RNC 2008 Arrest Pt 1.
By Jared Paul | September 12, 2008
On September 1st, 2008 I attended the Labor Day anti-war protest in St. Paul with a couple friends. It was supposed to be the first full day of the 2008 Republican National Convention, and I was there working on a story for a quarterly publication in Providence called The Agenda. I was also there as a concerned citizen interested in learning about the Convention from a first hand perspective. Both the rally and the march from the Capitol to the Excel Center, and back, were a resounding success with over a hundred different coalitions participating (nearly 20,000 people altogether.) There were a lot of riot cops and military barricades downtown but I witnessed no aggression at all from the march. We were a peaceful and highly energetic group of citizens assembling to protest the Iraq War and the Republican Party's orchestration, execution, and prolonged continuation of it. After the march, my friends and I headed off in an inspired, joyous mood. Hopeful, motivated, and completely oblivious to the absolute shit storm of police misconduct headed directly for us.
The next big event of the day was the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U.) benefit at the Harriet Island Pavilion. Billy Bragg, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, Atmosphere, and Mos Def were all playing. It was a couple miles from where we were, but definitely walk-able. Riot police were blocking off certain streets and bridges down town on the most direct route to the show, so we tried our best to find an alternate route. Twenty minutes we later found ourselves in a nice little park right across the river from Harriet Island. The Mississippi stood between us and the high wall of the Pavilion which blocked any view of the concert, but we could hear it all very clearly. Tom Morello was on-stage wrapping up the Night Watchman set, followed by a representative from Iraq Veterans Against the War, and then Atmosphere began. I heard Slug's voice through the sound system and a huge smile washed over my face. We took off south bound along the path of the river park, eager to find our way to the concert and catch as much of the set as possible.
None of us knew the area but there was a large bridge in the distance and we could see people walking across. On the way toward it we came across pockets of disgruntled fans saying that the bridge was being blocked by cops and no one could get across. We kept walking in hopes of getting a concrete answer or finding another way around, but the pattern continued and more and more rejected would be show-goers (as well as protesters), were coming toward us. Suddenly, my eyes fixed on what they were all walking away from: an enormous line of storm trooper looking riot police and what looked like National Guardsmen, in full army gear, had blocked the entire width of the road and were advancing steadily toward us like one long plow blade. There were hundreds of them, some with gas masks, some on bikes, and many holding new age weapons I had never seen before.
Helicopter blades could now be heard slicing through the air high above us and I got a very tingly, surreal end of the world feeling. Like life had suddenly become a scene from 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead, complete with scary police state soldiers, droves of panicking civilians, and live Atmosphere songs for the soundtrack. People started moving away very quickly. The militarized lines of officers came to a halt and then fanned out, blocking anyone from leaving by any of the roads at the southerly end of the block. One brave kid had a video camera and was hippy dancing about 20 feet in front of them. He reminded me of a little bird I had once seen in a storybook eating popcorn off a crocodile's nose. My friends and I agreed that it was time to pack up our wagons and get the fuck out of Dodge.
Heading quickly in the opposite direction we began to hear frightened voices shouting the same thing in front of us, "We're trapped, we're trapped… They're not letting anybody out!" People looked visibly shaken. I'd seen a similar scenario at the RNC in 2004 when the NYPD got the order from up on High to just scoop up whole crowds of people and fence them in with thick orange construction site webbing, like one big butterfly net, before spiriting them off to pre-arranged warehouse facilities; protesters, shoppers, journalists, senior citizens, legal observers, and anyone in the path of their directive. I didn't think St. Paul would be employing those same abuses on the first day of this Convention, and certainly not so far away from any march or actual event. I wasn't sure if they had locked everyone in the park yet or not but I knew that they could if they wanted to, and that if this was turning into that type of situation then we had very little time to evacuate before the clamp down.
We sprinted from the road back into the park and through the forming crowds of confused people. Sure enough there was a line of dozens of bike cops using their bicycles as a blockade. Their line ran through the small park up to the road where another massive line of riot cops had closed in from the opposite end of the block and locked down the street. The perimeter was secure and a lot of people, anywhere from 100 to 200+, were now detained and being held against their will without an official charge or order to disperse. No acknowledgment from the police at all. They wouldn't explain, they wouldn't answer questions, they hardly even looked at us.
More riot police arrived 5-10 minutes later, advancing vertically into the street running parallel to the park and the river. We were now penned in by men in black; facing us down from the road as well as the south and north ends of the park. The river behind us had five coast guard boats with machine guns on the hull. Armed guards semi-circled the park from the water. People were terrified. It looked as though they could open fire on us at any moment. I threw my hands in the air and let out a sick little chuckle. At the very least, we were all about to get taken into custody and spend an indefinite amount of days in jail for doing absolutely nothing…and there wasn't a damn thing any of us could do about it.
