When Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin took the stage at the Veterans for Peace rally in front of the State Capitol building today, where hundreds of activists gathered before marching towards the Xcel Energy Center, she started with the string of weekend raids on her mind: “This is not the Midwestern welcome we expected!”
Her audience cheered–among them a vet hoisting a desert-camo anti-war flag:
A cadre of protesters were clad in orange jumpsuits meant to evoke those worn by prisoners at the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison. The held black hoods in their hands and stuck signs to their backs–on each sign was printed the name, age and story of a living, breathing Guantanamo detainee:
While the protesters gathered in a line, a dozen or so police on bikes gathered by the portable bathrooms for a huddle and two St. Paul police officers on a John Deere Gator XUV waited to serve as a sort of pace car for the portion of the march that was sanctioned:
The sun was brutal. “Hey!” yelled a man holding a corner of a Veterans for Peace banner at the front of the march to a friend, “You wouldn’t want to lend an Irish Polack a hat, would you?”
With most of the marchers ready to go, the Guantanamo protesters–a separate contingent–were still gathering themselves. Most were fumbling with their black hoods. “Yeah, you can see out of them,” said one prisoner to a concerned onlooker. “Lift your hood and unzip your suit when you need to!” yelled the group’s ringleader, who also cautioned the group: “At the end of the march, there will be a turning point. If you go left, you will be going in the direction of the civil disobedience group. It’s going to be confusing. Make a choice based on your own conscience–and treat everybody with respect, including the police.”
The orange-suited, black-hooded group lined up (”Three across! Head high!”) behind their banner which read: TORTURE DESTROYS US ALL.
Once underway, the march was solemn with marchers carrying paper tombstones the names of Iraqi and American victims of the war in Iraq. A man with a bullhorn read the names from a list. Another followed each recited name by shouting: “We will remember you!” Soon the marchers joined.
The march followed the John Deere police vehicle from the Capitol building to the “turning point” where bike-mounted police could be heard yelling to one another: “Remember: tactically spaced!” and marchers were addressed by a Veterans for Peace organizer with a bullhorn. “If you follow the Vets for Peace flag we will continue on with the march and you will not be arrested–or you will not be doing something that is supposed to get you arrested. If you go to the left, you will be committing civil disobedience.”
That announcement was followed by a brief negotiation with a St. Paul police officer. It was agreed: to the right; no problems. To the left; no guarantees.
The marchers who went to the left towards the Landmark Center at the intersection of 6th Street and Washington numbered two dozen, maybe more. A handful got ahead of the pack and headed for what looked like a holding pen: a meandering wall of cage material blocking access to the Xcel Energy Center. At first the marchers–now looking to be arrested–stopped and were a bit stumped. Then a man got on the ground and pushed himself through a foot-high gap between cage-wall and pavement. Mary Vaugh, a woman of fragile appearance with decades of line-crossing and jail-sitting behind her was next.
It was a maneuver fraught with no small drama–at one point Vaugh seemed stuck. A moment later, she was up, placard in hand:
Dan Pearson of Chicago, who had just participated in a peace march from Chicago to St. Paul, followed Vaughn under the gate. “Thank you!” shouted one supporter. “One of you should climb over!” shouted another.
Vaughn, Pearson, and the others headed for another breach in the cage–where an entire panel of the wall was missing. Had they passed, they would have successfully marched their way into the innermost ring of the Xcel security zone. It wasn’t to be.
Police rushing to put the missing panel in place used it as a sort of shield–pushing the protesters back with grunts and grimaces. “Gentle!” yelled an onlooker. The protesters relented even as police came in from behind them.
While all of that commotion was going on, two women, one of them a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph, walked through yet another overlooked gap in the barrier. Police still securing their riot gear ran to stop them but were too late. That looked like this:
The banter from the crowd was constant: “Hey officer, why don’t you ask these nice ladies where they stashed their buckets of urine?” came one remark–then a reply from another corner of the crowd: “C’mon guys, don’t antagonize the cops, they’re on overtime.”
A man in a neon yellow “Minnesota Peace Team” vest handed out apple slices to protesters and media–photo, video and print journalists crammed together and leaned over one another for footage and quotes.
All told there were nine arrests–then there was something of a low-intensity standoff. Those who had not squeezed under the fence had technically still elected to be arrested. But nobody was making a move. The police weren’t budging either.
Ten minutes passed before the police made a move, urging everybody away from the barrier under threat of arrest. What had been just a couple dozen cops were now at least 75–now with helmets on and visors down–with an additional 15-plus State Troopers and a couple of Secret Service agents.
By this point law enforcement–some officers practicing cold stares, some joking, and others looking the slightest bit anxious–far outnumbered the 30 or so protesters remaining.
The cops won the staring contest. It wasn’t long before the few remaining protesters turned and walked back towards the Capitol building. The arrestees were being processed and on their way to Ramsey County Jail. There was silence for awhile then a shout from a St. Paul Police officer:
Some marched away and some swaggered. One officer–a young woman–did a little dance. It was mostly tourists now and a thin man with bushy hair, a dress shirt, and a too-short necktie posed for a picture in front of what few cops were left, fist in the air and with a giggle.
All photos by Jeff Severns Guntzel.