Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My First Protest (part 2 of 2)

Many speakers took the stage, with a long line of folks waiting their turn for the mic. Code Pink did a cute little skit and led the crowd in a song. A large group of Iraq veterans filled the stage and the ground in front of it to state their piece. It was around this point, I think, that I began to feel resentful that the Republicans had seen fit to bail out of their own convention and the RNC would not be held at full strength. But, you know, their hands were tied. What could they do? Gustav was wavering between Cat 2 and 3, and they'd mismanaged Katrina so badly they couldn't but make the gesture of giving a rat's ass. I'm guessing the Republicans who stayed behind felt a little ripped off, at their big convention.

Slowly the crowd started to form up and drift from the stage--which did not deter more speakers from taking the mic--and we filtered down the Capitol grounds, all lined up and ready to go... but no one was going. Once in a while I thought I saw movement but, like Minnesota traffic, it was only people scootching up further to form a denser traffic jam. Meanwhile the Anarchists had formed their group, flanked by huge, striking banners of red and black handsomely lettered in different languages. Red and black flags stuck out from their columns at excitingly odd angles, and they kept their spirits up with a number of chants, like "Ah! Aqui! Aqui Capitalista!" and others about fucking the State. There were little kids in the crowd, sure, but what better time for free speech? Which is more important: protecting your kid from a word or from Republicanism?

For me, the quote of the day popped up at this point. A man behind me commented to his friend: "I hate to say it, but the Anarchists are the most organized group out here." A sagacious observation that would bear itself out repeatedly throughout the day.

Finally we started to march, filtering down Wabasha way up ahead. There was a one-man counterprotest, perhaps, or just one paranoiac visionary trying to inform a crowd he thinks will be sympathetic to him. It reminded me of the time The Creatures were performing in Minneapolis and I was tasked to flyer for an event night some friends had started. I was out there in my goth gear, handing flyers to other goths, but there was one kid clearly of the heavy metal distraction trying to distribute flyers for a band called "S.A.T.A.N." and no one wanted anything to do with him. It was so sad! He looked like the one puppy nobody wanted to play with, and his eyes were wide with confusion. He totally thought he could bridge the gap between goth and thrash metal--"You wear black! We wear black too!"--and he knew, he knew he listened to the coolest music, but could not understand why there were no takers for what he peddled.

This one-man protest reminded me of that. This balding conspiracy theorist decided that he'd found a potential audience of sympathizers for his cause. After all, we're already up in arms over the suffocating yoke of Conservatism, why not attack the oppression at the source? So there he was with his sign, "WAKE UP AMERICA YOU ARE BEING BRAINWASHED BY ZIONISTS" (with multiple exclamation points in superscript) and free literature. At one point he spotted me taking pictures of him and started to trot over in his little black Crocs. "Excuse me, sir, could I have a minute of your time?" he said in a cloyingly soft voice. From behind me my wife yelled, "NO!" and the crowd permitted us to drift on by.

We were gratified to be walking along, and then we turned onto Wabasha, where the hill sloped down before us, and we were given a suggestion of how many people were in attendance. We felt this inspiring, all these splinter factions and John Q. Publics gathered together for a common cause (whatever it might be: a couple speakers tried to turn it into an Obama rally), marching down the designated streets and proudly displaying our signs to... people who already agreed with us.

The sidewalks were lined with people who thought like us and wanted to see the procession. They were not lined with Republicans who stepped out early to survey the hubbub. There was no conflict, just a lot of cheering. I felt kind of silly at this point: I should have made my sign mention that it was the GOP that I disagreed with, instead of just arbitrarily disagreeing with any viewer. Consequently, I felt I had to keep my sign rolled up much of the time, though Rebecca assured me any viewers would understand what I was getting at. She's more experienced in these ways than I.

I experienced a moment of fright, the first time I saw the riot cops lined up to block a street and guide us along. It's one thing to sit down at Burger King and see a couple SWAT snipers come in on break and get a Whopper. It's quite another thing to be very clearly in a flowing stream of protesters and come up to a wall of riot cops. Many people (chock-full of great ideas) walked right up to the cops to ask them questions or, in one case, offer Wiccan blessings to coerce them to go away. Earlier, between the bus and the Capitol grounds, a group of riot cops had been lounging on a corner as they waited to get situated. A man in an oversized suit jacket, loud tie, and long stringy hair decided the wisest thing he could do would be to walk right into the middle of them and engage an officer in a staring contest. Crazies don't realize that the fact that they don't have much experience with cops does not mean cops don't have much experience with crazies. They ignored him like a gnat and eventually he wandered off, doubtlessly feeling much empowered by the experience.

This little dog was just cute and everybody liked it. I'm sure there are hundreds of pictures of it floating around online at this point. That's all.

Finally we got to the end of the loop and started to enter the Freedom Cage. I'd heard about the Freedom Cage in Denver, which was just a large enclosed cage with a microphone in the center. The protesters declined to enter it. Here, it was a series of large metal walls that could be locked together to form any shape. It was structured to encourage a large U-turn as we neared the Excel Center (wherein the Republican swine were oinking their support for a less-than-full cast of stars). At no point did I feel threatened upon entering the Freedom Cage; friends of mine avoided it, envisioning the walls turning and shutting us inside, vulnerable to crates of gas canisters. I was subjected to CS gas in Basic Training and the worst thing about it is the runny noses and occasional vomiting. That would've put a kaibosh on our festivities.

