Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Anarchists! Gas Grenades! Cheesy Fries! A Firsthand Account Of The MAYHEM AT MICKEY'S DINER!!!

Photo by John Hoff

A festive, defiant, slightly-silly crowd thick with black-garbed, self-proclaimed anarchists was repeatedly hit with gas by members of the St. Paul police department--apparently for failure to disperse--producing a wild melee as crowds of protesters and journalists were violently herded up St. Peter Street...

...and I was in the middle of that mess. Here is what I witnessed. Click here for some YouTube video of the same stuff.

It Started With The Poor People's March

At 4 p.m., members of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign gathered for a rally in Mears Park in St. Paul. (Not at 11 a.m., like the Star Tribune said in its so-called "Reader's Guide" in the Sunday paper)

The rally featured American Indian activist Clyde Bellecourt, a South American dance troupe, and several speakers in support of the rights of low-income people. Microphone problems plagued the rally, and some of the first words said from the podium involved blame for the sound system issues on at the powers-that-be, who were apparently reluctant to provide electricity.

At this rally, I managed to videotape three testimonies about how the mortgage crisis is impacting individual people, including a woman who lives in South Minneapolis who was literally brought to tears by the thought of losing her home.

(She said she didn't want to live in North Minneapolis because "I have three daughters" and she wanted them "to be able to walk the streets" and she says there are "too many Level 3 Sex Offenders" who live in North Minneapolis)

Right before the beginning of the march, there was a tense stand-off in one corner of the park as police detained at least one, but reportedly two individuals. The police apparently snatched the individual(s) out of the edge of Mears Park but were quickly confronted by hundreds of individuals in the park, many chanting "Peaceful protest," with numerous media recording everything as a tense standoff ensued. About two dozen police stayed in the middle of the intersection, holding up their long, blond-colored riot batons and surrounding at least one detained individual, while approximately six police officers mounted on horses kept the crowd at bay.

Media stood atop a satellite television van and the stone features of the park (which has been given an award for architectural design, FYI) and recorded a confrontation which lasted approximately 20 minutes as both sides jockeyed for position. About 100 protesters chanted, shouted, photographed, fretted aloud, and occasionally confronted police, at one point causing an officer to make his horse lurch forward. Red canisters were periodically pointed at the crowd, and it seemed like gas would be released at any moment, but no gas was shot at the crowed.

About 20 yards away, in the middle of all this, somebody was having what appeared to be a violent epileptic seizure and was tended to by three of the "protest medics" in attendance.

Note: There appeared to be nothing fake about the seizure. The person's face was ashen gray, something you simply can't pull off with playacting, and the involuntary movements were consistent with an epileptic seizure. The person had long hair and delicate features, but it was hard to tell if he/she was male or female.

During the first moments of the confrontation, the leader of the poor people's rally used her sound system to try to direct members of the rally not to get caught up in any "distraction" at the edge of the park, but numerous individuals and apparently the vast majority of media present did indeed run to the "distraction." What finally ended the confrontation was the beginning of the march. Individuals confronting the police broke away to join the demonstration. A group of individuals who appeared to know one of the persons detained shouted their support from atop a stone slab. Police managed to make off with their prisoner and marched from the scene in an orderly formation as the crowd ran to join the march.

The march may have consisted of 3,000 when it left Mears Park, and seemed to pick up a number of people on the way. Sticking to its planned route, the march went on East 7th Street to Lafayette Road. Protesters had many choice words and gestures directed at police stationed outside the detention facility on Lafayette, but peacefully marched past. The underpass at I-35E echoed noisily as the crowd discovered its very satisying "echo chamber effect" and roared in group cheers.

The march was led by protest organizers with bullhorns. A male individual, apparently in his late 50s, stayed at the front of the march in his wheelchair. Three young children in strollers stayed at the front of the march for a long period of time, as did a symbolic war dead coffin. Near a children's hospital, a female marcher in a wheelchair joined the head of the march. Clyde Bellecourt was also near the front of the march.

Much Slack In The "No Bandanna Over The Face" Rule

From the beginning of the rally, there had been discussion about reports "anarchists" would join the march. The rally organizers made many statements about this, which could be interpreted a number of ways, including "this is our march, we're from the hood, and nobody is going to come along and steal our march from us" but also a statements about how anybody--including anarchists--was welcome to join the march.

The protest leader said something like she'd never been oppressed and mistreated by anarchists, but rather her mistreatment was by the people in power--Republicans--so why would she refuse to hold out her hand to anarchists wishing to join the march? Let them join but, yes, let them also behave well.

Early in the march, one organizer repeatedly asked a young woman wearing a black bandanna over the face to not join the march if she would not show her face. The woman left the march, but repeatedly walked back in. Other self-proclaimed anarchists momentarily lowered their bandannas when asked, but often covered their face again. Even when it started out as a mere 3,000 persons, the crowd was too large for a small number of rally marshals to police. Just keeping the crowd on the street with the media using the spaces next to the crowd was a big enough challenge.

