United States: Protests and repression mark Republican convention
"Hey I have been down to their 'convergence' centre and they are really organised ... specific plans and hand signals etc."
So read the email from one Republican delegate to another, subsequently captured and uploaded to Indymedia, in what has become the battleground city of St Paul, Minnesota, site of the September 1-4 Republican national convention.
Three days of protest, overwhelmingly peaceful, in this eerily dilapidated city, with rows of old Victorian warehouses and abandoned buildings, have been met with a heavy-handed police crackdown, involving more than 300 arrests — 100 on the felony charge of "conspiring to riot".
By September 3, most of the arrested remained in the Ramsey County jail, many without access to legal counsel.
"None of these charges will stand", a spokeperson for the Poor People's Coalition said this morning, "it's the usual thing — arrest us all and wait until the charges are thrown out by a judge".
Dozens of groups have converged on St Paul to protest the Bush administration's militarist policies and the war on the poor at home. Over the last eight years, poverty in the US has risen from 12% to 23% and millions have had their lives devastated by the lending practices of a deregulated mortgage industry.
Eighty million US citizens have inadequate or no health care.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain's program promises to extend these policies.
Arrangements for hosting the protest were handled by a group known as the "RNC Welcoming Committee", most of whom were rounded up prior to the convention.
The arrests have come despite the lack of a single violent incident, and only a handful of examples of property damage.
Though some protests — such as a coffin march by Veterans For Peace on September 1 — were allowed to proceed peacefully, the dominant tactic has been to disrupt and scatter protesters, even when they are using authorised routes or protest spaces.
The heavy-handed police response — which involved the tear-gassing of protesters trying to leave an area between two security fences near the convention — was in marked contrast to the approach used at the Democratic convention in Denver the previous week, where police had allowed numerous protests to flow with reasonable freedom down unauthorised routes, with officers at one point handing out bottled water to protesters.
There were a series of pre-Republican convention raids on convergence centres and a series of arrests of well-known activists, who were rounded up off the street and from cafes.
The most high profile arrest so far has been of the activist journalist Amy Goodman and two other colleagues from the Democracy Now! syndicated radio show. Goodman was arrested while trying to interview a police office about arbitrary arrests — including of two of her producers.
Ironically, the police crackdown has assisted the protesters in their aim of making the city unworkable, with successive areas blocked off for hours on end, and all connection between St Paul and its twin city Minneapolis — where most delegates stayed — cut off at one point.
The nimble organisation of the protesters — who have been communicating largely through dedicated Twitter networks and who had the convergence centre re-established after being raided at gunpoint — has been in marked contrast to the shambolic and lacklustre convention itself, which has been sparsely attended, with a third of the convention centre empty at some points.
The possibility of heavy damage arising from Hurricane Gustav prompted organisers to cancel the August 31 opening night events altogether and the following two days have featured a limited line-up.
The altered plans have given the Republicans the opportunity to avoid one unpleasant moment — the meeting onstage of deeply unpopular President George Bush and 2008 candidate John McCain. Instead, Bush addressed the convention by video link from the White House.
The first two days of the convention have been widely criticised by the mainstream media for lacking any substance, especially in the area of the US's troubled economy. Instead, attendees have been treated to biographical films of former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr, and speeches from war veterans.
On September 3, the much-awaited appearance by vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin buoyed the crowd with a speech returning to the culture war themes of "elites" versus "mainstream" America.
The previous day, the convention was upstaged by right-wing libertarian Ron Paul's "Paulapalooza", a one-day "anti-convention" at Minneapolis's Target Sports Centre, with a line-up of speakers including conservative guru Grover Norquist and former wrestler turned Minnesota-governor Jesse Ventura.
Many of those attending had skipped the convention proper to hear Paul promise to "retake the Republican Party".
By September 3, more than two hundred protesters remained in custody and protest centres were broken up by further raids. There were suggestions that September 4, the convention's last day, may see the largest protest to date as many protesters will have to be released if felony charges are not pressed.