In a Week of Police Brutality and Mass Arrests, While the Poor People March for Their Lives, the Spotlight Shines on Sarah Palin
The list of offences against people and democracy and media in St. Paul during the week of the Republican National Convention is staggering. These have been reported extensively by independent and grass-roots media, but here is a brief and hopefully representative sampling:
Amy Goodman and two Democracy Now! producers were arrested for covering the protests on Monday, September 1st. The two producers were bloodied by police, and are now facing felony charges. On Thursday, Sharif Abdel Kouddous of Democracy Now! was arrested a second time, along with Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films.
The rented home of five youths, who were hosting 23 of their friends, was raided by some 25 police in riot gear, who refused all requests to show a warrant until after the people had been made to lie face-down for 45 minutes. Computers and other personal items were seized, and intimidating statements about “the Executioner” and “the Terminator” were made by police.
An estimated 800 people were arrested as of Thursday. The police used tear gas, nightsticks, flash grenades, and other weapons against protesters. Video footage is widely available on the internet.
But the big story this week has not been the repressive and brutal antics of police against dissidents and journalists in St. Paul. No, rather it has been the ascent of Sarah Palin from relative isolation and obscurity in Alaska to her position as the Vice Presidential nominee of Senator John McCain.
A Personal Digression Necessary to the Development of This Essay
It’s been an odd week for me. I work quietly, a bookseller bookworm on the fringes of a university town. I like quiet, I like nature, and I like freedom. Because of the first two things I like, I did not consider traveling to St. Paul to protest. But reading the reports coming in through the internet, my electronic window to a speeded-up, unnatural, and sometimes overwhelming world, I’ve at times wished I was there—you know, because of my fondness for that third thing I listed: freedom.
The candidates and delegates at the Republican National Convention do not stand for freedom. The police being willfully employed to threaten, intimidate, harass, beat, and arrest people who are not walking the Republican Party line in St. Paul are not the defenders of freedom. To call them freedom’s executioners would be melodramatic, but perhaps more appropriate.
Fear and the Need for Order
At the heart, if we may call it that, of the official gathering of candidates, delegates, party affiliates, and law enforcement in St. Paul is a severe illness, a bad malady that has been festering not so much in the individuals themselves, but in the spirit of a people separated from nature, from community, a people so frightened of the Other—even within their own country and even within the security and riches of their party’s convention!—that they take the kind of draconian measures we have seen this week in order to prevent any disruption of the play they are enacting, any obstacles set in front of the lumbering political machine that they are trying to commandeer and salvage.
One wonders what these people have to be so afraid of. The obvious and official answer, as we all know, because it has been used to bludgeon our senses and sense of identity endlessly over the past seven years, is terrorism. And indeed domestic terrorism in the fabricated threat that has been produced as the official reason for the squelching of people’s freedom—freedom to move, to be, to speak, to dissent—over the past week at the RNC in St. Paul.
The terrorism charges stem from police infiltration of the Republican National Convention Welcoming Committee. Using the infiltrators as informants, police created a pretext of a suspicion of domestic terrorism, and also the charge “conspiracy to riot”, to raid homes, places of assembly, as well as to justify the very aggressive street actions of riot squads armed with submachine guns, tasers, and chemical weapons. It should be noted that information provided by informants should be considered highly suspect, given the precedent of COINTELPRO and other covert actions where infiltrating agents have been known to actively promote violent ideas for action–or as the quote form wikipedia has it, “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections”–which are then used in charges against individuals involved with the organization. For this reason, information about how the Welcoming Committee planned to kidnap delegates, or use Molotov cocktails, caltrops, bricks, etcetera, as reported to the public by the Pioneer Press, should be critically assessed and not taken for fact or at face value.
What is Really Happening in the Hearts of People and On the Streets
The RNC Welcoming Committee describes itself on its website as an anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizing body. Unfortunately, for many people the label “anarchist” immediately brings to mind violence: homemade bombs, property destruction, people wearing black kerchiefs to conceal their faces, showing nothing but their anti-social, shifty eyes, and the like. And certainly it cannot be denied that anarchists have a history in America that includes violence. Two things should be noted, however.
First, anarchism is a broad, general term that can be used to describe any number of idiosyncratic ideologies. As a general term, anarchy can be understood to mean, “absence of government,” and recognized as coming from the Greek anarchos, which is defined as “having no ruler.” Simply put, the broadest generalization that can be made about anarchists is that they believe that a society can function without government. Some anarchists may subscribe to violent tactics and want to overthrow existing power structures, or more likely wish to engage in physical destruction of those power structures or their symbols; many others may be dedicated pacifists.
The second point to make in terms of the perception of anarchists as violent is that anarchists by no means have a monopoly on violence. Indeed, the entire American culture is violent: one simply needs to look at the current wars being fought by the American government, or look even at the excessive police action in St. Paul. For those inclined to look deeper, a strong argument can be made for the roots of aggressive violence in this country stretching far back in time, back to English witch-hunts, Spanish conquistadors, to Puritans and frontier cowboys fighting Indians, and—why not?—to the Revolutionary War. If anarchists are violent, they are pathetically so, often like an angry child lashing out at a parent: a bomb here, some property damage there, all embedded quite snugly in the greater imperial and yes, racist violence of the Euro-American legacy.
Sherri Honkala, a speaker at the Poor People’s March for Our Lives, which is an entirely different movement than the RNC Welcoming Committee, responded to criticisms and fears that were expressed to her that the “anarchists” would cause trouble for her movement:
“It wasn’t the anarchists four years ago or eight years ago,” she said, using a megaphone to address a large crowd, a crowd which was hemmed in by police in riot gear and with submachine guns and other instruments of violence. “It was the police department.” She continued, “I don’t give a damn if you’re an anarchist, democrat, or republican, or whatever your political ideas are. All I know is that I’m going to march today with people who have a similar vision of a different kind of world for us to live in.”
Also standing and marching with the Poor People’s March was a prominent member of the Mississippi Band of the Anishinabe Nation, Nee-Gon-Nway-Wee-Dung (Thunder Before the Storm, also known as Clyde Bellecourt), who founded the American Indian Movement in 1968. He spoke the following to the camera crews of Big Noise Films: “I’m here to stand up to this George Armstrong Custer Bush frontier mentality and John Wayne, John Wayne McCain frontier mentality that exists in America today.”
While indy journalists were filming from inside the protests—some of them being arrested for doing so—Fox News was embedded with the Minneapolis Police.
One protestor marched along in the crowd, shooing the police away with his hands and the following words: “Take your guns and go home! Bye! Take your armor and go home! Bye! Bye!” The protesters, chanting “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!” pushed the line of police back with only the movement of so many bodies.
The march ended with Sherri Honkala speaking through a megaphone and through a chain-link fence, through lines of police, delivering the following speech to the walls of the Xcel Center, where the RNC was assembled:
“People are dying here in Minnesota and across the country. They don’t have access to health care. They join wars. They go overseas and poor people kill other poor people just so they can have a job! I just want to practice my first amendment rights to speak out and I can’t do that behind a cage! I’m not going to hurt anybody, I just want to talk to somebody. I’m just going to deliver the citizen’s arrest through the fence. Please don’t kill me for that! It’s a piece of paper and an American flag. The whole world is watching.”
After her speech, she shoved an American flag and a citizen’s arrest for the people inside the Xcel Center, a piece of paper charging them with crimes against humanity, under the fence. The police then ordered the assembly to disperse. After the order, they opened fire with tear gas and flash grenades. They infiltrated the now chaotic crowd of protestors with tasers and shields and batons, and made arrests.
Inside the Xcel center, the convention went on.