Originally Published in
The Agenda (2008)
Providence Based Quarterly Newspaper
Label home to Prayers For Atheists
Off The Wookie (2009)
The official magazine of SXSW Festival (2009)
On Monday, September 22nd, I attended the Labor Day anti-war protest in St. Paul with a couple friends. It was Day 1 of the 2008 Republican National Convention and I was in town working on a story for a quarterly publication in Providence called The Agenda and also as a concerned citizen interested in learning about the Convention from a first hand perspective. Both the rally and the march from the Capitol to the Excel Center earlier in the day were a resounding success with over a hundred different coalitions and nearly 20,000 people participating. There were hundreds of riot police and military barricades downtown but I witnessed no aggression at all from the people in the march. We were a peaceful and highly energetic group of citizens assembling to protest the Iraq War and the Republican Party’ role in the orchestration, execution, and prolonged continuation of it. After the march my friends and I headed off in an inspired, joyous mood.
The next big event of the day was the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U.) Take Back Labor Day concert at the Harriet Island Pavilion. Billy Bragg, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, Atmosphere, and Mos Def were all playing. It was a couple miles from where we were but definitely walk-able. Riot police were blocking off certain streets and bridges downtown on the most direct route to the show, so we tried our best to find an alternate route. Twenty minutes we later found ourselves in a nice little park right across the river from Harriet Island. The Mississippi stood between us and the high wall of the Pavilion which blocked any view of the concert but we could hear it all very clearly. Tom Morello was on-stage wrapping up the Night Watchman set, followed by representatives from Iraq Veterans Against the War and then Atmosphere began. I heard Slug’s voice over the sound system and a huge smile washed over my face. We head north and east along the path of the river park, eager to find our way to the concert and catch as much of the set as possible.
None of us knew the area but there was a large bridge in the distance and we could see people walking across. On the way toward it we came across pockets of disgruntled fans saying that the bridge was being blocked by cops and no one could get across. We kept walking in hopes of getting a concrete answer or finding another way around, but the pattern continued and more rejected would be show-goers were coming toward us. Suddenly, my eyes fixed on what they were all walking away from: an enormous line of storm trooper looking riot police and what looked like National Gaurdsmen in full army gear, blocking the entire width of the road and advancing steadily toward us. There were hundreds of them, some with gas masks, some on bikes, and many holding hi-tech looking rifles. A small pocket of people holding protest signs retreated before them. One brave kid among the group had a video camera and was hippy dancing about 20 feet before the police line. He reminded me of a little bird I had once seen in a storybook eating popcorn off a crocodile’s nose.
Helicopter blades could now be heard slicing through the air high above and I got a very tingly, end of the world feeling. Like life had suddenly become a scene from 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead. The militarized lines of officers came fanned out, preventing anyone from leaving via the north or western boundaries of the park. Heading quickly in the opposite direction my friends and I began to hear frightened voices shouting in front of us: “They’re not letting anybody out!” We sprinted back through the forming crowds of confused people hoping to exit at the southern entrance but there was already a line of dozens of bicycle police using their bikes as a blockade. Their line ran up to the road, meeting the other contingent of riot police from the north and completing the blockade. Ten minutes later even more riot police arrived and coast guard boats with guardsmen holding rifles moved into position on the Mississippi behind us. The perimeter was secure and approximately two hundred people or more were now being detained against their will without any official charge or order to disperse. No acknowledgment from the police at all. They wouldn’t explain, they wouldn’t answer questions, they simply would not acknowledge us.
People were visibly shaken, crying, and making frantic phone calls. I’d seen a similar scenario at the RNC in 2004 when the NYPD surrounded whole crowds of people with orange construction site webbing, put everyone in zip ties, and then bused them to pre-arranged warehouse facilities; protesters, shoppers, journalists, senior citizens, legal observers, and anyone in the path of their directive. I didn’t think St. Paul would be employing those same abuses on the first day of this Convention and certainly not so far away from any march or actual event but it seemed as though all bets were off.
Glancing around we saw that there were all types of people in the park; some who had been there listening to the concert like us, stunned college students, people who’d been eating their lunches in the park, a group of middle aged women out for a walk along the river, protesters, and more. Some people were still wandering around asking different officers to let them out, many just sat down on the ground. There was a teenage girl next to us shaking and sniffling with tears running down her face. I leaned over and said, “Hi, name’s Jared. I want you to know that you’re doing just fine. This is total bullshit and we didn’t do anything wrong so let’s not give them the satisfaction.” Her bottom lip quivered and she mustered one of the bravest smiles I’ve ever seen.
