Tear gas, pepper sprayWelcome to GOP convention

ST. PAUL, Minn. (PAI)--As the Republican National Convention convened on Sept. 1 in downtown St. Paul, Minn., more than 10,000 people, including unionists, took to the streets to protest the Iraq War and demand new priorities for the nation.

'The war costs $10 billion a month,' said Polly Pampusch, who teaches English as a second language at Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul. 'I've been teaching for 30 years and the last eight years have been a very tough time for our schools.' The war, she added, cost thousands of lives and used resources needed for education.

The march, organized to protest the war, drew a diverse group of citizens who said the country is headed in the wrong direction in a variety of ways. The event was timed to coincide with an appearance by anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush at the convention, but Bush canceled his speech so he could track the effects of Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast. He spoke to the delegates, defending the Iraq War, by videolink the next day, after Gustav lessened.

The GOP conventioneers turned some of their parties into pass-the-hat fund-raisers for people in Gustav’s path. Communities in the path of the hurricane were also on the minds of the protesters, who collected donations for Gulf residents affected by the disaster. And the demonstrators also made a link Bush's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina three years ago, the Iraq War and the many unmet needs in the U.S.

'We demand a reordering of national and local priorities…toward jobs, education, health care, rebuilding our infrastructure and an end to poverty as we know it,' said Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, which represents clerical workers at the University of Minnesota.

As the protesters exercised their free speech rights, hundreds of police--some in riot gear--lined the sidewalks of downtown St. Paul. After the march, some 50 people were reportedly arrested for smashing windows and violating the convention security zone. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, police used tear gas and pepper spray.

Arrests during the 4-day convention numbered at least 400. Eileen Clancy, in St. Paul for I-Witness Video, said video makers were “targeted by the FBI for disruption.” The FBI was one of dozens of law enforcement agencies in the Twin Cities.

On Saturday before the convention opened, the FBI visited the house we were staying at and a few hours later it was raided by the police. Several members of I- Witness Video were held inside for at least three hours. Five other members who were not at the house at that time were simultaneously detained on no basis. “The way the government is acting--no arrests, no apologies--seems designed solely to disrupt our work. We don't demonstrate, we just videotape and that taping helps prevent police misconduct. Apparently, that is threatening to the government,' Clancy added.

Police also arrested and briefly detained Amy Goodman, host of the nationally syndicated radio program Democracy Now! and two of her producers. The producers were arrested while covering the anti-war protest on Sept. 1, and Goodman was arrested when she questioned police about why they arrested the two staffers.

Journalists’ groups, including The Newspaper Guild, circulated e-mails and petitions which they sent to Twin Cities officials denouncing the arrests and demanding release of those held. Video of the FBI raid on I-Witness and of Goodman’s arrest were both posted on YouTube and video of the producers’ arrest is on Democracy Now!

As the antiwar march on Labor Day neared the Xcel Energy Center, the convention hall, demonstrators were herded past large security fences that blocked access to the facility.

Nearby, a sign on the Dorothy Day Center, a homeless shelter operated by Catholic Charities, read, 'Our political agenda: food, shelter and dignity.' That sentiment was echoed by many in the march.

'When will we come out in numbers to say no to inequality, hunger and homelessness in the United States of America?' wondered Cheri Honkala, organizer for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. 'It is our families that go to war because they are poor in this 'economic draft.''

Other protests included a commission, holding hearings on poverty in the U.S. in a nearby church, a “Take Back Labor Day” rally organized by the Service Employees on nearby Harriet Island, and the “Bush Legacy Tour”--a rolling “museum” bus of the president’s misdeeds, aided by McCain and other Republicans. The bus is partially funded by the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, AFSCME and Americans United for Change.

“McCain has emerged as the poster child for a third term of Bush,” said Julie Blust of Americans United. “He wants to keep our troops stuck in the crosshairs of the civil war in Iraq for ‘100 Years’ or more. McCain…wants to see more tax breaks for corporations that outsource American jobs and more tax cuts for millionaires like himself that never manage to ‘trickle-down' to everyone else. And McCain wants to revive the same old disastrous Bush proposal to replace Social Security with privatization.”