During the rally, anarchists joined in some of the chanting, but frequently preferred their own chant: "Resist, Resist/ Raise your (expletive) fist."

A Consistent Blogger Role

It was my role to be a blogger, though personally in sympathy with many of the goals of the march. In order to be a member of the media in my blogger role, I did not chant slogans, not even once. I purchased a $10 shirt as a souvenir, but stuffed it in my backpack and did not wear it. (I had a gray shirt that said "Minnesota Athletic Dept") I generally stayed to the sides of the protest, filming with my video camera and taking still pictures. Sometimes I would hold my video camera aloft even when it was not filming, so I could stay in my role and not be directed into the crowed of marchers.

I was also assisting other media, specifically NBC News. At about 11 a.m, I ran into a producer named Charlene Gubash, and we exchanged information. I had some copies of event schedules Gubash found useful, and I agreed that if I shot any really compelling video, I'd be willing to share it with NBC as long as NBC noted it came from "Johnny Northside Dot Com." She gave me her phone number and I had it handy. Gubash particularly wanted to know the location of any violence along the demonstration route.

This stuff becomes important, later. See, I was hit with choking, nasty gas while trying to witness a demonstration which--so far as I can see--was NOT dangerous and did NOT need to be violently dispersed while its participants chanted, among other subversive slogans, "Free Mickey's Diner." I was trying to do my job as a blogger--a member of the media--and many other media were present at that intersection and breathed in a lot of painful gas for no justifiable reason. I was on the phone with Gubash even as gas rained down on us.

The Rally Picks Up Bodies And Steam

As the rally approached Constitution and Cedar, massive numbers of people approached from the grounds of the State Capitol, swelling the original rally to perhaps 10,000. Members of the poor people's group tried to maintain leadership of the rally, and partially succeeded, but hundreds of individuals spilled far to the front and to the sides. The new numbers included many black clad anarchists. One individual asked "Where are we going?" and was told "That way."

As I came down from a ledge, videotaping a vista of the crowd, somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was Elizabeth Lunde of Grand Forks, North Dakota, a young activist I have known for many years who periodically produces zines. I told her to be careful and not get hurt.

Trouble At Mickey's Diner And "Bunk Gas"

At 7th and St. Peter, in front of Mickey's Diner, a group of protesters taunted police. At one point, police appeard to push the crowd or lunge at the crowd. A half-filled plastic water bottle came sailing through the air toward the officers. Police appeared to spray something into the crowd, but no distinctive pepper spray odor was apparent. There was a discussion among some members of the crowd whether "bunk gas" was being utilized: something made to seem like pepper spray to scare off a mob, but without much actual physical effect.

Making The Mob Swear A Vow

In front of the Dorothy Day Center for homeless people, protest organizers stopped, calmed the crowd, asked for quiet, and got members of the march to repeat in unison "There are people in wheelchairs and little bitty babies at the front of the march" so "I promise not to do any stupid (expletive)."

The rally leader approached the locked gate around XCel Center, which leads to a fenced corridor. This corridor had previously allowed anti-war marchers to get quite near XCel Energy Center, and was scheduled to allow another anti-war rally to pass by XCel the following Thursday. However, police would not allow the poor people's rally to enter the enclosure, even though their numbers were much smaller than the number of the anti-war rally. The rally leader made a tearful statement about how it was a terrible day in America when people in wheelchairs and little children could not even come close to a political convention to make their issues heard and seen by those in power.

While this took place, many in the crowd broke off to get close to the fence. Inside the fence corridor were police in riot gear, looking oddly-caged while protesters milled around freely.

Low Spirits, A Rally In Retreat

The march was very quiet and seemingly depressed as it turned back in its tracks after being refused at the gate. Then some yells and chants started. At one point, a young group began the silly chant "Shave Bush." At this point it was dark, and the anarchists began pulling their bandannas over their faces. A few even pulled on gas masks as the crowd retraced its route and headed back in the direction of Mickey's Dining Car. I called my friend at NBC every few minutes, giving her running reports.

The scene at Mickey's was surreal. A police officer in dark riot gear sat atop the dining car, right in front of the large neon restaurant signs, holding a gas grendade launcher. Protesters began chanting "Free Mickey's Diner!" One protester taunted officers "You want the cheesy fries, don't ya? Don't ya?"

The members of the poor people's march continued up St. Peter. Eventually, there were two separate and distinct groups: core members of the poor people's rally far up St. Peter's Street and those who were staying with those original march organizers, versus a more energetic and taunting element, which preferred to stay in front of Mickey's Dining Car and confront police officers with, inter alia, statements about the desirability of cheesy fries.

On two occasions, something was said to the crowd by a police bullhorn, but it was impossible to hear, even from about 25 yards away. I thought I caught the words "Ladies and gentlemen" as a preface to the statement. I thought that was nice.