People were now passing around black magic markers and writing down the phone number for the Coldsnap Legal Collective, a volunteer group of attorney’s associated with the National Lawyers Guild that made its services available to anybody attending the RNC. Numbers were being scrawled wildly across the inside of forearms, stomachs, shins, and thighs. The sky took on an odd rusty grey tinge that made me think of Ray Bradbury’s lightening rod salesman: “Something wicked this way comes…” Trying to keep a clear head and needing to stay busy, I got out my cell phone and called the number for the legal collective now tagged on my inner thigh and the Minnesota ACLU. I gave them all my information and as many details about the situation as I could.
As if most of the people in the crowd weren’t terrified enough, a menacing voice came over a megaphone instructing everyone to sit down and place their hands on their heads. No explanation as to what was going on, no details at all in fact, just sterile military directives. The riot cops then sent in squads running through the different pockets of people and singling out particular individuals. Every fifth officer or so was carrying a large black rifle. It didn’t look like it took regular bullets but it fired something. I didn’t like the way the men carrying them clutched the grips so tightly. They looked like they were auditioning for a scene in a war movie. The were going from group to group singling out particular individuals. The officer holding the rifle would aim it at the persons chest or face from just a few feet away and then scream for everyone around that person to move back. Then they’d roughly push their chest the ground, zip tie their wrists high up behind their back, and haul them off.
One boy refused to acknowledge his captors when he was chosen out of a cluster of kids 20 ft in front of us. The aggressive cop leading this squad screamed for the kid to put his hands on his head. When he still didn’t move the cop pulled out his bottle of pepper spray. Whether he was really going to go through with it or just threaten him, we never got to see. The officer’s hands were shaking so badly that he dropped the bottle on the ground. Other cops rushed in. Through the jumble of enclosing bodies it was difficult to see what was going on but people on the ground closer than I started screaming “Put down the gun!!” “Let him go!!”
Could the officer really have pulled out his firearm? As if the unarmed boy, who was already on the ground and surrounded (not only by a group of heavily armed grown men but also by hundreds of other cops surrounding the park) was somehow going to harm them? From what I could tell the boy never even looked up. I don’t know if he saw what was pointed at him but the officer’s face was now white as a sheet. He had re-holstered whatever he was holding, retrieved the pepper spray from the ground, and now kept it trained on the boy’s face as the other officers bent both arms back, zip tied his wrists and then carried him off. The crowd cheered in support.
Atmosphere’s set was almost done and, fittingly, they were playing the
acoustic, more somber version of Not Another Day: “Whoaaa-ohhhh… Not another day… Not another day of the same old song, C’mon…” The haunting melody drifted across the Mississippi, perfectly encapsulating the moment.
After the special selections were all successfully profiled and extracted, they came for the rest of us. Officers three or four at a time would run up to a group of people and drag somebody off; wrists bound behind them, and forced to walk backwards. It was odd because they were made to walk that way. You got to see the person’s face as they were taken, trying to decide whether or not they’d get in trouble for looking back at their friends and concentrating on their footing so they wouldn’t fall. My group of friends tried keeping the spirits high. They seemed to be doing better than I was. Getting arrested for something you believe in at a peaceful event you care deeply about is one thing. Mass arbitrary arrest while sitting in a park listening to music, unexpectedly, unprepared, and with the whole week long convention still to report on is another.
Finally it was our turn and the urban military officers with thousands of dollars in riot gear and weapons each, rode down on us. It was like having your number called after an hour of watching a long line of people get kicked out of an airplane before you. Now here we were, stepping to the edge of the exit hatch staring down an angry jump Sergeant, ready or not; hopefully our chutes would open and everyone in the park would land safely on the ground. Amen.
My arresting officer was a large, angry man with dark sunglasses and a grating voice: “You gonna give me any TROUBLE? Let me tell you something, I don’t like assholes who make PROBLEMS, and if you give me any shit you’re going to have a bad day, you understand me? I can make this very hard for you…”
“Officer, I have no intention of giving you any trouble. I believe this is an unlawful arrest, and I’ll be contacting a lawyer as soon as I’m allowed to use a phone but I respect you, and I won’t be a problem.”