So now was my chance: I unfurled my sign and hoisted it proudly for the RNC. A row of riot cops stood behind this stretch of Freedom Cage, holding batons and gas grenade launchers. I promoted my sign to them as well. I saw a tiny person in riot gear (pictured) and will write an adult children's book, The Smallest Riot Cop: "His baton was so heavy, and his helmet just didn't fit right!" There I am, chanting with whatever's going on behind me, waving my sign above my tricorn hat, and the last riot cop in the line, a blonde woman with a big smile, started gesturing to me, something like driving the steering wheel in a car. I registered confusion and stared at her harder, and she started spinning her hand at me. Rebecca said, "She's telling you your sign's upside down." I checked my sign and, sure enough, I'm an idiot that had to be corrected by a riot cop. We shared a little laugh over that.

After that, we were just backtracking where we'd already been. There was a group of men in camos that could've either been National Guard Military Police or SWAT, I didn't know. A woman on the other side of the fence was moseying by with a tape recorder. I took the opportunity to yell "San Dimas High School football RULES!" and I yelled it again near a group of Minneapolis bike cops, who either got it (it's a Bill and Ted reference) or just appreciated a light-hearted break. Where the riot cops were inscrutable, the Minneapolis police seemed to enjoy my sign, as well. And while Rebecca was off in the middle of the crowd, I snuck over to the side to tell the cops they were doing a great job and I was glad they were there. Anything to take the edge off. Just because I disagree with the Republicans, that doesn't mean I have to antagonize the cops.

We walked on a little further and Rebecca yelled, "Oh no! They've occupied Mickey's!" That would actually be a crushing blow to me, but I imagine the Green Party and the veg*ns wouldn't care.

There were also some very good side shows, too. A lot of artists had created some excellent pantomime political figures and enacted all manner of skits and performances. A huge-headed Bush and Cheney dragged the murdered corpse of Liberty down the street. A British bobby rapped about the criminal travesties of the current administration. Gandhi, with an enormous cranium, wandered among the crowd as well, reminding folk of his example. Several men toted around a large inflatable planet Earth, which was very attractive and easy to spot.

But the Anarchists' adventure was not done. Displaying further organization and choreography, they had a technique where they would slow down for a while, let the street open up in front of them, then have a countdown from 10 and then yell "Revolution!" and run up the block. Then they went back down to strolling speed and... that's all. It was just funny this one time (wish I knew St. Paul geography so I could remember where it was), I was meandering in the street, starting to feel very thirsty, when a bunch of riot cops leapt into action. By this, I mean they had been resting on the curb, kicking back, shucking the jive, and then abruptly leapt to their feet, donning their helmets and taking up arms. I'm all, "What the?" and looked behind me to see a large red-and-black army roaring up the street. I told my friends, "Crap, it's the Anarchists!" and ran for the safety of a grassy median. Yessir, no harm could possibly come to anyone standing on a grassy median (so we must've been walking SW on 10th St E and turning NW onto Cedar St, headed back up to the Capitol), the resounding lesson from my military training, doubtless. But the Anarchists ran up, turned the corner and strolled away before the riot cops could line back up. That part was kind of ridiculous. I did wonder aloud whether true anarchy always starts with a countdown, someone near me appreciated that.

And so we wended our path back up to the Capitol and hung out for a while. I invited some friends I found on the way to my Labor Day cookout, and we listened to a speech for a little while, a couple guys ranting despite having no audience. We trudged up to University and Rice to catch a 16, but so did everyone else so the boarding was very slow-going. At one point, a sports car going too fast (eastbound on University) decided to take a left turn and somehow didn't notice our bus crossing the intersection, westbound. He nearly drove into the side of us, providing a moment of excitement. Hopefully the bus driver caught the license plate.

After that it was even more uneventful. We reached Minneapolis and walked through downtown to where we'd catch a 4 or 6 bus to home. On the way we saw intermittent white folk dressed overly formally, and by their questions (and bunting) realized they were stragglers from the RNC. I didn't unfurl my sign for them, though.

There was a point in the parade where the MPR building marquee displayed there had been seven arrests in the protest (before it was even done), and we agreed that only seven out of 10,000 people was a pretty good ratio. By the time we reached the Capitol the number had increased to ten; during the cookout friends told me it had gone up to 50. I'll have to research that. I heard stories of idiots using the opportunity of the protest to break windows and slash tires, which is of course asinine. They just see their chance to be naughty, they don't think about how that actually reflects poorly upon the legitimate protesters. And of course, they are what the news sources will focus on, rather than the peaceful and responsible majority. It's a beautiful world... for you.


Anonymous said...

Hey, would you mind if I posted a link to this on a forum? I think it sounds like a good account of events, and its very well written.

Christian said...

I wouldn't mind at all! I'm glad you liked it.