Loud explosions and flashes signaled the release of gas. The crowd ran, panicked, up St. Peter's Street. The gas was painful to breathe and painful in the eyes. I managed to get a call in to Gubash of NBC, relaying the essential information: gas fired at 7th and St. Peter, the crowd dashing in a panic. At that point I tried to get out of the crowd and off to the side, going to the end of a line of officers and saying, "I'm a blogger, I don't want to be in this, how do I get out?"

"GO! MOVE! UP THE STREET!" shouted a small female officer, through her gas mask, brandishing her baton. I ran up the street. The day before, I had really given St. Paul police more credit than to act this stupid.

One or two blocks up St. Peter, a group of protesters paused, some pouring water into their eyes. Police moved up swiftly and fired more gas. All told, I believe I heard six explosions which heralded gas: perhaps 4 at 7th, perhaps 2 further up St. Peter. I had managed to get a fairly clean breath through my cupped hand, and ran a substantial distance while holding my breath. I got gassed good, but others were gassed much worse.

Quick dispersal or metastization?

I couldn't tell if firing the gas and dispersing the crowd may have actually led to numerous small groups of anarchists dashing through the streets, breaking things. I followed small groups heading for the State Capitol; some seemingly dispirited, but some appearing quietly elated.

At some point I changed into the souvenir shirt I had in my backpack, because my other shirt was full of gas residue. A volunteer of some sort stood in the street, handing out small bottles of water. I took a bottle, rinsed my eyes with half of it, then drank the rest.

Near the grounds of the State Capitol, another volunteer handed me a jug of water. I drank from it--careful not to let my lips touch the rim--and splashed some on my face. Looking toward the Capitol, I thought I saw some kind of fence surrounding the building, with thick black fence posts.

It took me a moment to realize it was hundreds of officers in riot gear, arrayed in front of the brightly-lit State Capitol Building.

More violence at 10th And St. Peter?

Having learned that 10th and St. Peter was some kind of trouble spot, Gubash called me to let me know some NBC forces had been successfully arrayed in that area. And, incredibly, another group was even then forming up at 10th and St. Peter. I will know more in the morning, but I strongly suspect the dispersal of the crowd with gas led to dozens of minor street scuffles, associated arrests, and more than a couple broken windows.

On Thursday, September 4, at 4 P.M., there will be another anti-war march from the State Capitol to XCel Energy Center.

ADDENDUM: This blog post previously misidentified 7th and St. Peter as 10th and St. Peter. The posting has been corrected accordingly.

Sorry. I was running like (expletive).


Anonymous said...

Although I doubt that the"blog author" will allow this post, here goes.
I fully support the rights of all Americans to "peacefully protest" actions of the the government. The criminals who came here with the intent to disrupt traffic, block emergency vehicles, intimidate delegates and provoke the police are an entirely different story.
The blog author seems to be of the ilk that idolizes protesters, even the violent ones. The so called unbiased report of the march was a farce. The Star and the Pioneer Press did a better job of "reporting" and I believe that both of those newspapers are as close to socialist propaganda as anything written by Lenin or Marx.

Johnny Northside said...

You're wrong about whether I'd allow the post. It's all about free speech, baby.

Anonymous said...

The news claimed that the protesters were hurling human feces. A lot of the "police" you mention are actually iraq weary national guardsman called into dutygetting crap thrown on them. I think you should have just left sooner. I don't think they should have to put up with that.

Anonymous said...

I also joined in on this at the capitol. I do believe that Johnny Northside did a good job of reporting what happened. I stood by the fence facing the Xcel Center longer than most after the protest, so when I arrived at Mickey’s Diner I only hear one warning from the police and continued up the street at a fast paced walk. Before I was a half block up I heard tear gas goes off behind me, and when I looked down the street I saw a cloud of smoke barreling at me. I pulled my bandana up on my face and ran. I am not an anarchist; I was wearing a white shirt and blue jeans. I just brought the bandana for this exact reason. Amway’s, I was told to stop running and walk and when I did, the riot cops shot tear gas at the crowd I was in who were all walking. I than continued to run with my hands in the air making a peace sign with my fingers when I got pepper sprayed in the face. Thank god for the protester medics who help me out with water.
“It's all about free speech, baby.” (If its peaceful, and it was.)

Johnny Northside said...

To the second anonymous post: name the specific news source that is making the claim of feces-hurling.

I read the Star Tribune account, which was very detailed, and it made no mention of that. I saw no evidence of it and I SMELLED no evidence of that. As far as I can tell, that claim is full of...well, you know.

Anonymous said...

WCCO at 10:00 reported the hurling of human feces and also that the conflict was ongoing at the moment.

Johnny Northside said...

I did not see, hear or smell any feces being hurled during this incident. Furthermore, even if something LOOKS like human feces, it may be something else; a Styrofoam container of beef curry, who knows?

The same "feces hurling" claims were made in Chicago in 1968 and the historical judgment appears to be Mayor Daly's police forces acted like goons.