The riot cops looked grim as storm crows in a cemetery, glaring from their lines, walking quickly here and there, and seemingly making all kinds of plans. Something was happening. We weren't quite sure what yet, but there was definitely a whole separate game being played above our heads and it didn't look good. Glancing around we saw that there were all different types of people in the park; young kids who had been there just listening to the concert like us, some very stunned looking college students, a group of middle aged women, protesters, and more. Some people were still wandering around asking to be let out, but many just sat down on the ground. There was a teenage girl next to us shaking and sniffling with tears running down her face. I leaned over and said, "Hi, my name's Jared. I want you to know that you're doing just fine. Don't let these bastards see you cry. We didn't do anything wrong so let's not give them the satisfaction." She forced a crooked but brave smile.
People were now passing around black magic markers and writing down the number for a volunteer legal collective that made its services available to anybody attending the RNC. Numbers were being scrawled wildly across the inside of forearms, stomachs, shins, and thighs. The sky took on an odd rusty grey tinge that made me think of Ray Bradbury's lightening rod salesman: "Something wicked this way comes…" Trying to keep a clear head and needing to stay busy, I got out my cell phone and called the number for the legal collective (now tagged on my inner thigh) and the Minnesota ACLU. I gave them all my information and as many details about the situation as I could.
As if most of the people in the crowd weren't terrified enough, a menacing sterile voice came over a megaphone instructing everyone to sit down and place their hands on their heads. No real explanation as to what was going on, no details at all in fact, just stone military directives. The riot cops then sent in commando-like squads through the different pockets of people and singling out particular individuals. Going from group to group, they'd point out a person and then scream for everyone around that person to move back. Then they'd roughly push them forward, cinch their wrists with zip ties as tight as they'd go, and haul them off. Every fifth officer or so was carrying a black rifle. It didn't look like it shot regular bullets, but it shot something. I didn't like the way the men who carried them were clutching the grips so tightly. They looked like they were practicing for a Bruce Willis movie. One boy refused to acknowledge his captors when he was chosen out of a cluster of kids 20 ft in front of us. The aggressive cop, leading this particular incursion, screamed for the kid to put his hands on his head. When he still didn't move the cop pulled out his bottle of pepper spray.
Whether he was really going to give him the juice or just threaten him, we never got to see. The officer's hands were shaking so badly that he dropped the bottle on the ground. Other cops rushed in. The commotion prevented me from seeing what was going on, but people throughout the crowd started screaming "Put down the gun!!" "Let him go!!" Could the officer really have pulled out his firearm? As if the unarmed boy, who was already on the ground and surrounded (not only by the 8 heavily armed grown men in front of him but also by the hundreds of other cops surrounding the park) was somehow going to snatch the bottle from the ground and harm them? From what I could tell the boy never even looked up. I don't know if he saw what was pointed at him, but the young officer's face went white as a ghost. He quickly re-holstered whatever he was holding, retrieved the pepper spray from the ground, and then kept it trained on the boy's face as the other officers bent both arms back, zip tied his wrists and then carried him off. The crowd cheered for the first time in awhile. I wondered how we'd fair when the Kevlar vested, futuristic weapon wielding hang men came for us. Atmosphere's set was almost done and, fittingly, they were playing the acoustic, more somber version of Not Another Day:
"Whoaaa-ohhhh… Not another day… Not another day of the same old song, c'mon…"
The haunting tone drifted across the muddy swirls of the Mississippi, perfectly encapsulating the moment. The whole damn thing was so surreal. There were thousands of anti-war and labor movement people less than a mile away and we could hear them cheering after each song, but they had no idea what was happening. One got the sense that if we could only reach them, swarms of war resistors would come teaming over the hill at any moment, fording the river in home made rafts. Normally, I would have had Slug's number with me, and if my phone hadn't died (erasing my entire phone book only days before) then I would have called him. It would've been embarrassing, but I would've done it anyway. Maybe he would've picked up and maybe he wouldn't have, but it was all I could think about. Slug from stage: "Ladies and Gentlemen, excuse me for a second, I've gotta take this one. Jared? I'm in the middle of my set, this better be good…"
"Yeah man it's good alright, I'm right across the river with about 200 other people, most of whom wanted to get to the show. We're completely surrounded by more cops than I can count. They corralled us all into this park down on Shepard Road and now they're hauling everyone off one by one, can you all make some noise for us? Just so that we know this isn't all happening in a vacuum? We're isolated down here by the water, the legal observers haven't arrived yet, and there's not too much media either."
After the special selections were all successfully profiled and extracted, they came for the rest of us. Officers (3 at a time) would run up to a group of people and drag somebody off; wrists bound behind them, and forced to walk backwards. It was odd because they were made to walk that way. You got to see the person's face as they were taken, trying to decide whether or not they'd get in trouble for looking back at their friends and concentrating on their footing so they wouldn't fall. My group of friends tried keeping the spirits high. They seemed to be doing better than I was. Getting arrested for something you believe in, at a peaceful event you care deeply about is one thing. Mass arbitrary arrest while sitting in a park listening to music, unexpectedly, unprepared, and with the whole week long convention still to report on is another.
