Standing on the quad of Macalester College (in St. Paul, Minnesota) at 9 a.m. this past Labor Day, soaking a bandana with apple cider vinegar, I had no concept of the day that was before me. I thought I knew what was coming—I was preparing for a day of direct action protest at the Republican National Convention and needed to be prepared for the possibility of police retaliation. As I dabbed at my bandana, which was to be a protective mask, the potential of being Maced or gassed was only an abstraction in my mind. Logically, I knew that the danger was there, but it didn’t have any emotional or psychological significance for me.
In fact, at the beginning of the day the police were generally benevolent. Although they were milling about while we discussed our plans for the day, they didn’t interrupt us and, when Campus Antiwar Network (CAN, the organization I was with) finally moved out from the quad with the rest of the student protesters, bike cops protected us at intersections. They gave us this protection in spite of the fact that we were breaking a St. Paul law (we had more than 24 people demonstrating without a permit), so I was anticipating a day with civil interactions and minimal trouble.
We marched all the way from the college to the capitol, passing some of the richest areas of the city along the way. We were all proud to go through those neighborhoods; we felt like we were getting our antiwar message to some of the people who needed to hear it most. But when we approached the capitol, the police abandoned us. We were now on our own and, unfortunately, our former protectors would become our biggest threat.
The nature of our protest was to operate outside the permitted march. We would remain peaceful in our demonstrations, but we would disregard the route and the rules approved by the St. Paul Police Department. The idea behind this was to disrupt the convention as much as possible; to ensure that the event would not go over as “business as usual.” We knew that we would be police targets throughout the day.
As a result, we broke into affinity groups (small groups where everyone knows and takes care of each other) when we reached the capitol. This would make it easier for us to keep safe and for us to mobilize without breaking any laws or attracting police attention. The city was divided into seven sectors, each of which was adopted by one or two organizations. We made our way to our designated area: Sector VI.
The affinity groups swarmed from different directions. By the time my group found the rest of CAN, they had already begun to block their first intersection. Rather than constructing barricades, our tactic was to create “mobile blockades;” blocking the roads temporarily with caution tape and our own bodies.
That first intersection went over more or less without incident. The police, of course, showed up right away, but there were only one or two cars of them. They tried to get us to move, and started to redirect traffic to avoid congestion in the area. One car tried to plow through the caution tape, but we stepped directly into the path of the vehicle to stop it. Once we had held that intersection for a few minutes and had successfully demonstrated our message to all the people around, it was time to move along according to plan.
At the next intersection, which included a highway on-ramp, relations with the police started to worsen. An officer lunged at a CAN member holding a roll of caution tape, seized the tape from his hands, then shouted “What’re you gonna do?” I was taken aback; the action was juvenile and aggressive, and the comment seemed like something that would come out of the mouth of a belligerent frat boy, not a trained professional who is supposed to protect citizens.
As we maintained our hold on that intersection, more police were being called. The media had started to take note of our activities. We had cameras on our side, but the police began to threaten us: “If you do not disperse, Mace will be deployed.” They stood at the ready, cans in hand. This was the first time when it really hit me. “These police might actually hurt me,” I thought, and my stomach turned. “Even though we’re not hurting anyone or anything, these police might actually hurt me.” I tied my bandana around my neck, ready to pull it over my face at any time. It was only then that I realized that my eyes were still exposed and that I could end up in a lot of pain as a result. The threats and the growing police force made several members of the group nervous, so we began to trek through the middle of the street to another intersection.
As we did this, however, we were being herded from behind by police. At every intersection that followed, more and more police showed up. They began to surround us on more and more sides until we would be nearly boxed in when we stopped moving. The possibility of being Maced or gassed means one thing when you are standing safely on a college quad, but it means an entirely different thing when you are being ceaselessly chased, surrounded and threatened by ever-growing brigades of police with gas masks, riot gear and horses.
Due to a combination of fear and overheating, I began to feel ill. I had only been participating in the direct action for about an hour, but already I was overwhelmed by the escalating circumstances. There wasn’t a single moment to breathe safely without having to “tighten up” (cluster together to make sure an individual couldn’t be snatched for arrest), run or watch my back for phalanxes of men with batons.
Fearing for my health and safety as well as the potential of arrest, I dropped out of the direct action early with two members of my affinity group. As it turned out, several members of CAN did suffer at the hands of police. Police tried to push our demonstrators out of the way of delegate buses by driving their motorcycles into the crowd. A few of our people were Maced and arrested. Thankfully, all members of the CAN UIUC chapter avoided such a fate.
While I wouldn’t dare compare what I went through on the first day of the RNC to the experiences of soldiers and civilians in the Iraq war, I feel that my experiences gave me the tiniest glimpse of what it is like to live constantly looking out for the basic safety of yourself and your comrades while simultaneously trying to “win” for your cause. It is immensely straining, both physically and psychologically; after only one day of such experiences I have felt adverse mental effects. The first three nights after the event, I woke up tense and uneasy, with protest songs and chants playing in my head.
I will never know what it is like in a war zone, but this past weekend has only served to increase my empathy and sympathy for those who do. I stand by everything that I did, because it was all done to try to end such circumstances in the world.