A contingent of 50 Pittsburghers spearheaded by the anarchist Pittsburgh Organizing Group, as well as others from the city, joined thousands protesting the Republicans in St. Paul, Minn. last week.
They, too, were arrested while blocking city streets to prevent delegates from arriving. And like many other activists, they say they witnessed house raids, indiscriminate mass arrests and the use of many so-called "less-lethal" chemical weapons.
One veteran protester, POG's Alex Bradley of Bloomfield, calls it "the worst climate of fear and repression ever seen: police everywhere, following people, harassing people, pulling cars over that didn't look well-to-do."
POG had announced its intent to blockade the intersection of Seventh and Wall streets -- within a few blocks of the Republican National Convention site, the Xcel Center -- on the convention's first day, Sept. 1. But they had not revealed their tactics.
So when Bradley and three other activists walked up the sidewalk to the intersection, Bradley says, about two dozen police "were waiting for us to walk into the street." Instead, a Volvo driven by a POG member screeched to a halt in the middle of the intersection, and the four protesters rushed out to handcuff themselves to its front and rear. Each pair was linked by lockboxes -- lengths of PVC pipe covered in chicken wire, tar and other substances that encased their arms locked inside. Another POG member was behind the wheel, and after stopping the car, the driver placed his hands inside a lockbox buried in concrete inside a 5-gallon bucket.
"We tried to time it perfectly," says POG member Marie Skoczylas, who was chained to the front of the car. "It seemed that there were different [police] departments there, and they weren't very coordinated. They ended up helping us to block the road for a time."
Several blockade members unfurled "Direct Action for Direct Democracy" and "Free People Govern Themselves" banners, while another played guitar and sang. According to Bradley and others in the contingent, police said they had only a pair of "cut teams" to undo lockboxes, but one arrived to oust the Pittsburghers within 20 minutes. A tractor pushed the car to the side of the road. All five protesters were arrested on one of two charges: unlawful assembly or obstructing justice.
Neither St. Paul nor Bloomington, Minn. police, both of which were involved in the arrests, answered phone inquiries about this or other incidents.
The POG blockade had held the intersection for an hour. Other blockades held out longer.
Patrick Young, of Lawrenceville, was among six Pittsburghers in lockboxes blocking the off-ramp from I-94 onto Seventh Street, a block from Wall. "We held the space for about two and a half hours," Young says. "The police had dismantled the blockade behind us and were directing the traffic around us, so it didn't make any sense for us to be there anymore."
After ditching their lockboxes in the woods, he says, the group became a roving blockade against buses headed for Xcel. "As a bus would come into an intersection, we'd lock arms and hold the space as long as we could until the police pushed us back or pepper-sprayed us. It was a kind of a cat-and-mouse game in St. Paul."
Like the other blockaders, who were released from a makeshift Ramsey County detention center that day, Young joined subsequent protests, including the Poor People's March for economic justice on Sept. 2, the Sept. 3 protest outside the jail holding many activists and a Sept. 4 march from the capitol to Xcel organized by the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, whose permit had been revoked. At the march's end, Young says, "The police started arresting a lot of people, using pepper-spray, concussion grenades, tear gas." Protesters were blocked on a bridge at the time, and "I saw 60 or 70 arrests. Once people started scattering, there was chaos everywhere."
Pre-emptive stops, searches and arrests were also rampant, protesters say. Indeed, Morgan Ress, of the North Side, is certain that he and a friend were pulled over not 30 seconds into St. Paul "because obviously we weren't Republican." He was riding in the other man's 1980 VW Rabbit pickup, which had been converted to vegetable oil and was hauling several bicycles.
"Not a very subtle vehicle," Ress admits. Still, he says police told the pair their violation was having a two-line LCD fuel-use indicator on top of their dashboard.
The police, Ress says, were "doing this weird Midwestern friendly-fascist thing: 'Mind if we have a look inside the car?' We told them we minded. They didn't take it well."
He says the pair protested the search of their belongings, to no avail. When Ress' friend could not produce papers for the car insurance -- he recently switched carriers, Ress says -- police seized the vehicle. They got it back days later.
"That sort of characterizes the experience for activists at the RNC," Ress says. "It took the sketchiest of pretexts" to get stopped. "If you were unlucky, you got taken off to prison.
"The feeling I got from being around the other activists was extreme paranoia," he concludes. "People were being snatched off the streets -- not even during the protest. It was just the extreme feeling that by coming to voice dissent you were risking arrest, you were risking harassment, you were forsaking your right not to be searched, to have your property seized on whatever pretext they could come up with."
Still, POG's Alex Bradley calls the protests "a victory for the movement. It showed that there are thousands of people committed to opposing the two-party system that only works for the interests of a small number of people, and we demonstrated that through popular resistance in the street."