The peace-loving, road-blocking, window-smashing protesters at the RNC.
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As they approach Cedar Street, a row of horse-mounted cops awaits. "They're trying to box us in," says one protester to no one in particular. Until now, the group has operated as one. But now it starts to fracture. "Ruuun!" yells a protester. Only five or six people obey. Others drift onto the sidewalks. They want to be seen, but they don't want to get hurt.
I watch a guy walk up to the line of horses. He's wearing sunglasses and a black scarf over his red beard. "This is the Boston Tea Party, you fuckers!" he screams. He sees me jotting down notes and walks over to me. "This is the Boston Tea Party!" he yells again, this time at my notepad. He realizes this is weird. "I'm yelling at your pad like it's a microphone," he observes.
It dawns on the group that standing still isn't the best idea. They start moving west, up a hill. As we're moving, I ask Goodner if the goal is to provoke the police. "No," he says, "we just want a seat at the table." Big Frank, a huge guy wearing goggles over his glasses, interrupts: "No way! That would hurt!" He turns to Goodner and asks what happens if the cops get violent. "I don't know," Goodner says. "We're gonna play it by ear."
The delegation reaches Seventh Street and Wabasha and stops. A crowd has gathered, including major media. ("Are you NPR?" asks one protester excitedly.) Goodner takes the bullhorn and recites a list of grievances. Civilians are dying in Iraq. The federal government botched the relief effort in New Orleans. There's no "free tuition" for college or "free health care." "Mother Earth is crying in pain, from, uh …" he trails off. The crowd laughs. He mumbles something about alternative energy. "It's windy here!" offers another protester. An onlooker comes up to me. "Shouldn't they be in college?"
Another vanful of riot police pulls up. Meanwhile, a counterprotest is forming. As an Iraq chant begins, one of the anti-rioters yells, "You could have volunteered!" "Or take a bath!" shouts another. A protester raises two middle fingers skyward: "Fuck you, white America!" The two hecklers seem baffled. "You're white," says one.
Pretty soon we're back where I first found the protesters. I see my rental car where I left it, right in the middle of 10th Street. No one seems to care.
The group heads back over to Sixth Street—we're going in circles—but this time the cops are prepared. A fleet of 10 police cars is lined up. When the protesters appear, the cars turn on their sirens. The whine ricochets off the buildings on either side. I plug my ears. It reminds me of the "Mosquito"—the high-pitched noise-maker store owners use to keep teenagers from loitering.
Now everyone's running up Sixth, away from the shrieking sirens. I hear a crash. I look to my right and see a ground-level window in Macy's shattering. Bits of glass scatter across the sidewalk. A kid wearing a black bandana across his face is walking away. He's holding a hammer. He walks up to an empty cop car and sends the hammer through the driver's window. Another guy is yanking off the license plate. Farther up the street, I see someone slashing the tires of a parked Ford sedan. A giant TV camera is filming him as he does it.
Everyone starts to panic a little. "We're gonna get fucked up, man," says one guy. They all swarm into a nearby parking lot. It's full of cars, which I guess gives them cover. At the back of the lot, I see the "medics" huddling around the guy who was carrying the hammer a moment ago. His scarf is gone. Blood is streaming down his wrist and pooling on the pavement. I ask how it happened. "I'm asking you to please leave," one of them says. "Did he smash a window?" I ask. "We don't want media here," she says. "You wanted media five minutes ago," I say. "We don't want it now," she says.
Everyone funnels into an alleyway that spits onto Seventh Street. I see a security guard talking into his radio. "They got, uh, black, uh, pants," he says, searching for identifying characteristics. "They're covering their faces."
When I round the corner, the crowd has dispersed. There are protesters, but I can't find the ones I'd been following. A block away, the city-sanctioned protest march is passing by. Even the riot police seem relaxed. They're chatting beneath their visors. "You must be roasting!" says one girl to a cop in a gas mask. He neither confirms nor denies.
I finally spot four members of my group—that's how I think of them—sitting against a wall, lying low. I ask them if it's over. "It's not over," one says. But they look tired. They don't know where everyone went. Plus, classes start tomorrow. I ask if they saw the people breaking windows. They say that's not what they came to do. They just wanted to block a few intersections. "No matter what I do now," a girl says, "I'll be associated with that."
Apparently destroying cop cars had not been a group decision.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of broken window by Max Whittaker/Getty Images.