Atmosphere was done and Mos Def was now on stage. The soundtrack for our mass arrest continued as they rifled through everyone’s pockets and wallets, threw personal effects on the ground, and split our property up in different bags to be shipped off to god knows where. After waiting in cue for nearly twenty minutes, I was taken behind a truck for a photo. A field station had been set up and shots were being taken of all the people dragged out of the park while an officer held documents up to sides of our faces. It was here that I learned that I and many others were being charged with Felony-Riot. Which I’ll admit, sounded pretty badass in an Angela Davis, Abbey Hoffman, Cool Hand Luke kind of way but Felony is an extremely serious charge, like, go to prison serious and I hadn’t done anything but listen to music by the river. It felt markedly less romantic than it looks here in text.
Trying to make the best of the situation, I smiled for the photo. Big and wide, and when I did, one of the cops standing around made a condescending comment about me acting like everything was a joke. I almost didn’t repsond, but then said: “I know I’m not supposed to be talking right now but what do you want from me? If I scowl into the camera with handcuffs on then I actually look like a criminal. If I appear as terrified as anybody has the right to be in a situation like this you’ll probably say I’m just some punk protester making a big deal out of nothing. Either way, if this photo ever makes it out onto the news or anywhere else it’ll be easier on my Mom if I’m smiling in the picture and don’t look hurt.”
He cocked his head slightly to the side and gave me the funniest look before walking away. I had no idea what he thought, I was too busy imagining him in wrist ties surrounded by armed guards while I snapped photos inches from his face asking him to smile.
By this point, there were on ton of press and many legal observers on the scene. I saw them on the other side of the police line as the 2008 RNC Magical Mystery Tour continued. Like a conveyor belt to the next station, we were led onto a large city bus with only a few open seats remaining, so I had to sit up close to the driver and the cops- Awesome! Things brightened a little when I saw that my friend Zach, who I was previously separated from, was on the bus too! It felt good to see him, instantly we began shouting back and forth, each checking to see how the other was holding up.
It became that the other arrestees on the bus had been waiting a long time. They were anxious to know when we’d be leaving and where we were being taken. The cops onboard looked tired and aggravated. They made no attempt to quiet the rising swell of conversation now passing back and forth between arrestees. A short time later, something remarkable happened: that’s when the singing began. It was slow at first, but then everybody started in, loud and fearless. We made it part or all the way through Johnny Cash- Folsam Prison Blues, Bob Dylan- Like A Rolling Stone, The Beatles- Hey Jude, Bob Marley- Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, and many others. It was quite impressive actually but the best was absolutely yet to come.
In a very Simple Twist of Fate type of way, the ageless, mirrored lathe of the cosmos seemed to turn in on itself and all the ironic forces of sheer ridiculousness that dictate the ebb and flow of the Universe and every atom comprising its vast and incalculable quilt of Coincidences and Contradictions somehow saw fit that our bus (filled with the first fifty out of two hundred or so unlawfully arrested U.S. citizens) rolled out for Ramsey County Jail just as a boisterous and exalted rendition of The National Anthem caught fire: “Ohhhh SAY, CAN YOU SEE…?” And in that moment, it felt as though an entire life time of witnessing, dealing with, and attempting to adjust to all the endless injustice and hypocrisy of America rose in one collective swell and poured like thunder from the dark mountains in our hearts, reaching out for every jail cell, detention center, and prison camp on Earth.
Ours was the first bus to leave. As we passed flash bulbs sparked and reporters rushed to get photos of the commandeered public transport filled with singing prisoners. Officers detaining the last of the poor souls extracted from the park, talking to other cops, or just plain standing around paused for our Anthem. Some shook their heads in disgust. Others stood slack jawed and stunned, seemingly unable to process what was going on: “Jesus Christ, Stevens! Check it out… is that really a bus full of asshole protestors singing the National Anthem? Good god, it sounds like they really mean it…”
And mean it, we did. Not in any ugly, pride bloated, nationalistic sense. And not just to give voice to the sheer irony of innocent people singing an anthem of freedom while in the process of being illegally detained. But simply to say that having a badge, waving a flag, or misinterpreting your astronomically fortunate luck at simply having been born inside the legal borders of the most privileged nation on earth and misconstruing that as some sort of divine endowment or indicator of personal value, does not make you even a single drop more American than us.
The crowd building outside of the police perimeter gave a resounding ovation as we passed and we rode out like patriots; unapologetic, unbowed, and unbroken. Singing for strength, and taking heart in the sound of each others voices, like the kidnapped, shackled, and wrongfully imprisoned have always done since the beginning of time.