Taking direct action in St. Paul

September 17, 2008

STREET BLOCKADES are a common form of nonviolent protest in Europe and Latin America, and over a dozen members of the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee (UIAC), a chapter of the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN), traveled to St. Paul, Minn., on September 1 to implement the tactic during a peace march on the first day of the Republican National Convention.

The results were mixed, but on the whole, moderately successful.

Twenty-two members of UIAC car-pooled together up to St. Paul, and 15 joined CAN's un-permitted "Mobile Blockade Brigade." CAN's direct action contingent, along with dozens of other affinity groups totaling between 800 and 1,000 people, attempted to shut down the RNC by blockading interstates, on/off ramps, bridges and other key intersections to prevent Republican delegates from entering the Xcel Center.

Our action was not a suppression of free speech, but an exercise in it. We were forced to listen to the Republicans for the last eight years. Now, it was time to force them to listen to us.

About 50 CAN members rendezvoused on the corner of 9th and Robert Streets, about a dozen blocks northeast of the Xcel Center and immediately swarmed into the intersection to seize it. Several members took yellow police "caution" tape from their bags and began wrapping it across the streets.

Traffic came to a standstill, and police began to arrive on the scene. Once the riot squads showed up, we took off for the most strategic intersection in our sector, 10th Street and Jackson, which held an on/off ramp for Interstate 35E. But we couldn't hold it for very long, because our nonviolent brigade was not equipped to deal with riot police armed with pepper-spray, teargas, tasers and rubber bullets.

The next three hours was like a game of cat-and-mouse. We seized intersections at random, halted traffic and then dispersed when the cops started forming lines to rush us. At one point, several people got out of their cars to give us high-fives. Once, we allowed an ambulance through our blockade on humanitarian grounds.

At one point, we doubled our numbers because random crews kept joining us--and we held one intersection for nearly 20 minutes because Slate magazine, MSNBC, CNN and dozens of other media outlets had swarmed into the intersection with us. The ensuing impromptu press conference allowed us to state our objections to militarism and war, articulate our vision of the peaceful world we wanted to see and keep the cops from kicking the crap out of us.

The police were almost as hostile towards the media as they were to us, but their assaults on the press were mostly limited to verbal onslaughts, with the exception of Amy Goodman and the Democracy Now! crew, who were arrested on bogus felony riot charges.

After we were forced off the I-35E ramp, we moved south on Jackson Street to Kellogg Boulevard, due east of the Xcel Center, where one of the six "loading zones" for the Republican delegates was located. A squad of bicycle cops successfully divided our lines, and our internal communication and coordination began to break down.

Things got ugly after CAN members began linking arms and standing in front of the delegate buses. Ten of our members were sprayed in the face with pepper spray, two were violently thrown to the ground by police officers, and one cop on a motorcycle drove right into our crew, hitting one person, who suffered minor injuries. Two of our members were arrested on misdemeanor charges and were later released.

Up the street, a "Funk the War" contingent of about 300 black-clad anarchists were having a dance party in the intersection of Kellogg and Wabasha. Police fired tear-gas into the crowd, and also used rubber bullets, Tasers and concussion grenades. Anarchists attempted to slow the police line by dragging newspaper bins, traffic signs, dumpsters and sandbags into the streets. Skirmishes between protesters and police were widespread by 4 p.m, when downtown St. Paul was clearly in the middle of a riot.

According to the Coldsnap Legal Collective, 256 people were arrested on Monday, 119 on felony riot charges. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people marched in the permitted peace march. Total arrests by Thursday, September 4, exceeded 800. Eight members of the RNC Welcoming Committee were arrested on conspiracy to commit terrorism charges the weekend before the protests began.

THE DIRECT-action blockades failed to shut down the first day of the conventions, but they should still be considered a moderate success for several reasons.

First, nearly 1,000 people engaged in a mass direct action, utilizing a diversity of tactics that projected a radical critique of the Republican agenda in a way that was not easily co-opted. We failed to shut down the Republican National Convention, but we still crashed the party.

Second, and more specifically, the CAN mobile blockade brigade was able to operate on the streets for over three hours and only suffered two arrests. Our tactical approach was confrontational, but nonviolent. Our methods clearly contributed to the overall effort and demonstrated that our model of direct action has potential for experimentation and growth.

The Campus Antiwar Network also mobilized a student and youth contingent in the permitted march and rally. The permitted CAN contingent marched with over 150 people, and we made dozens of new contacts and added over 40 new people to our e-mail lists. Our holistic, dual approach to organizing proves that there is space in CAN for all levels of engagement and participation.

These successes aside, much can still be done in the way of improvement.

Most members of CAN's Mobile Blockade Brigade lacked basic direct action skills such as marching in coordinated formation or utilizing soft and hard lockdown techniques to nonviolently hold space. More work can also be done to articulate political arguments in the mainstream and independent media spheres.

The Campus Antiwar Network's National Conference is currently scheduled for Chicago on October 10-12. This time should be used to hone our intellectual arguments and our street skills. A nuanced strategy that combines polite civil discourse with serious political disruption will contribute to CAN's overall growth and influence in the diverse movement we share with our brother and sister comrades across the country, and indeed, across the world.
David Goodner, Midwest coordinator, Campus Antiwar Network

Further Reading

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