Land of the free

Matt Kennard is blogging the Republican convention in St Paul. Here is his account of attending the

On our way down to the biggest protest march of the week, my colleague and I encountered a counter-protest happening up the road. It was organized by the Families United for Iraq, which was made up of parents who had lost children in the war and were now directing their efforts to defending the honour of the adventure in Iraq.

There was the Hollywood actor Jon Voigt, the archconservative and father of Angelina Jolie, and he stood dutifully signing the pictures of the fallen soldiers in Iraq. Apparently, a non-partisan event, on inspection it was a largely McCain affair. “Support Our Troops and Their Mission” said the large banner unfurled on the lawn.

At 11 am the great and good of the anti-war movement, from St. Paul and around the country, assembled for a two-hour rally at the State Capitol. About 5,000 people were gathered in and around the stage for the speeches from, amongst others, the Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Vice Presidential Candidate for the Green Party, Rosa Clemente, and, a Somali contingent against the Ethiopian occupation.

The speeches were the usual stuff, some of it very powerful, especially the veterans, about 25 of them got on stage, there to remonstrate with the Iraq war and the lack of benefits they are given when they return.

The crowd was an odd-mix of mainstream Obama fanatics who bandied about with “Change” and “Hope” written on their clothes, and the more rarefied socialists, anarchists and Green Party members.

This tension was exposed when Clemente, of the Greens, started speaking on the lack of essential differences between the two main parties. There was a piercing silence when she finished her sentences. “Poverty in America isn’t going to get you excited?” she asked.

At 1 pm the crowds swelled and congregated down the road from the State Capitol. At its most populous there were easily 30,000 people marching, and their route snaked through downtown St. Paul.

All along the route stood police officers with sticks in their hands (not stowed in their trousers), secret service in Matrix-style outfits and earpieces. Everyone had guns and was in riot gear. The guns were no joke either; there were M-16’s and a bunch of other weaponry bigger than many of the kids on the march. These guys were ready for the apocalypse apparently.

The route of the march took us about half a mile through a passageway with high metal fencing on both sides, it all felt a bit Guantanamo Bay. “Welcome to the Freedom Zone,” said one protester at the entrance.

The police looked like they meant business, and, inevitably, later on they flexed their muscles. On what appeared to me a wholly peaceful march nearly 250 people were detained. Video has now appeared of the police using pepper spray on the protesters.

And the police seemed like they were arresting large swathes of people for no apparent reason. Later, I heard that even Republicans – even these staunch defenders of freedom – had been detained by their own police force erroneously as the 50 swept up large sections of the downtown.

Most egregious and scary was the arrest of two producers and the host of Democracy Now! the most popular independent media outlet in the United States.

The police arrested two producers, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar, while they were interviewing protesters at the march, then took the award-winning journalist, Amy Goodman, in too, for merely trying to find out what had happened to Kouddous and Salazar. You can see the video here.

I know Sharif, Nicole and Amy and know they were doing what they are famous for – covering issues with rigour and independence of mind. They have all been released now but Sharif and Nicole now have a felony charge for rioting over their heads.

They were seen interviewing people at the time the police swept them up and both claim they were physically abused by the police as they were heavy-handedly arrested.

This came on the back of the pre-emptive raids on protesters that presaged the Convention: armed police, initially without a warrant, kicked down the doors of I-Witness on Saturday early morning. In the age of the Patriot Act and increasing repression of dissent, the police behaviour on the march was a very scary spectacle.

Billy Bragg and Mos Def were playing a concert on Harriet Island, just near St. Paul after the march for Labour Day, so at the end of the march I set off to downtown again. On the way, I saw Fox News, the Pravda of the Republican Party, around and about the protesters trying to find the most crazy so they could all laugh about it on TV. “F*** Fox News!” was the chant that went up, as the correspondent, and his attendant secret service helpers, were splashed with water from somewhere at the back.

Then came the fun. The police had blocked the bridge going back into downtown. About 300 people waited for two hours before they would let them through. Meanwhile, activists were stopping traffic and being threatened with arrest. One man claimed to have had his helmet and clothes stolen by the police. At the same time, in a wonderfully weird episode, a man in an electronic wheelchair went around berating the protestors and told them to go back to Iran and that they were anti-American, literally every second for an hour. He also laid into me for being from the UK and allowing Islamists to take over my country. Sorry about that. In the end, I decided I couldn't wait any longer for the police to let us through so spurned hearing the dulcet tones of Bragg and went home.