Protest Then & Now: Activists
“We are coming to Chicago at the time of the Democratic National Convention, not to disrupt the convention, not to confront the police, National Guard troops, or the men in the United States army but to challenge the policies of militarization that have been felt so strongly and brutally in Vietnam.”
—Rennie Davis, of the Chicago 10, in a 1968 interview
That statement made by Rennie Davis, of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), in 1968 is not that different than the statements made by activists at the 2008 Republican National Convention, where St. Paul, Minnesota served as a platform for many activists, anti-war, anti-government and otherwise. Like the activists that participated in protests during the 1968 national convention, demonstrators today are calling for many of the same things: an end to an unpopular war and a change in policies.
Independent Lens spoke to three activists that organized protests at the 2008 RNC about their goals, actions, plans, and how they feel protesting has changed since the 1960s. We also received post-convention updates from two of the groups including descriptions of run-ins with law enforcement.
Replies to our questions are strictly from the activists’ points-of-view.
The Coalition to March on the RNC and the
Anti-War Committee (AWC) in Minneapolis
“I think the time is ripe for massive numbers of people to become engaged politically… Real change happens when the people demand it, not when the correct politician gets elected.”
The Coalition to March formed in October of 2006 when we first heard the GOP was planning to hold their convention in Minnesota. The Coalition is made up of various activist groups in the Twin Cities and the AWC is a very active part of the Coalition.
What are the AWC and the Coalition protesting at the convention, and why? What would you like to accomplish?
We demand an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq and an end to U.S. aggression around the world. We hope to be part of a powerful movement that will send a clear message to the politicians in Washington, and the people of the world, that we oppose the war in Iraq and we demand justice for all those who are oppressed.
How do you think protesting has changed since the 1960s?
I think the combined strength of the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War inspired mass political participation at a level that we don’t see today, unfortunately. I think young people were particularly motivated to protest then because of the draft, the images of people dying in Vietnam, and peaceful civil rights activists being beaten by police. There was also a cultural revolution at the time that normalized the idea of challenging authority. Today, many issues are the same.
In 2008, the time is ripe for massive numbers of people to become engaged politically. My hope is that people can recapture some of the 1960’s spirit that inspired millions to take to the streets, challenge those in power and succeed…. It’s always been people’s movements that agitate for change and force the politicians to meet their demands. Real change happens when the people demand it, not when the correct politician gets elected.
What are some of the actions that your organization has planned? How do you feel these tactics will be effective?
The Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War is organizing a national anti-war rally and march in St. Paul on September 1, the first day of the RNC…. Tens of thousands are planning to take part in the demonstration and many are traveling to the Twin Cities from all over the country. We’re organizing a legal, permitted demonstration that people of all ages and backgrounds should feel comfortable bringing their families to.
The Anti-War Committee plays a big role in the Coalition and is mobilizing supporters to participate in the September 1 rally and march on the Xcel Center. We’re also organizing people to play key roles in making the demonstration successful, such as providing media spokespeople, volunteers to staff info tables, passing out signs, and marshalling the march route. We’ve also initiated a demonstration called ‘No Peace for the War-Makers’ that will take place on Thursday September 4, the last day of the RNC…. We called for the demonstration because we feel it’s important to have a presence outside the Xcel Center when John McCain is officially accepting the GOP’s nomination for president.
In the aftermath of the convention, did everything go as expected for the Coalition to March on the RNC and the Anti-War Committee?
The march organized by the Coalition went very smoothly. Our organizers put the number at 30,000, press quoted the police estimate of 10,000, so I’m sure it was somewhere in between.
The Anti-War Committee's “No Peace for the War-Makers” demonstration on Thursday, September 4 was intended to be a spirited anti-war protest. We were systematically misled by police who repeatedly tried to provoke a confrontation with the crowd and block us from marching.
Around 4:00 PM, riot police began surrounding the Capitol grounds. Soon police on horses charged in to threaten the crowd. It seemed like the police were clearly trying to provoke a confrontation in order to “justify” shutting down the whole demonstration right then and there. At one point in the march, the cops grabbed the front banner. When the two people holding it didn't let go right away, they shot one of them at close range with a rubber bullet. A group of about 30 sat down again and were eventually arrested. I was among this group.
A large group that had remained standing marched up Rice Street to University. As it was getting dark, police deployed tear gas and concussion grenades. They pepper sprayed several people right in the face who were not dispersing fast enough. People who were there have all said that police told them to disperse via the Marion Bridge but when they did so, they were trapped by another line of cops and mass arrested. Everyone in that crowd was arrested, including 19 journalists and a few bystanders who were coming out of Sears.
The demonstration definitely did NOT go the way we thought. We assumed we would at least be allowed to march to the public viewing area, a fenced-in triangular block across from the Xcel Center, which was supposedly open to the public until 11:00 PM. Eventual civil disobedience was in fact part of the plan for people who were prepared to do so. Of the 396 who were arrested on Thursday, I know that many of them weren't planning on risking arrest.
Despite everything, we feel like we were very successful. We got a lot of media coverage and we got a lot of people excited about building the anti-war movement.
“It is important for us, as anarchists and anti-authoritarians, to present alternative ways of organizing based on honest and fair participation in decision-making.”
— Paulie State
RNC Welcoming Committee
The RNC Welcoming Committee is an anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizing body preparing for the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
What is the RNC Welcoming Committee protesting at the convention, and why? What would you like to accomplish?
