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Massive peace rally under way, with numerous scattered clashes reported

By Cynthia Boyd and Joe KimballMonday, Sept. 1, 2008
Today’s protest march began peacefully, but within minutes, there were numerous reports of break-away protesters tangling with police and of pepper-spray responses.

Protesters and police squared off in mostly peaceful encounters.
MinnPost photo by John Camp
Protesters and police squared off in mostly peaceful encounters.

Below the steps of the Capitol in St. Paul, thousands gathered this morning to rally in protest of Republican policies and the party’s national convention.

The march, estimated by some at about 10,000, began peacefully, but within minutes, there were scattered reports of break-away protesters tangling with police and of pepper-spray responses. Numerous reports from participants and observers, some of them unconfirmed, are pouring in on Twitter messages.

Just before 4 p.m., there were still hot spots downtown.

A group of about 100 police in riot gear marched down Wabasha toward Kellogg Boulevard, where another large contingent of police was stationed.

Trouble at Wabasha Bridge, Federal Building

In the meantime, authorities, with the help of National Guard troops, took control of the Wabasha Bridge, to keep open in case of emergencies the key route between downtown and Harriet Island, where the annual Labor Day picnic and rally were being held. They stationed dump trucks at both ends of the bridge to stop car traffic, though bikers and pedestrians still were seen going through.

Meanwhile, down the street at the Federal Building at Jackson Street and Kellogg, another phalanx of officers was assembled. There, garbage cans and safety barriers had been overturned, and at least one person arrested.

By 2:45 p.m., St. Paul police were reporting the arrest of 13 protesters near Xcel Energy Center, the site of the Republican National Convention at in St. Paul.

As of 6:15 p.m. 78 protesters had been arrested and processed. That includes 22 charged with gross misdemeanors, 38 with misdemeanors and 18 with felonies, according to Ramsey County Sheriff’s spokesperson Holli Drinkwine.

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One was an Iraq War veteran, identified as Wes Davey by the Iraq Veterans Against the War. He was part of a morning protest march, and according to police, had told them in advance he wanted to be arrested. The veterans group said he was trying to deliver information on the war to Sen. John McCain’s staff.

Also arrested in the early afternoon were five protesters who allegedly lit a dumpster on fire near Smith and Grand avenues and rolled it into a police car. There were no injuries, according to St. Paul Police spokesman Tom Walsh. He said charges of criminal damages to property are expected.

The Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild is supplying representation for the arrested, with backup, if need be, by lawyers from the Minnesota Chapter of the American Civil Lawyers Guild. About 50 lawyers attended a seminar to prepare last week.

Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin is on hand to arraign protesters. According to Drinkwine, arraignments could be held this afternoon if there are many arrestees.

Judge on duty

The 13 arrests are on top of seven arrested Sunday during a veterans’ parade and seven arrested on search warrants over the weekend. Gearin is expected to hear arguments Tuesday morning about materials seized under the search warrants.

Shortly after 1 p.m., police responded to a report from a Secret Service agent that sandbags were being dropped on buses from an overpass on Interstate 94 near downtown. Large charter buses with delegates were coming into downtown from Minneapolis and other Twin Cities area hotel locations. Police later confirmed one sandbag had been dropped in an attempt to hit a bus carrying delegates. By the time police arrived, no one remained; there was no report of damage.

The buses used the Fifth street exit, which had been closed to other traffic. They dropped off delegates at Main Street, about a block from Xcel and then made a U-turn, heading back to the freeway at the Sixth Street entrance.

Two panels of a window at Macy’s were broken. There had been reports that windows at Heimie’s Haberdashery on St. Peter Street had been damaged, but that turned out to be false. In reality, for safety reasons, a good Samaritan had been trying to help others move patio tables off the sidewalk there when a glass table top slipped and broke.

Even shortly before the march began, things were tense along side streets, near the parade route. Groups were engaging the police in skirmishes here and there, according to passers-by. Some carried protest signs. Some were fleeing the scene. Observers reported hearing shouting and then running to get there only to find that the incident was already over.  

Stephanie Andresen was trying to reach her downtown apartment: “I live here and I’ve never seen such craziness.”

People who identified themselves as anarchists promised that such skirmishes with authorities would continue throughout the convention.  

Security guards at Minnesota Public Radio in downtown confirmed that one of its media credentials had been snatched from a reporter and said MPR officials had instructed them to thoroughly check credentials of anyone trying to get into their locked building.

