation of their king?

"It is not fair to me," said a 27-year-old mother of two, who only wanted to get to her night job at the "CNN Grill," a restaurant that the cable news company temporary took over for the convention. The police would not allow her to cross their human barrier to continue to work, despite holding a special pass, given out to employees who work at businesses near the convention site.

"The rude-ass police told me that he didn't give a damn what pass I got," she said. "I am not going to be able to cross over until the protesting is down. They (are) missing with my money. I got food and bills to fu**ing pay. They can protest all they want - I just want to get to work."

She soon turned around and walked to the bus line to go back home.

"I've been trying to get to my car for over three hours," adds a 44-year-old man, who works in the area, but unfortunately parked in a garage across the bridge, which was blocked by police. "I was supposed to pick up my son from day care but I had to call my sister to go pick him up.

"There are a lot of people down here who don't have nothing to do with this," he says of the protesting. "It is a mess." As he pointed across the street, "There are people on that side that needs to get over to this side. I have been looking for an escape route but there isn't any. They got all the bridges closed off."

There was good news from all of this -- the GOP convention is now history, and perhaps things around downtown St. Paul and the capitol area will soon return to some sort of normalcy.

"Thank God," the man and the woman both said in unison.

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