Saint Paul's RNC Police-State Makeover

[From this vantage, it's almost hard to tell that Saint Paul has declared martial law. The little red boats in the Mississippi are Coast Guard patrol boats, each carrying two large machine guns.]

A while back I wrote about how great it felt to be in downtown Saint Paul during a political rally. That night, when a certain candidate gave his "I have won the presidential nomination" speech, the streets of Saint Paul had a remarkable energy. I attended the speech, but my best memories were of the time spent standing in line on Saint Paul's sidewalks, enjoying public space with thousands of people. Here's what I wrote:

But that's the kind of thing that was happening in the line. There was a real magic in the air, and everyone seemed happy. I talked to a dozen strangers, and even though I stood there on the corner in front of Pazzaluna for over 2 hours, I barely got bored!

And that's the magic of sidewalks. A good sidewalk can shrink time. It can make an hour seem like ten minutes, and make the world endlessly interesting.

Well, I went down to Saint Paul this evening and the scene was very, very different. Where there had been thousands of people lining up, talking with each other, sharing stories, helping each other out, cooperating as they went through the hockey arena's metal detectors, there were nothing but the most defensible of spaces. Fences, concrete barricades, street signs, fancy automobile-preventers, and (of course) lots and lots and lots of police and military folks, representing branches of our government I hadn't even heard of. (e.g. the United States Federal Protective Service?) The transformation of the streets of downtown Saint Paul was amazing, and remarkable.

[The street in front of the Ordway Center. The sidewalks on either side of this roadway are open to the public.]

Probably the most interesting change was the removal of streetspace, and the restriction of cars. Barricades all through the area surrounding the few-block radius around the hockey arena left the street with an oddly 'negative space' feeling. Usually, as drivers of cars, we encounter the streets of Saint Paul in a particular way. The really useable stuff is between the two curbs, and the sidewalk spaces are neglected. This was the opposite experience. Nobody but police could use use the driveable space, but the sidewalks were free and clear.

[The 'stop' barrier down Kellogg Boulevard, right next to City Hall. You are welcome to walk on the sidewalks, though!]

This was a strange inversion. While people being forced to use the sidewalks is normally the kind of thing I would like to see, these circumstances were a bit awkward, to say the least. I literally had to push my way through a bunch of loitering police and military folks to access the sidewalks, and even so they just led you to yet another fenced dead end.

[The streets and sidewalks in front of Rice Park, with the fenced police barricades lurking in the distance.]

That said, Saint Paul did have a lot of nightlife, and except for the space inside the fences any citizens can access most of Saint Paul. For example, Rice Park is a really interesting place to hang out these days. There were the usual semi-vagrant types, plus a crapload of protesters and various activist-y folks mingling with the omnipresent media and occasional delegate. There was a lot going on! For example, in the photo at right, you can see a man from The Onion handing out a "special RNC edition" to what is presumably a tourist, a be-suited fellow walking from his hotel, a police man scolding a bicyclist, and a military fellow in camouflage adjusting his heavy equipment bag. Plus, there was some sort of performance group had staged an 'improv everywhere'-type thing where a dozen or so twenty-somethings were listening to their iPods and dancing in the middle of the park, just like they do in those old neon iPod commercials. They were, for my friend and I, the highlight of the Saint Paul experience.

[One of the iPod dancers in front of Rice Park's media stage.]

Now, those less anti-misanthropic than myself might argue that the heavy police presence is absolutely necessary in downtown Saint Paul, required to protect private property from the anarcho-terrorists bent on total destruction. Of course, I think that's entirely silly.

Sure, there were a bunch of windows broken downtown. From what I've heard, a cop car was smashed, along with windows from the (always depressing) Saint Paul Macy's store, and the empty storefronts of the First Bank building. I feel pretty strongly that these acts of violence were, for the most part, incited by police. The previous few days of over-the-top and misleading raids hardly set a scene for a peaceful demonstration. Hundreds of people were arrested, and who knows how many were injured. But I wasn't there, and others can talk about this issue better than I can. Details will come out, I am sure...

For example, the Pioneer Press erroneously reported that someone had smashed a window of Hymie's Haberdashery:
Several shops were open downtown St. Paul. But as protesters made their way through downtown, their front doors closed. A window was broken at Heimie's Haberdashery, a menswear shop on St. Peter Street, when the owner and employees were trying to move a table out of the way of protesters."

So I was awfully surprised to find the owner of the men's clothing store sitting out in front of the place, looking peachy. She told me that no windows had been broken, but in fact their employees had accidentally broken one of their outdoor tables for fear of protesters that never arrived.

[The unbroken windows of Hymie's Haberdashery, with cars being forced to turn left around the block.]

The streets of Saint Paul, though, are a lesson in architectural flexibility right now. I urge everyone who can to go down to look at how easily the military and government can turn our streets and sidewalks into a defensible fortress. Don't be shy. These are still public spaces! We need to claim our right to the sidewalks of Saint Paul, no matter what circus is in town.

And while you're there, there is some fun to be had. (Especially here!) Downtown Saint Paul is well worth a visit this week. Just don't think it will be easy to park.

[Wild Tymes rolls out the red carpet for folks from the red states.]


You know, I'm going to rescind my earlier statement about police provoking violence. I'm reading a bunch of trustworthy news accounts about groups of you protesters acting idiotic. One of the best is Aaron Landry's description of a march gone terribly stupid:

They chanted “join us, join us” until they had a large group. Bennett stayed behind and Stacy and I followed the group to the Cathedral, down towards 35E where they crossed a pedestrian bridge, crossed 7th Street and travelled down towards Irving Park with little or no property damage. Two kids took a dumpster and after a few attempts were able to tip it over in the middle of an intersection. Getting near the perimeter, police stayed a block away in riot gear, forcing the mob to move to the river. A couple folks in masks made a makeshift blockade with a couple detour signs to “stop the cops.”

I don't know who is going to join them. Don't they know that nobody lives in downtown Saint Paul?

There's also this one over at Slate.com. Once again, I find myself in agreement with Rich Goldsmith.

Update Update:

Hell, who knows. Molly Priesmeyer's helpful article has this to say:

For one thing, despite the media fearmongering and the ominous presence of riot cops–some aiming tear-gas guns at protesters from garages–and the 12 cop cars following us down the street at one point, for the most the 60 or so protesters in this group were fairly benign, though there were about 15 of them whose worse crime committed was pulling newspaper boxes into the street, and in one case, a Dumpster. When that happened, about five people in the group stopped to clean up the trash that had fallen to the street.

I rescind my earlier update. As you can see, this is complicated.


momo said...

Having been caught between provacateurs and riot squads in a police action in my youth, I was a coward and stayed away. I am too old to be gassed, pepper sprayed or to run from a column of police that have blocked off all exits and are intent on making a mass arrest. But I'm grateful to those of you who were out there giving us pictures and reports on what is going on, since the mainstream media can't seem to be bothered. Thanks goodness for citizen journalists like the Uptaked, for the bloggers and Twitter, and for the local bloggers like you who are giving us their stories.

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