Police also responded to reports of an altercation at Wabasha Street and Kellogg Boulevard, near City Hall.

Yet massive numbers of demonstrators were peaceful.

Seeing that, Jeff Breedlove, a GOP delegate from Georgia, was asked what he thought about the scene he watched:  “It’s freedom. What these folks are doing under freedom is what George Bush and the coalition made possible for the people of Iraq after Saddam Hussein. I assure you not one person who was liberated in Iraq or who was liberated in places like North Korea who walked into South Korea wouldn’t wish for the opportunity that all these folks are displaying today. It’s cool to see this is what the liberation of Iraq is all about.”

Jim Fitzsimmons, of Golden Valley, brought his children, Andrew and Sofie, both 10, to see democracy in action. “It’s like history; you’ve got to take a part in it,” he said, recalling the 1968 presidential convention in Chicago. He lived in Oak Park then and saw “clouds of smoke” arising from anti-war protests.   

The mass protest, organized by the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, is expected to draw as many as 50,000 participants from at least 15 cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and elsewhere, organizers say. The march, they say, won’t wind down until 5 p.m.

Capitol rally participants run the gamut   
At the Capitol rally, most of the thousands look overwhelmingly ordinary, old and young, military veterans in T-shirts and shorts carrying “Stop the War” signs.

Take Deb Roberts, 48, and Kate Breckheimer, 41, neighbors from Chanhassen who met at their caucus in March. They’re carrying placards that read: “Support the Troops, End the War.” They’re suburban moms, four kids each. “We just don’t want to get tear-gassed, shot or arrested,” Roberts says.

“‘Cuz we’re peaceful,” Breckheimer stresses.

CodePink was at the rally in mass, a group of women for peace that was born the moment the United States went into Iraq, says founder  Dana Balicki. Giant puppets, fashioned by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, stood in the background — huge beauty pageant figures with names like “I Miss Clean Air,” “I Miss Democracy” and “I Miss Justice.”

Behind them was a flag-draped casket in memory of a son where a dad mourns: Lance Cpl. Alexander S. Arrndo of Boston.

And there was Mim Olsen, 72, wearing a straw hat that reads, “Uppity Women Unite.” “I’m here for the Iraqui woman who can’t be here but wants peace,” she said. A Minnesota resident in summer, she’s from Rockport, Texas.     

People carried cardboard signs on sticks and bright banners flapping in the hot breeze.  “This is a test of the Emergency Free Speech System” read the placard carried by Ben Masel, who’s already running as a Democrat for the 2012 U.S. Senate from Wisconsin.

“We are the American mainstream and we’re pissed,” another sign read. Other signs, made views clear, too: “John McCain=War Hero? Hell No. McCain= War Criminal, sentiment of Veterans for Justice. “Real Homeland Security Begins with Jobs, Peace and Equality.” “Bring the troops home now.”

A 19-year-old in a dark knit cap, a gas mask and black glasses carried a flag reading, “Don’t Tread on Me.” He was in disguise, he said, because he was at the Convergence Center on St. Paul’s West Side Friday when police came in with guns drawn. “I was nervous for a second, but I hadn’t done anything but exercise my freedom of speech,” he said. He won’t give his name: “Call me Kitty.”

Iraqi war veterans were there, in or out of uniform. “This war was based on lies and deception,” it’s got to stop, said Gabriel Payan, a former Army staff sergeant from Boston.

Payan and Cameron White, with two tours in Iraq behind him, wore black T-shirts with white lettering: “Iraq Veterans Against the War.” “We’re here to demand accountability from the Republican Party and benefits for the veterans,” White said.

Longtime Twin Cities activists Clyde Bellecourt and Polly Mann wre among those on stage calling for peace.  

The rally scene offered stark contrasts, too.

There were smiling St. Paul Police officers in blue shirts and bike helmets pedaling around the crowds. “We’re hoping to have a very safe route,” said St. Paul Police officer Paul Iovino.

But nearby, standing in the shade trees along the Cedar Sreet march route in front of the normally staid Centennial building and the National Guard Armory were dozens of police suited up for trouble.

“Hope it’s peaceful,” a reporter says, again and again to those suited-up cops. To the one, they agree. “I sure do, too,”  one officer said.

Also contributing to this report were Sharon Schmickle, David Brauer and Judith Yates Borger.