Sunday August 31, 2008 saw the first arrests of peaceful protesters at the Republican National Convention held in St. Paul, MN. As plans began to be announced for scheduled protest marches and rallies against the on-going war on Iraq and “against the Republican agenda”, a few of us in the local peace community in the Twin Cities grew uncomfortable with the style and tenor of some of the protests.
Although we are as strongly opposed to the war as many other groups, some of us wished to have a more reflective and solemn protest against the loss of life and physical and psychological destruction of both soldiers and civilians this war has wrought. This war had been supported by both major political parties and is not just a “Republican” issue.
My friend Dr. David Harris, an active member of Veterans for Peace, shared these concerns and generated the idea of a silent march carrying symbolic tombstones with the photos and names of dead U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the war. Our mutual friend and peacemaker, Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi-American and founder of the Muslim Peacemaker Team provided photos he has taken during the war of some of the enormous numbers of Iraqi casualties that he has witnessed first-hand.
Dr. Harris’s idea was to march to the Xcel Center, the location for the RNC, carrying the tombstones with just a drum cadence and the reading of the names of the dead on both sides with the response from the marchers being “We remember you” in a similar fashion to the annual protest at The U.S. Army School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, GA. There, each November, the vigilers respond with “Presente!” when names of the victims of that notorious remnant of the Cold War are sung out.
Dr. Harris also felt the need to include an option in the march for those who felt called to supplement their protest with an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. Marchers were told that if they wished to risk arrest, they could nonviolently continue beyond the legal route of the march and attempt to carry their tombstones to the convention site itself. He was public and clear with both the marchers and the police about these intentions and the risks involved.
Prior to the start of the march, only 4 expressed an interest and willingness to commit to the civil disobedience portion of the march with one saying she would like to do so but wasn’t sure she’d have the physical stamina to be able to march to the point where the breach of the security line would occur. So, initially, three of us chose to branch off the route to an area scouted out in advance where it appeared there was an opening in the fence.
However, when we approached the opening, it turned out to be a swinging gate to allow vehicles to pass and the gates were quickly shut and secured as we slowly approached. As I entered the area, I noticed a gap under the fenced-off area where I though we might be able to squeeze under and so I told the other two to follow me. Given my physical size, it was somewhat a chore to squeeze under the wrought iron fencing but after I managed it, I waited for the other two. When we had cleared it, I noticed to my chagrin that we were “boxed in” by fencing all around us except for a rear building entrance on one side.
However, on closer inspection, I discovered that one section of the fence wasn’t properly secured and could possibly be lifted off its hinge pins and removed to the side. Joel and David gave me a hand in lifting the heavy 4’ x 10’ panel up and as I moved the section to the side, at least a half dozen law enforcement officers rushed to the site from inside the perimeter to prevent our access. I gently pushed the fence as they struggled to close the breach. I told the officers that we were committed to nonviolence and had no intention of injuring anyone – we just wanted “to go to the Xcel Center to deliver a letter and documents to President Bush”.
Earlier that morning, I wrote an open letter to the President, calling him to immediately end this war, quoting portions of International Law and treaties it had violated. Needless to say, the police were more concerned with their security perimeter than the desires of a few to peaceably confront the “Commander-in-Chief”. After it became clear that we would be unable to proceed further in a nonviolent manner, we decided to remain where we were. We were also pleasantly surprised to find that Josh, Dan, and Duncan had joined us. I knew Josh and Dan from the recent 500 mile “Witness Against War” walk from Chicago to St. Paul they had completed the day before. I was glad to have their gentle spirits with us! None of us had previously known Duncan but he was the one who had shown David the area where we might by-pass the fence prior to the walk.
As at least a dozen police officers in riot gear with long wooden batons quickly established themselves between us and the fence, I then noticed that three other friends and joined us on “the wrong side of the law”. Sister Betty Mckenzie, a nun who is 78 had crawled under the fence along with Mary Vaughan and Jeanne Hynes. All three women have been faithful peace activists and active members of AlliantACTION, a local group that has vigiled weekly for the past 12 years at the headquarters of a war profiteer, Alliant Techsystems. So that completed our group of nine.
