Coordinator Trip Report -
30 Aug - 3 Sept 2008
From: Bruce Gagnon
This report covers the period of Aug 30 - Sept 3 as I traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota to participate in protests outside the Republican National Convention (RNC) and speak at an alternative conference called Peace Island.
On August 31 the national Veterans for Peace (VfP) held a protest that began with speeches at the state capitol in St. Paul and then took the 500 participants downtown to the RNC center. VfP had just held its annual national conference nearby and the protest was the finale of that event. There was a pretty strong police presence along the march route and at the end almost a dozen people were arrested for climbing under a tall black steel fence that had been constructed to "protect" the RNC from protests. All the arrests, and police response, that day went without any problems.
Immediately upon my arrival in St. Paul I began hearing about local police "preemptive" raids on private homes where protestors and alternative media activists were staying. The police trashed some of the places and arrested some of the people. Search warrants had been obtained to look for guns and other possible weapons but none were ever found. But just reporting the search warrant descriptions of "possible weapons" in the local papers had a chilling effect on the local population I am sure.
We also began to hear about people who were driving into the St. Paul area in cars that "looked suspicious". Some of these people were stopped and searched and handcuffed with faces buried on the ground by the side of the road. One green bus, an ecological teaching program was on its way to St. Paul for the events, was stopped and the mother, father, 17 year-old daughter, and three chickens were detained by the cops. The three people and chickens were eventually released but the bus was impounded for the entire time of the RNC convention. Environmental sustainability is now a "radical" message one has to guess.
On September 1 an even larger protest was held - again first gathering at the state capitol with a march of over 20,000 people (my estimate)right to the RNC center. The march had a wonderful spirit and went without hitch. Many students were there doing creative things like marching bands, dancing and singing as we walked through the city. Thousands of people stood all along the march route, many of them holding signs and cheering the festive parade along. I walked near the front with the large Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace delegations. I saw friend Ray McGovern who used to work for the CIA. He's come to Maine twice for events I organized and I was glad to see him out on the streets. He's been getting treatment for cancer and was very happy to be in the march.
The march worked its way back to the state capitol and it took almost two hours for the tail end of the parade to return. Local media reported that a "disappointing" 10,000 were in the march while organizers reported 40,000 from the stage.
Upon returning back to the home where I was staying we watched the evening news to see reports about the wonderfully positive protest. Virtually nothing was reported. Not one picture was shown of the huge crowd snaking its way through the downtown of St. Paul (known by the way as a liberal Democratic city). Instead what we saw shocked us. The media was having a field day reporting on a very small number of young anarchists who, after the large march had finished, began to break some windows and burn some trash cans in the streets. The riot equipped police, who had silently lined the march route just hours before, now swung into action with batons flying, horses stomping, and tear gas canisters screaming back and forth. For the next couple of days this was virtually all the news that came out of St. Paul about the protests - "Protesters turn violent."
On September 2 I spoke at a conference in St. Paul called Peace Island: Hope in a Time of Crisis - A Solutions-Driven Conference. This event was organized as a positive alternative to the RNC and had many notable speakers. It was an honor to have been invited to attend and I must thank John & Marie Braun for arranging for me to speak. They had hosted me on a speaking trip some four years ago in St. Paul and felt that it was important to include the space issue in the Peace Island event.
At this conference I spoke as part of a plenary session panel and then did a well-attended breakout session after the plenary. I was asked to speak about "Weapons in Space: Environmental Consequences and Solutions." In my talk I brought back many of the themes that I used in my recent talk at the Global Greens conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil - we can't dream of dealing with the coming reality of climate change unless we immediately begin to convert the military industrial complex to sustainable technology development. Recognizing that many people are focused on the current election process I used the example of Obama's proposed energy plan to spend $150 billion during the next 10 years on creating "green technology." Very commendable, but just one minor problem. When you do the math you discover that Obama proposes to spend $15 billion per year on green tech development while the U.S. is now spending $14 billion per month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope the point is obvious.
While at the event I did a one-hour taping of a public access TV program that plays on eight Minnesota stations and also was interviewed by a California Pacifica radio program.
As I headed back to Maine on Sept 3 the progressive community was still shocked by the arrest of Amy Goodman and two of her Democracy Now reporters. How could the police in St. Paul think for a moment that they had the right to arrest media people in addition to the many other questionable arrests they were making?
The whole RNC crackdown on democracy was alarming and raises many questions about the next couple of years. Will we continue to see the diminution of our freedoms and liberties? Will the Democrats stand up and protest against these assaults on our civil liberties? Will there be real change after the November elections?
But as I reflect on the recent events in St. Paul another troubling question arises. How does the non-violent community deal with the fact that violent protests can erupt in our presence that end up clouding and virtually wiping out our message? Are these "anarchists" really on some level government agents provocateurs implanted in our midst to stir things up and redirect the message? While in St. Paul I asked other activists the question, "What do we do about this violence?" and over and over again the response to my query was "I don't know."
One organizer I spoke to said he had given up on the idea of protests as an effective way to speak out and to offer our own messages to the public. But then, with the media under corporate control, what vehicles are we left with to communicate with the public?
When I arrived home on Sept 3 I immediately had to refocus on the Sept 6 protest planned here against the Navy's Blue Angels airshow and our Maine Veterans for Peace protest that I was helping to organize. Over 200,000 spectators were expected at the event. So on Sept 6 we gathered at a park in nearby Brunswick and walked the two-miles to the Navy base where we held a vigil and rally at the front gate as the hundreds and hundreds of cars streamed into the base for the "show" which we called a military recruiting gimmick. During this time I reflected on the importance of this protest and the understanding that our presence at this base created much discussion and some level of reflection amongst those going into the base.
Does protest still have a place? No doubt in my mind. Do we still have much work to do in communicating with those who wish to bring violence to these events. Absolutely.
I remember years ago reading Player Piano, author Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, which was published in 1952. Wikipedia reports that "the dystopian story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines."
In the book the young people, who had no role or stake in society, rebel and violently destroy the machines as a way to dramatically reject the social order and attempt to recreate a new society.
As the limited and over-hyped violence in St. Paul played out I flashed back to Vonnegut's book. Are these the seeds that our present society has planted? We now have few jobs, other than joining the military, for working class youth in America. We've taught them that violence is the way conflict is settled. Is it any wonder that some number of disaffected youth turn their simmering rage and loss of purpose into street violence? These are questions that the peace community should be raising in our local discussions.
My next trip takes me to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark from Sept 18-29. I will be speaking at the European Social Forum in Sweden and then touring the three countries to learn and speak about their growing role in space militarization.
Bruce K. Gagnon