Finally it was our turn and the urban military officers, wearing nearly $10,000 in futuristic gear each, rode down on us. It was like having your number called after an hour of watching a long line of people get kicked out of an airplane before you. Now here we were, stepping to the edge of the exit hatch staring down an angry jump Sergeant, ready or not; hopefully our chutes would open and everyone in the park would land safely on the ground. Amen. My arresting officer was a large, angry man with dark sunglasses and a grating voice: "You gonna give me any trouble? Let me tell you something, I don't like assholes who give me trouble; If you give me any shit you're going to have a bad day, you understand me? I can make this very hard for you…"
"Officer, I have no intention of giving you any trouble. I believe this is an unlawful arrest, and I'll be contacting my lawyer as soon as I'm allowed to use a phone, but I respect you, and I won't be a problem."
Atmosphere was done and Mos Def was on stage now; the soundtrack for our mass arrest continued as they went through everyone's pockets and wallets, threw personal effects on the ground, and split our property up in different bags to be shipped off to god knows where. After waiting in cue for nearly 20 minutes, I was taken behind a truck for a photo. A field station was set up, and shots were being taken of all the people dragged out of the park while the officer held up some document or another. I believe it was here that I learned that I, and many others, were being charged with "Felony-Riot," which I'll admit sounded pretty bad ass in a Cool Hand Luke sort of way, but a Felony is an extremely serious charge and I hadn't done anything but listen to music by the river. It felt markedly less romantic than it looks now in text.
I smiled for the photo and when I did, one of the cops standing around made a condescending comment about me acting like everything was a joke, and I was like: "Look, I know I'm not supposed to be talking, but what do you want from me? If I scowl into the camera with handcuffs on then I look like a criminal. If I look scared then you're gonna act like I'm making a big deal out of nothing. Either way, if this photo ever gets out it'll be easier on my Mom if I'm smiling in the picture and don't look hurt." He cocked his head slightly to the side and gave me the funniest look before walking away. I had no idea what he thought, I was too busy imagining him in wrist ties held down by big armed guards while I snapped photo after photo inches from his face asking him to smile.
By this point, there were on ton of press and many legal observers on the scene. I saw them on the other side of the police line as the
2008 RNC Magical Mystery Tour continued, like a conveyor belt to the next station. We were led onto a large city bus with only a few open seats remaining, so I had to sit up close to the driver and the cops. Awesome. There were only two officers on board and it seemed like people had been waiting a long time. My friend Zach, who I was previously separated from, was on the bus! God it felt good to see him: "You good?" "Yep, you?" "Alright so far, I can't believe this is happening…" "I know." I wasn't seated more than 10 minutes before everyone on board started singing in unison. It was slow at first, but then everybody started in, loud and fearless. We made it part or all the way through Johnny Cash- Folsam Prison Blues, Bob Dylan-Like A Rolling Stone, The Beatles-Hey Jude, Bob Marley-Everything's Gonna Be Alright, and many others. It was quite impressive actually, but the best was absolutely yet to come.
In a very Simple Twist of Fate type of way, the ageless, mirrored lathe of the cosmos turned in on itself. The ironic force of sheer ridiculousness that dictates the ebb and flow of the Universe, every atom comprising its vast and incalculable quilt of Coincidences and Contradictions, somehow saw it fit that our bus (filled with the first 50 out of 200+ unlawfully arrested U.S. citizens) rolled out just as a boisterous and exalted rendition of The National Anthem caught fire. "Ohhhh SAY, CAN YOU SEE…?" And in that moment, it felt as though an entire life time of witnessing, dealing with, and attempting to adjust to the endless injustice and hypocrisy of America rose in one collective swell. It poured like thunder from the dark mountains in our hearts, reaching out for every jail cell, detention center, and prison camp on Earth. I didn't even know I knew all the words to that song. I don't know if any of us did, but the lyrics were just there.
Ours was the first bus to leave, and as we passed, flash bulbs sparked with reporters rushing to get photos of the commandeered public transport filled with singing prisoners. Officers detaining the last of the poor souls extracted from the park, talked to other cops, or just plain stood around all paused for our Anthem. Some shook their heads in disgust. Others stood slack jawed and stunned, seemingly unable to process what was going on. "Hey Stevens!? Is that really a bus full of asshole protestors singing the National Anthem? Jesus it sounds like they really mean it…"
Goddamn right we did. Not in any ugly, pride bloated, nationalistic sense. And not just to give voice to the sheer irony of innocent people singing an anthem of freedom while in the process of being illegally detained. But in the"having a badge, waving a flag, or misinterpreting your astronomically fortunate luck at just happening to be born within the legal borders of The Most Chosen nation on the planet, as some sort of divine endowment or indicator of personal value, does not make you even a single drop more American than us" kind of way.
The crowd building outside of the police perimeter gave us a resounding ovation and we rode out like patriots; unapologetic, unbowed, and unbroken. Singing for strength, and taking heart in the sound of each others voices, like the kidnapped, shackled, and wrongfully imprisoned have always done since the beginning of time.