Two key groups collided in St. Paul: police and the RNC Welcoming Committee (RNCWC). The latter group bills itself as "an anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizing body preparing for the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota." The focal positioning of this branch of anarchists is socialism with a small s (not State Socialism), anti-capitalism and anti-global capitalism (especially big business and large corporations), anti-political system, and pro-social justice. It is socialist anarchism. This branch has its own left wing that embraces various degrees of violence.
To understand the smash-up, we need to understand both sides in the battle.
The protest strategy of the RNC Welcoming Committee follows the general model of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests and riots. A heightened level of violence as compared with peaceful sit-ins is a conscious part of that strategy.
The police are in a difficult position. They cannot idly stand by and allow massive disruption. The protesters are also in a difficult position. They do not want to stand by idly and silently endure political outcomes that they detest. Some at least do not wish to work solely at the community level while rendering unto Caesar at other levels. They are not patient and long-suffering souls who are prepared to look ahead 300 years.
"I would say that they messed up big time, way to our advantage. The first day they thought they would be effective by undermining what they thought to be our strategy of filling up the jails. They planned to make no arrests, and just use plenty of non-lethal force. That non-lethal force just strengthened people’s resolve to disrupt the conference. It also led a lot of people to move away from strict pacifism. It is easier to remain a pacifist if you’ve never felt the force of the state. When their [the police] strategy failed all they could do was try and maintain the police lines, which they had a lot of trouble with.
"By the end of the first day a State of Civil Emergency had been declared and there was a lot of criticism of the more destructive activists. The police and the city had an opportunity to turn things around for themselves and they blew it. The cops went on a rampage for 24 hours indiscriminately attacking people all over the city. While they arrested a lot of activists for civil disobedience, the brunt of the force was directed against non-activist civilians. The police were already under a lot of heat for mishandling the day before. With the ensuing day of police rioting they had turned our struggle into a much more popular struggle, and the cops lost all respect."
Police seem to have difficulty discriminating peaceful and violent protest. They have problems in knowing what to do when faced with protests that are both organized, semi-organized, and improvised (all at the same time), and protests that intentionally use disruptive tactics like human blockades, window-breaking, and spray painting. They have difficulty when violent protests intermingle with peaceful protests and marches. On the streets, they have difficulty telling the good guys from the bad guys and deciding what level of violence they should use.
Overseas police have apparently learned how to cope and gain control, according to one observer of subsequent attempts to disrupt major conferences in Prague, Quebec, and Genoa. Protesters did not have the success they had in Seattle.
Police training is deficient, as evidenced by the arrests of journalist Amy Goodman and her producers, the latter being charged with felonies. Goodman merely asked police a question, which brought on a charge of conspiracy. A video shows one or two policemen in an advancing phalanx who pepper spray a harmless young woman who ambles toward them holding a flower. An AP photographer was arrested.
Police in these cases abandon both common sense and use of the English language. They make total control into their single-minded goal. And the only way that they know how to implement it seems to be massive force directed at even the least person or interaction that even remotely appears to threaten their dominance. They want instant and complete obedience. If you do not get out of their way, then they assume that you are automatically conspiring against them and worse.
In too many cases, the friendly cop on the beat has been transformed into some kind of machine. Life imitates art. The police phalanx is a version of the droid-machine ED-209 in Robocop. At a demonstration of its capabilities, the droid fails to recognize that a volunteer has dropped his weapon upon command. The droid proceeds to riddle the poor man with bullets.
What are groups like the RNCWC after? What do they hope to accomplish with disruptive and violent tactics? The immediate tactical goal at St. Paul was to blockade the convention center, immobilize the busses carrying delegates, and block access by bridges. The idea was to disrupt the timed and planned convention activities. Closing the convention would have been complete victory.
Many different groups are involved and their longer-term aims vary greatly. Forty groups are listed on the RNCWC web site. Here is one summary of a few positions:
"Unconventional Action’s strategy at the Democratic National Convention will hold the Democratic Party accountable for promoting unjust policies: environmental degradation, the enforcement of arbitrary borders, attacks on the poor, complacency in war, and racist policing. We will expose to the nation that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin, both parties funded by the same corporations and upholding the same unjust political system which fails to meet the needs of the vast majority of people…Unconventional Action will honor and support autonomous actions while coordinating a highly publicized assault on the pageantry, violence, and abuses of the Democrats and the two-party capitalist system."
These protests serve a number of lesser purposes in the minds of protesters. (1) Disrupt the conference. (2) Oppose "global capitalism" by direct action. (3) Gain publicity that symbolizes disaffection of the system. (4) Let off stream.
But since they know that the powers-that-be will continue on and accomplish their work in other ways, the main ideas lie elsewhere. They are (1) to "demonstrate an alternative — they show that you don’t have to leave decisions up to others, that it’s possible for large numbers of people to come together and organize themselves, that direct action and direct democracy are possible. That is the real point of the summit protests…", and (2) to activate and empower people who participate, (3) to create a coalition and movement that allies such groups as labor, anarchism and environmental, and (4) to place the powers-that-be on the defensive by making them have to defend their get-togethers.
Protests challenge the power of the authorities. Having to defend their every move shows how weak they really are. They respond the only way they know how, which is with a greater police presence. The police counter-attack with methods that infringe rights and threaten the liberties of all. Reminiscent of police operations in pre-Revolutionary Russia, the New York Police Department "infiltrated and spied on protest groups across the country" prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC). Agents provocateurs were also reported.
In 2008, the FBI joined state and local police in similar operations in St. Paul, Minnesota. Three months ago, they began recruiting moles (underground informers and spies) to show up at "vegan potlucks" as a means of infiltrating groups readying protests at this year’s RNC.
The organization coordinating this is the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. This began in 1980 and now has 3,723 members nationwide working out of 56 offices and 100 cities. Mimicking the language of terrorists, we are told that they are "small cells of highly trained, locally based" persons, including investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts, etc.
Protesters are not terrorists, but loosely-written statutes, state and federal, are giving the green light to tactics worthy of a police state.
Glenn Greenwald is documenting the police intimidation, arrests, and militarized scare tactics in St. Paul. Our country has lived through many such episodes before, such as during the Red Scare of 1918—1921. But the problem of excessive and improper police methods is today much, much greater for many reasons. (1) Many police departments have adopted these tactics of spying, infiltration, provoking crimes, intimidation, seizure, and wide nets of arrest and handcuffing. (2) Federal police are involved. (3) The police at state, local, and federal levels now have a national coordinating organization. (4) The police efforts are not an episode lasting a few years. They span decades. (5) The methods have escalated. (6) The police methods are backed up by a panoply of new laws and such methods as seizure and forfeiture. (7) The war on terror umbrella provides a background for public acceptance of suppression of political liberty. (8) The effect is to suppress public political dissent. Normal political speech is sacrificed for the maintenance of law and order.
The U.S. has become as autocratic as Czarist Russia and is provoking the same kinds of behaviors: youthful revolutionaries and heavy-handed police attempts to suppress them.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.