Elaborate plans are underway to encircle and "shut down" the Republican National Convention at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center in September. The strategies and tactics involved could come straight from a guerrilla warfare manual.
Anarchist groups with ominous names -- the RNC Welcoming Committee, Unconventional Action -- have announced a "three-tier strategy" to cut off the Xcel Center. The steps include "blockading" streets and freeways, "immobilizing" delegates' transportation and "blocking" bridges to impede delegates' access to the center.
The plan also features a "swarm, seize, stay" strategy. After dividing the city into "sectors," protesters propose to "seize space" through both "hard technical blockades" and "softer, more mobile blockades" such as congestion, according to anarchist websites.
Some demonstrators may chain themselves together in public thoroughfares, while others operate in "waves" designed to "spread out police both geographically and tactically."
Last week, St. Paul city attorneys described these threats in documents filed in a federal lawsuit involving a permit for a march planned for Sept. 1, the convention's first day. Between 50,000 and 100,000 demonstrators are expected to participate.
St. Paul officials have issued a permit that they say would allow protesters to march "within the very shadows of the glassed front" of the Xcel Center.
But that's not enough for the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, an umbrella organization of protest groups. The coalition is demanding a route that would encircle the center. The city's proposed route, it maintains, would impermissibly interfere with protesters' ability to convey their message to delegates and the media, and so violates their First Amendment rights.
The groups that have threatened to shut down the convention are not on the front lines of the legal challenge. But the coalition and its lawyers just happen to be demanding the route that anarchists need to facilitate their plans.
Are the lawyers who are spearheading the coalition's suit a rag-tag bunch of former '60s radicals? Quite the opposite. The coalition boasts a legal armada that Exxon would envy. It includes pillars of the Twin Cities legal community -- the Minneapolis mega-firms of Leonard, Street and Deinard and Lindquist & Vennum -- as well as the ACLU of Minnesota and Bruce Nestor of the radical National Lawyers Guild.
Todd Noteboom of Leonard, Street and Deinard says St. Paul has provided no evidence that radical groups' threats are serious or involve significant numbers. "The possibility that a small number of people might try to block a roadway or impede access to a bridge does not justify stripping 100,000 people of their First Amendment rights," he said on Tuesday.
The St. Paul Police Department doesn't have the luxury of such lawyerly armchair musing. It will have to confront the encirclement tactic on the city's streets. The city's court filings warn that consequences could include "violent confrontations" involving demonstrators, delegates and police.
Before the coalition's lawyers dismiss these concerns, they might want to check out some recent high-profile political events. At the 2004 GOP convention in New York City, for example, a massive and highly trained police force barely managed to avert chaos. At the 1999 WTO Summit in Seattle, a whirlwind of riots compelled the governor to call in the National Guard, and the mayor to declare a state of emergency that closed off the city's entire business district.
Since 2000, cities that have hosted national Republican and Democratic party conventions have restricted protests in an effort to avoid Seattle-style disasters. According to an affidavit filed by St. Paul city attorneys, marches "within sight and sound of the primary convention venue" were not allowed at 2004 conventions in Boston or New York City "on any days of such conventions." In Boston in 2004, the only march allowed took place on a 20-foot sidewalk on the day before the convention, according to the city's court filings.
St. Paul is taking far fewer precautions than these other cities did. It is also bending over backward to facilitate free speech rights, and will set up a Public Viewing Area for protesters available between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and directly across from the Xcel Center.
In 2008, it's sadly inevitable that crazies will try to turn St. Paul streets into a war zone.
But we don't have to facilitate such intimidation. After the crazies move on, the establishment types who gave them comfort and cover -- and sued to win a march route that apparently facilitates their plans -- had better be prepared to take responsibility for what happens if they get their way.
Katherine Kersten • firstname.lastname@example.org