Come one, come all, ye Republican protesterby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
The Republican National Convention in St. Paul has attracted the interest of protest groups across the country. The factions range from anti-war coalitions to conspiracy theorists who believe the U.S government had a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
While most groups are calling for peaceful demonstrations, a number of anarchists are hoping to derail the convention entirely. Their differences are causing interesting frictions within the activist community.
St. Paul, Minn. — The RNC protest contingent is a big tent. Some will be marching for welfare rights, others for peace.
"We're hoping to form maybe the largest human peace sign, which would be really cool," said Coleen Rowley, a former FBI whistle blower and one-time Democratic Congressional candidate.
Rowley and her husband are planning a huge "Peace Island Picnic" on Harriet Island, where they plan to fly "peace kites" and offer free music. Rowley says folk legend Joan Baez is considering an appearance.
Another protester, Ben Plunkett of River Falls, Wis., has reserved a number of downtown parks for his performance art. Plunkett is a part-time college student and Pierce County board supervisor who wants to legalize medical marijuna and raise awareness of military spending and human rights.
Plunkett and Rowley are thrilled about the national spotlight that will soon shine on St. Paul during the RNC September 1-4. They'll use the event to denounce Republican policies.
"We're trying to get the message out that we want to everyone to gear towards peace rather than the wars that we've been seeing," Rowley said.
But Rowley and Plunkett are not the kind of demonstrators who are making St. Paul police nervous.
In a legal briefing filed in federal court last week, the city spelled out security concerns ranging from terrorist attacks to mass chaos. The briefing was in response to a lawsuit filed by attorneys on behalf of the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, a group challenging the march route the city has assigned it. The briefing mentioned known anarchist groups that are planning to "shut down the RNC."
A clearinghouse for those resistance groups, the RNC Welcoming Committee, runs a Web site that makes no secret of plans to block off the Xcel Energy Center. The Web site says the anarchists are also hoping to immobilize delegate buses and block a number of Twin Cities bridges.
The city's briefing cited the riots that surrounded the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle nearly a decade ago to illustrate the mayhem that unheeded threats could result in.
The Web site for the RNC Welcoming Committee doesn't directly answer the question of whether the group's allies will resort to smashing windows during the convention. But the site says that private property, or the power it represents, "is often used to exclude groups or classes of people from the basic necessities of life." Therefore, the group says it can't condemn damage to downtown businesses.
The RNC Welcoming Committee typically doesn't grant phone interviews with the media and did not immediately respond to an email requesting an interview.
Despite their differences, some of the largest protest coalitions have signed a pact agreeing not to interfere with each other's demonstration plans or sow divisions within the activist community. The agreement also prohibits them from publicly denouncing other groups.
"I've met a few of them and to be honest, they're all very nice people and hardly capable of throwing bricks," said Andrew Hine, a member of the protest group True Blue Minnesota. "It's the people we don't know that are the ones to worry about."
Hine and his friends have chosen what they hope will be a more effective approach to delivering their anti-war message. They've arranged for a Jumbotron to display text, movies and even cartoons in a park near the Cathedral of St. Paul.
But Hine recalled attending one anti-war protest meeting, where he said an organizer gave those in attendance a "you're-either-with-us-or-you're-against-us" ultimatum. Hine says she mentioned by name Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom, who is overseeing convention security.
"They said the people who trust Matt Bostrom are not to be trusted," Hine said. "And clearly I was in that group. We met with Matt Bostrom and had a good talk and believed him."
Hine says at a time when most Americans oppose the war in Iraq, using destructive tactics to challenge the Bush administration seems like overkill.
Five groups have applied for permits to march through downtown St. Paul. So far, the city has granted two of those requests. The largest will be the anti-war march on Sept. 1, the first day of the convention. The following day, a so-called "poor people's march" will circle downtown.
Air Force veteran David Harris of Red Wing has applied for permit to march on the day before the convention. Rather than going with loud chants and bullhorns, Harris says his parade will be solemn. Participants will march with cardboard tombstone cut-outs bearing the pictures of dead soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
Harris, a 73-year-old retired surgeon, says his group plans to march straight up to the Xcel, beyond the point where police officers will allow them. He has notified the police of his plans for nonviolent civil disobedience.
"We hope it may touch the hearts of people who watch, rather than create the kinds of discord that don't seem to get anywhere these days," he said.
Harris has reached out to other protesters who have shared their plans of street blockades. He says he gets the sense that some of them are eager to throw rocks through a window.
"I went to a couple meetings and tried to talk to them about my ideas of nonviolence. I don't know if anybody listened or not," he said. "There's a lot of kids, mostly young people, who really want to express their anger and their outrage at the injustices they see."
Harris said the problem with damaging property is that it can escalate into something much worse, including injuries to people.
And he says that would defeat his message of peace.
While many of the protesters represent liberal causes, one group says it will put on a patriotic display to support the troops in Iraq.
Merrilee Carlson of Hastings, Minn., is with Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, which will share park space with Hine's group on Sept. 1. Carlson lost her son, Army Sgt. Michael Carlson, in Iraq. Merilee Carlson said she knows that antiwar protesters will be turning out en masse at the convention.
"Therefore, we feel we must do what we can to make sure our heroes who are over there, who are deployed and risking their lives for us, know that at least one group is willing to ... stand beside them," Carlson said.
The city has granted 16 permits to groups or individuals that have reserved parks to demonstrate -- or throw parties -- during the convention.
Another group, Scholars for 9/11 Truth, wants to march from the Capitol to the Xcel on Sept. 3. The group is part of a larger movement that questions the mainstream account of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"This was a crime scene that they hauled the debris away from. To haul it away was unconscionable," said Doug Devorak of Apple Valley, a member of the group. "They call us conspiracy nuts. Well, a conspiracy happens whenever you have two or more people. We're not nuts. We just want to take a scientific look at the facts."
Police say they'd like to accommodate every group's application to march during the RNC, but they may need to modify their requested routes because of security concerns. Sgt. John Lozoyza of the community services unit said his department will be meeting with the various groups to go over logistics, such as the need for staging areas and portable toilets.
- All Things Considered, 06/25/2008, 5:20 p.m.