With the leading lights of the GOP hanging back to see what aid they can render to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf coast, protesters from about 180 diverse groups gathered in St. Paul on Monday to express their dissatisfaction with the Republican party, global capitalism, meat eaters, big oil, washing regularly, neocons, corporate coffee, the military industrial complex, Jews, immunization, working for a living and of course "the man" in all his forms. The protesters included a lot of the usual hippies and peaceniks plus a surprisingly large contingent of several hundred black-uniformed hardcore anarchists who had brought their own gas masks and riot gear. Unlike the bulk of the protesters and in a way contrary to their ideology, the black-shirts were organized and far from peaceful.
The protest march had been billed by the organizers (Coalition to March on the RNC and End the War) as likely to attract 50,000 participants. Estimates from observers suggest the actual turnout was more like 5,000 to 10,000. A good thing, considering the unpleasant turn which the gathering took very quickly. The mainstream media has largely downplayed the level of violence which took place on Monday, hesitant to admit that it was a full-blown riot. But reports from bloggers and other sources paint a very ugly picture.
Everything started out as planned, with participants marching and waving signs in the 90 degree heat through downtown St. Paul. As the march began to wind down the violence began, with one group setting up a human chain in the middle of the highway off-ramp servicing the downtown area around the convention center. As buses bearing delegates were brought to a standstill, protesters threw bricks, rocks, bottles and bags of concrete on them from an overpass, breaking windows and terrorizing the passengers, including prominent blogger Gateway Pundit. A video interview with some of the victims is available.
Some protesters set up roadblocks to keep the police from interfering, while about 200 black-clad and masked anarchists smashed windows in local stores and a bank, tipped over newspaper boxes, lit a dumpster on fire and pushed it into a police car and flipped heavy concrete garbage bins onto the sidewalk, and scattered bent nails and other makeshift caltrops to puncture the tires of cars entering the area. Some of these actions were attributed to Funk the War, a militant offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society.
Another group of rioters attacked the Connecticut delegation as they were getting off their bus at the Xcel center, spraying them with a caustic substance and trying to tear up their convention credentials. In the course of this attack an 80-year-old delegate was injured and had to be hospitalized and many others were treated by paramedics. Christopher Healy, chairman of the Connecticut State Republican Party commented:
"These knuckle-heads crossed the line. We're for free speech, not free bleach. We respect their right to protest, but do it civilly. Pushing, shoving, spitting, throwing harmful chemicals – it's not the American way.'"
Scattered clashes went on into the evening as police sent for help from the Minnesota National Guard, which sent an additional 150 men and will be providing more support for the rest of the week. The main crowd was dispersed with pepper-spray, teargas and mass arrests, but additional manpower was needed to track down small groups of the most violent rioters.
At the end of the day 284 rioters had been arrested and as many as 130 may face felony charges, making this the worst single riot in the United States since the riots after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles in 1992. If rioting continues tomorrow new records may be set. Those arrested included reporters for the Associated Press and leftist syndicated news show Democracy Now.
In response to threats of violence prior to the convention police took extreme measures, raiding the houses of protest organizers, pre-emptively arresting some protesters and seizing audio and video equipment. They also raided five houses belonging to members of a local anarchist group called the RNC Welcoming Committee and seized large numbers of tasers, bomb-making devices and other improvised weapons intended to arm protesters and facilitate violence in their campaign to "Crash the Convention." Had these arrests not been made the level of violence would likely have been considerably worse.
There is surprisingly little video of Monday's riots available online, most of it shot at a distance from the main activity — like one video shot from someone's back-porch barbeque party — suggesting that police have custody of most of the video shot in the midst of the action. There are some good still photos taken by witnesses on the Atlas Shrugs blog. Note that the people in some of these photos dressed all in black with gas masks or bandanas over their faces are anarchist rioters rather than police.
The media and leaders on the left have attempted to lay all of the blame for the rioting on anarchist groups. With the top anarchist organizers already in jail, it seems pretty clear that their role was curtailed. It also seems clear that Funk the War was a central participant in Monday's violence, and they are not anarchists, but are part of Students for a Democratic Society, a well-established, mainstream student group which many prominent leaders in the Democratic Party were once members of.
The highly organized groups which started the rioting were small in number, but egged on others to join with them in assaulting delegates, destroying property and causing chaos. Anarchists and allied violence-prone groups have become an increasingly prominent element of anti-war protests in the last few years, and while starting a riot was clearly not the outcome intended by protest organizers, the better trained and more militant groups can easily dominate a volatile situation and direct it towards violence. With the convention just getting started we may well see much more violence before it is over.