Marching on the RNC

Ashley Smith and Eric Ruder report from St. Paul on protests against the Republican convention--and the authorities' heavy-handed response.

Thousands of protesters march on the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (Eric Ruder | SW)Thousands of protesters march on the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (Eric Ruder | SW)

ON A steamy summer day as the Republican National Convention got underway, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of St. Paul, Minn., to protest, calling for an end to the war in Iraq, among many other issues.

After gathering to hear speakers outside the State Capitol building, protesters assembled into a huge column that marched past the Xcel Energy Center, where Republican convention delegates were gathered for the first day of a scaled-back convention as Hurricane Gustav thrashed the Gulf Coast.

The crowd of at least 20,000--march organizers estimated the crowd at as many as 50,000--was made up of antiwar activists, veterans and military families, students, immigrant rights supporters, unionists, welfare rights activists and many more. Protesters carried handmade signs, some wore "Make out, not war" stickers and Obama T-shirts, and everyone relied on a great deal of sunscreen to fend off the midday sun and 90-plus degree temperatures.

The turnout was in defiance of heavy-handed repression and intimidation by police, who carried out eight or more preemptive raids and roughly 100 arrests in the days leading up to the march, thus filling the media with warnings about "violence and chaos" that "anarchist" protesters planned to unleash.

On the day of the march, police arrested journalist Amy Goodman and two members of her Democracy Now! crew. Though they were released before the night was out, Goodman was charged with obstruction, and the crew members face felony riot charges.

Police also harassed and detained a guest, an associate member and other activists at the Veterans for Peace (VFP) and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) conventions. Kevin James, aka Son of Nun, was racially profiled and threatened with arrest before being released without any charges after protests by activists on the scene.

"One of the things that's particularly upsetting is that these actions are intimidating people who want to participate in changing our society for the better," said Michael McPhearson, executive director of the VFP. "Isn't that the right that I and other veterans served to protect? Now our government is suppressing that vital democratic right."

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RETIRED COL. Ann Wright, who resigned from a diplomatic post at the State Department in protest over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was one of a 100-plus contingent of marchers representing VFP and Military Families Speak Out.

"I'm here to be a part of this large demonstration for peace in our country, to stop wars of aggression, to stop torture and eavesdropping, and to put pressure on the Republican Party, just as we did in Denver to pressure the Democratic Party," said Wright. "We want these wars to end, we want our constitution back, and we want accountability for elected officials for illegal acts that they have committed. In the end, it doesn't matter who gets to be president--we have to be right there hounding the hell out of them to get wars stopped, close Guantánamo, repeal the No Child Left Behind Act, and the list goes on."

Jorge Martinez, an immigrant rights activist from Wisconsin, echoed Wright's sentiment that those who want and expect change from this election will have to keep up organizing efforts, no matter who wins on November 4.

"We are here to fight for our rights, stop deportations and stop the raids," said Martinez. "Let's face the problem, and let's come out with real immigration reform. We don't have to wait for the election. We are suffering today. We are dying today. Why do we have to wait for tomorrow? We have to act and demonstrate today for our rights, and continue to fight until we have real immigration reform."

Bill Means, a longstanding member of the American Indian Movement and participant in the 1973 standoff between activists and federal agents at Wounded Knee, S.D., marched with a lead banner that read, "U.S. out of Iraq! Money for human needs, not for war!"

"We represent the human rights issues for indigenous people," said Means, who is also a Vietnam veteran. "The main issue for us is peace, stopping the war. That is the number one issue. Secondly, the Iraqi people are the Indian people of the 18th century. Thirdly, we want to bring a message of unity for the issue of migration, which many people call immigration. But all people throughout the world in historical times have traveled to make a better life for their people, for their relatives, for their community."

In contrast to Means, a veteran activist with decades of experience, Jennifer Prettyman-Hall and her son Wade were both first-time protesters. "We're out here today because we're tired of this administration," she said. "We don't want another four years with McCain. We need this war to end. We need the economy to get better. We need jobs. We need improvement in health care--all of these things that Republicans are not going to give us.

"I want the next administration to turn around everything that this last administration has done. We have to stand up and fight against everything that's wrong with this country. This demonstration is really amazing."

Patti McCann, a Chicago member of IVAW, started her day of protest even before most demonstrators had arrived, marching in formation with 60 other IVAW members from the State Capitol to deliver a letter to John McCain, calling on him to withdraw the troops and provide adequate health services to veterans and active-duty troops.

After negotiating with police, IVAW member Wes Davey was allowed through the security perimeter to request an audience with a representative of the McCain campaign. Davey returned after several minutes to report that the McCain campaign refused to send a representative to accept IVAW's letter.

"I want to hold people accountable for the war, the hurricane and the war at home," explained McCann. "I want to see money for education. In Chicago, I see students I know who end up joining the military to fight this war in order to get an education."

"I want an end to this war budget for Iraq and Afghanistan," McCann continued. "I want to see New Orleans rebuilt. I feel the last eight years have totally wrecked all of my dreams. I want to see a better world come out of this election. I think we have to keep fighting whoever wins--definitely McCain, but if Obama wins, we can't let him forget the important stuff. Remember, he's still a politician and will sneak stuff past us."

Brenda Washington, an African American member of SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West, explained that working people have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the war on Iraq.

"We have to do what Americans have done from the beginning of our revolution from England: march on Washington and demand that we the people who pay your salary, which you waste on wars and everything else--it's time that you give us our money back in our health care and other things we need," Washington said.

"We have to let corporations know that it's a lie that they don't have money, because we're the worker bees, and they couldn't have those million-dollar bonuses without the worker bees. No corporation can profit if you have nobody doing the production. You think you can give an executive a $10 million bonus? Well, guess what. Nine million of that 10 million should go back to the working people of America."

Patrick Fingerson, a student at the University of Minnesota, explained that he was marching against the war, but against many other injustices as well.

"Look at my sign--it's about the GOP--the 'Gigantic Oil Profits' and 'Gouge Ordinary People,'" said Fingerson. "I don't like the way we're giving tax breaks to the companies that need it the least. I want to see a president who actually seems to care about normal people, not just the people who have tons of money and who can contribute to campaigns. We need to hold these politicians who do get elected accountable to what they promised."