Police and protesters clashed here on the opening day of the Republican National Convention after groups of self-described anarchists, black cloths covering their faces, began roaming the downtown streets -- setting fires, throwing rocks and breaking windows.
More than 280 people were arrested on charges including felonies and misdemeanors. The Minnesota National Guard had to help keep order.
The day started peacefully, with more than 10,000 antiwar protesters converging on the state Capitol by foot, hybrid car and bicycle. While most activists were still unfurling banners saying “Bush/McCain = McSame” and plucking flower petals to scatter, police said, small splinter groups threw road flares into garbage dumpsters, setting them on fire and using the receptacles to block traffic.
“It progressed to breaking windows in police cars, smashing windows in some of the downtown stores, and throwing rocks and other debris at officers,” St. Paul Police Chief John M. Harrington said.
As the confrontation grew, one group of protesters tried to block convention delegate buses arriving at the Xcel Energy Center, where a scaled-back day of business was planned because of Hurricane Gustav’s lashing of the Gulf Coast. But they were surrounded by officers in heavy riot gear and gas masks, who used tear gas to push back protesters refusing to move.
Law enforcement authorities also used pepper spray and concussion grenades to disperse crowds.
“I’ve been tear-gassed twice today, and I’m not here as a protester,” said Oliver Dykstra, 24, a student at Minneapolis Community & Technical College who was reporting on the protests for a local media website. “I was terrified. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see.”
In recent days, police squads raided a building in St. Paul and several homes in Minneapolis -- seizing buckets of gray water and urine, along with slingshots and spikes that could be used to disable delegate buses -- in an effort to avert potentially violent protests at this week’s convention.
Critics have said those preemptive strikes violated the protesters’ constitutional rights. Bruce Nestor, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said officers took away boxes of pamphlets on free-speech laws in Minnesota and booklets on how to legally protest. “This strategy has not been about protecting delegates,” Nestor said. “This is an aggressive abuse of power.”
Since demonstrators closed down Seattle streets during the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999, cities have used controversial tactics to keep protesters from disrupting political gatherings. After a small group of anarchists began to pelt officers with trash during the Democratic National Convention in 2000, for example, Los Angeles police used pepper spray and nonlethal bullets to disperse a concert outside Staples Center.
In the days leading up to this year’s convention in St. Paul, 15 people were arrested -- including a 72-year-old nun who intentionally crossed a security barrier near the Xcel Energy Center as an act of civil disobedience. She and a 73-year-old companion were given citations and released.
“A lot of people were afraid and stayed home because of what had happened over the weekend,” said Jess Sudin, a spokeswoman for the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, which organized the day’s main rally. “We were so happy to see as many people show up as they did. But none of us can believe how the day ended.”
As of late Monday evening, 129 protesters had been charged with felonies that included assaulting an officer and criminal destruction of property, officials said. Fifty-one people were charged with gross misdemeanors, “essentially lesser versions of the felonies,” Harrington said. They, along with those facing felony charges, were booked into Ramsey County Jail, with bond hearings set to begin today. The remaining people arrested were charged with misdemeanors, and most of them were cited and released.