ST. PAUL—Schennile Hytower was waiting for her number 67 bus to go to work. It would carry her out to the airport where she manages one of the restaurants. A Michigan transplant, she has been in St. Paul for over a year now, “It’s a nice place,” she says as she boards the bus towards downtown. “I also have mixed feelings, but there’s more work here,” says Hytower on, Labor Day. She’ll have to change buses there to get to her airport job.
And what about the Republican National Convention (RNC)? “My main annoyance is that everything will be blocked off downtown.” Hytower looks out the window as a middle-aged man with a couple of teenagers, all sporting ‘Obama ‘08’ t-shirts, board the bus. “I don’t have any real concerns except for the protesters getting out of hand.” Did you see Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night? “I thought it was awesome,” a smile creeps past her intense brown, almost wary eyes. She immediately adds, “I thought Hillary was very good. I saw a lot of unity, a lot of support for Obama.”
Others board the bus and the mood is becoming almost jovial. Two women get on and see the family of Obama-istas and one of them shouts, “I wonder where you are going…yeah!,” as she finds her seat in the back of the bus. Her name is Paula Schroeder and she is heading to the state capitol building to be a part of a long-planned rally and march. Schroeder, from St. Paul, works as a pet groomer. She says she’s protesting because she is in “opposition to this administration…everything they have done in the areas of human rights, woman’s rights, environmental rights, peace policy.” She adds, “Even the Reagan administration initiated more peace efforts than this one.”
Did you watch any of the DNC coverage? “Clinton was great and Obama was brilliant.” The bus comes to a halt across from a magnificent green lawn, which leads up to the capitol steps where others are readying a makeshift stage. As Schroeder and her partner descend the bus stairs she turns back and almost philosophically says, “We have a lot of single issue people…they’ve instilled a lot of fear in people.”
The capitol is wrapped in hazy sunshine, temperatures already reaching into the high 80’s. Thousands can be seen streaming onto the grassy field coming off city buses, school buses, and vans. Groups have even arrived from the recent rather somber and controlled protests in Denver. But this protest is already shaping up to be anything but somber. Dozens of homemade signs are displayed, mostly aimed at stopping the war and bringing troops home “now.”
The ‘Coalition to March on the RNC’ was months in the making, planning, and filing of law suits—3—against the City of St. Paul for better access to the actual convention site itself. The coalition is made up of national peace and anti-war organizations like United for Peace and Justice, Answer, and Troops out Now,” according to Coalition spokesperson Meredith Aby. The main issue for the rallyers? “We want the war to end, troops to come home now and to fund human needs not war,” says Aby, obviously harried, wanted by other media to do more interviews. With the RNC immobilized by Hurricane Gustav, many more reporters than might normally be here are present to cover this march. Certainly the one large march in Denver was barely covered, but the national media is definitely at this St. Paul event, even checking into the media tent and receiving credentials. “Our government continues to prioritize killing people in other countries rather than taking care of people in this country,” says Aby as if reading from a script. Why is it so many more protesters are here in St. Paul than Denver? “It’s harder to rally people [against Obama] rather than against an administration that is conducting a war.”
As the rally part of the rally-march begins this reporter casually walks along the parade route in search of what awaits protesters, as they will get closer to the site of the convention. Down Cedar Street from the state capitol, and across the mighty Mississippi River which has its origins here in the Twin Cities, right on 7th Street towards the convention site, the Xcel Center, and then turning around before running into W. Kellogg Blvd. and marching back to the capitol along the same route. Riot clad police in groups of 10 or 12 were overheard being given final instructions. They were present on every block, presumably preparing for the marchers.
None of these heavily armed men—no women were seen present as in Denver—would speak to a reporter and not one of their badges of identification was visible. Yes, these were ominous-looking individuals, obviously wanting to appear intimidating. And it was working. The few pedestrians present on this the first day of the RNC could be seen scurrying around the hard-shelled cops. A carefree mood it was not. Police have been called in, backed by National Guard troops, from all over the state and even cops from as far away as Arlington, Texas, who were seen paired with local Minnesota traffic officers stationed on many downtown street corners.
Thomas Davis is a retired high school history teacher and third generation Democrat from Toledo, Ohio. This is his third Republican convention and he is here for one reason only, to collect political buttons. He says he cut his button-collecting teeth in Detroit in 1980—“when Reagan got the nomination”—and Philadelphia in 2000. He is adamant that St. Paul is not fully capitalizing on this opportunity of hosting a national convention. “St. Paul blew it! Where’s the ‘Welcome Republicans’ streamers hanging off the light poles,” he points up and motions his index finger in a circle above his head. “I don’t see any great outpouring of enthusiasm.” And while this is true, unlike Denver, the city of St. Paul has not provided much pomp and circumstance for Republicans. The delegates and supporters themselves have been rather subdued as evidenced in interviews on the street and inside the convention hall. In addition, nominee John McCain has also called on delegates to tone it down in the face of a hurricane baring down on the Gulf region. For the record too, St. Paul’s mayor is Chris Coleman a “DFL-er” (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, former Sen. Hubert Humphrey was instrumental in the merging of the Democratic and Farmer and Labor parties in 1944), is arguably a progressive one too. The mayor’s web site touts education, livable neighborhoods, and the “Sustainable St. Paul Initiative” as his priorities. Coleman was also a Hillary Clinton supporter in the primary.
The march arrived downtown almost on schedule, around 1:30pm, and it kept coming and coming and coming. With seemingly no end in sight the large contingent, marching 7 or 8 abreast, kept the police occupied throughout the day. Most of the estimated 10,000 (police) to 30,000 (organizers) marchers were vocal, peaceful, and at times playful. There were groups of break-away marchers, many dressed in black, bandanas covering their faces, playing cat and mouse games with the authorities. Police shot tear gas into several of these groups. Although the show of force on the part of the police was massive they still had their hands full. It wasn’t Denver.
As their numbers increased, protesters became free to move around as the security apparatus focused more on breakaway marchers who smashed windows (Macy’s Department Store and First National Bank were but two locations) and blocked traffic. It seemed that so many police had been deployed in a ring around the convention hall itself that police were finding themselves overwhelmed by the large number of protesters. The protest fell considerably short of the 50,000 that organizers said would be coming.
The day ended with over 300 arrests including nationally known journalist, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. She was released shortly after her arrest, according to her web site. [See story by Marjorie Cohn below.]People interviewed from St. Paul said they had never before seen this many protesters or this many police in their city before.
With Gustav making landfall with less catastrophic effect than first expected, the RNC should continue tonight as scheduled from 3-9pm, although the speakers’ list is expected to be altered somewhat in order to accommodate those who did not speak Monday night. The protesters on the other hand, have a full week of activities planned: “Experience Guantanamo in St. Paul” display, “Substance RNC Music Festival,” “Bikers and Rollerbladers for Peace,” and another march is scheduled on Thursday the final day of the RNC.