Why? Because it’s coming here. Oh, and because as a political party which controls an enormous portion of state power, the Republicans are responsible for an enormous amount of the horror and devastation currently experienced by the world and its peoples. As for a broader purpose, we want not only to protest‚ something, but also to continue to build a culture of liberation, where all people can be free. Most people are appalled with what the government is doing, but their dissent stops with voting for the other guy, or with cynical disengagement from the political system. Our resistance is justified, and we want our resistance to be constructive and creative.
What actions the Welcoming Committee planning for the convention?
The Welcoming Committee is not planning specific actions. Our role is to serve as a clearinghouse for groups that have action plans.
“Crash the Convention” is one half of the Welcoming Committee’s call to action—quite literally the action component of what we, as a logistical organization, are facilitating. Crashing the convention is open to interpretation. By crashing, we can set realistic goals that are incremental rather than setting up a dichotomous failure/success scenario by a call to “shut down” the convention. We refuse to confine our potential by imposing a single vision of what success will look like. Blockading is crashing the convention, as is radical street theater performed outside the Xcel Center. Carefully orchestrated acts of civil disobedience could easily constitute crashing the convention as could spontaneous acts of direct action.
“Capacity Building” is the other half of the call. This process is a learning experience and we hope that we, our communities and those of our allies can become stronger, smarter, and more capable to make their dreams come true.
RNC Welcoming Committee
The Welcoming Committee ceased to exist after the convention left town. After all, it'd been "welcomed" by then. Speaking for myself I can say this: One way or another, the convention was crashed. And in fact, the enormous police and military repression St. Paul did the job of diverting local attention away from party politics and to the reality of the police state that has existed for a long time but was significantly more visible at the end of August and beginning of September.
They tried to squash us through pre-emptive raids and assaults, but don't understand that for every door they kick in, another house full of people is motivated to get up and organize radically.
We, and people all around the country who participated, are coming out of the days of action somewhat traumatized, but also stronger and better prepared and equipped to carry the struggle for a more beautiful and just future into our communities every day. Right now those of us who live here in the Twin Cities are focused on defending our friends and loved ones from trumped-up charges (see http://www.rnc8.org) and on maintaining the radical infrastructure and networks we've built up here new medical, legal and bike collectives and a sense of solidarity few of us have experienced before. That, in the face of the government's continuing efforts at criminalizing dissent, is a victory.
“Public protests against war have become sharper, better focused, better organized and less patient with state violence. Importantly, too, the range of groups working under the banner of the anti-war movement has increased exponentially.”
United For Peace and Justice
United for Peace and Justice is a coalition of more than 1,400 local and national groups who have joined to protest the immoral and disastrous Iraq War and oppose the U.S. government's policy of permanent warfare and empire-building. Since its founding in October 2002, UFPJ has spurred hundreds of protests and rallies around the country, and organized the two largest demonstrations against the Iraq war.
What is UFPJ protesting at convention, and why? What would you like to accomplish?
United for Peace and Justice will be in St. Paul during the RNC (and in Denver during the DNC) primarily to protest the continued U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. UFPJ was formed during the build-up to the invasion in 2003, organizing historic protests, some of the first ever to take place before a war began, and we continue to rally in defense of a more humane and just foreign policy…
Part of the reason for UFPJ’s presence in St. Paul is to put pressure on delegates at the RNC through a number of non-violent tactics. Even within the Republican Party, UFPJ knows there are people who oppose the continued war and occupation of Iraq: we want to encourage them to speak out and hope that, in so doing, there will be a ripple effect back to Washington where there are increasing signs of disagreement with the current policy.
UFPJ is also hoping to get our message out to a much wider audience through the national media coverage afforded to both conventions…. The U.S. public, in majority numbers, have been against the war in Iraq for some time now, and the extended media coverage that could be provided us, gives us a vital opportunity to rally this majority constituency to be more visible and more vocal in their opposition to the war.
How has protest changed since the 1960s?
The era of protest in the 1960s, which encompassed far beyond the anti-war movement, helped lay the foundation for the historic rallies in late 2002 and early 2003, which protested a threatened war—something quite unusual in the history of state violence and public reaction to it.
It is illuminating to go back in time and to see how long the Vietnam War had been going on before large public protests were organized to demand the end of that war. Here, in early 2003, mass protests, nationally and internationally, were taking place before the war in Iraq ever began. In this respect, public protests against war have become sharper, better focused, better organized and less patient with state violence.
Importantly, too, the range of groups working under the banner of the anti-war movement has increased exponentially. UFPJ can attest to this directly since many of these groups happen to be member groups to our coalition. On a national, regional and local level, cooperation amongst the anti-war movement increases ever so much, day-by-day: activities become better coordinated; successes take place more and more often, more people become involved in the expanding circle of activists.
While UFPJ is confident about the direction of the anti-war Left and believes that the public protest activities we organize help build our movement, we also know there is still a tremendous challenge ahead. Turning around U.S. foreign and military policy, even in the specifics of one war and occupation, is no easy task!
What are some of the activities UFPJ is planning on? How will these be effective?
During the RNC, UFPJ will be working with a locally led coalition, the March on the RNC and Stop the War Coalition. The centerpiece of the RNC events will be the mass March on the RNC, taking place on the day the RNC begins. Throughout the week, many various activities will be utilized, embracing different kinds of tactics, ranging from panel discussions amongst major parts of the anti-war movement to music concerts to staged protests.
At the DNC, UFPJ worked with a locally led coalition, the Alliance for a Real Democracy, and a number of national anti-war groups, including Tent State University, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Progressive Democrats of America, Code Pink, etc. This coalition has created a vibrant environment for a whole range of protest activities, from the Tent State Music Festival Concert to a Funk the War Rally and Dance to panel discussions on topics of concern to IVAW’s setting up of “checkpoints” around Denver to mirror the situation in Iraq.