As the police regrouped and officers were deciding what to do with their caged prey, Mary decided to lead us in song. Down By The Riverside, Let It Be, Give Peace a Chance, and even a spirited solo by Duncan of James Brown’s classic, “I Feel Good” rang out. Many members of the media had crowded up against the outside of the fence wanting to get a photo or a quote from Betty or Jeanne who were closest to them. One of our group asked me to read aloud my letter to the President so the surrounding police could hear it. I obliged.
After what seemed to be 15-20 minutes, a police commander came to inform us that “You know you are under arrest?” Actually, other police must have been a little lax in their training as that was the first we were notified that we were “arrested”. We had a pleasant conversation with him, informing him of our commitment to nonviolence and our intent to deliver the letter and documents to the Convention site. He said that wasn’t going to happen and asked if we would “cooperate” with the arrest procedure. David, ever the diplomat, responded “of course” but then quickly added, “Actually, we might not cooperate but we are certainly nonviolent”.
In an act of supreme irony, David was the first to be shackled with a set of PINK handcuffs! I told him how proud Media Benjamin and her Code Pink group would be if they could see him now. (Media and Code Pink members had marched with us before we veered off-route.) I had to settle for black handcuffs and the officer cooperated with my request to not make them too tight because I suffer from carpal tunnel. He was very respectful and all of the officers responded to our peaceableness in a professional and respectful manner. A number of the officers responded positively to David’s ready identity as a military vet since he proudly had worn his Veterans For Peace t-shirt. I had chosen to wear my LA Catholic Worker shirt with a Dorothy Day quote: “The only solution is Love” on it. Jeanne wore her NO WAR t-shirt which included “Our God is Love; Our Gospel is Peace”.
The booking process began in the building we had come behind – St. Paul’s famous Landmark Center. We were searched and patted down and then photographed alongside our “Arresting Officer” with a white board declaring our names, birthdates, and case numbers. Our metal handcuffs were replaced with sturdy plastic flexi-cuffs and we were herded out to a waiting police van to be transported to the Ramsey County Jail for the rest of the booking process.
I later found out that Sister Betty has collapsed while being processed and was caught and helped into a wheelchair. I think the combination of the outside temperature, the march, and the excitement of crawling under the security fence had strained her frail physique. Mary informed us that she thought Betty was recovering fine. We later discovered that they kept Jeanne and Betty at the first location and completed their booking process there so they wouldn’t have to be transported elsewhere. Again, we were treated with respect and dignity despite the fact that the two previous days had seen what seemed to me as egregious excesses by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office against what they and the media defined as “anarchists”. They were probably ignorant that Dorothy Day herself and many of today’s principled servants of the poor, the Catholic Workers, identify themselves as anarchists.
After having our property put in plastic bags (belts, combs, watches, keys, pens and paper …) we were fingerprinted and booked. Duncan was placed in a separate cage because he didn’t have any identification on him and he was from out-of-state. It was indicated that he might be held until they could verify his identity through other means. After receiving a citation for “trespass: refusing to leave the premises of another”, the police put us back into a van with stainless benches and a divider that reminded me of a cattle truck. They drove us a block or two away from the jail and gave us directions about how to walk back to the State Capitol, our starting place. We were given our property back at that point so we were able to contact our families and friends to let them know we were OK and able to breathe free air again.
The citation indicates that we will be contacted by mail for our court appearance and, I know from previous experience, that we can be fined and get up to 3 months jail time if convicted. But that is for the next leg of this journey for peace. We must end this war!
Betty McKenzie and I were interviewed for Faith Matters, an ABC show:
(There are some good photos of the peace witness on The Minnesota Independent website. http://www.minnesotaindependent.com/6394/the-anatomy-of-a-march-veterans-for-peace-event-ends-in-arrests )
Video at: http://www.myfoxtwincities.com/myfox/MyFox/pages/sidebar_video.jsp?contentId=7329637&version=1&locale=EN-US
Video at: http://www.startribune.com/video/27726684.html?elr=KArks8c7PaP3E77K_3c::D3aDhUec7PaP3E7_0c:5D:aPc:iUiacyKUU