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ST. PAUL, Minn.—It's around noon and I'm driving to the Xcel Center in St. Paul when a group of kids pulls police tape across the intersection of 10th Street and Jackson. I ask a nearby girl to let me through. I'm not a cop, I say, and I'm not a delegate. I just want to find the parking lot. She smiles, flashes a peace sign, and turns away. Apparently people looking for parking are not the enemy.
I turn off my engine and get out of the car. They're chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets! Whose war? Their war!" A good quarter of them are wearing kaffiyehs. They drape a giant "REVOLUTION" banner across the street, low enough to graze windshields. Some of them have phone numbers Sharpied onto their arms. One girl has them all over her exposed midriff. "They're numbers for lawyers when we get arrested," one explains to me.
Click on the player below to see protesters at the Republican National Convention.
An Escalade tries to drive slowly through the tape, but a few kids stand in front of it, arms out, daring the SUV to hit them. It does, gently. They chase the car as it pulls away. A young guy with a beard and a green trucker hat slams his fist on the hood. I later ask him why. "He ran someone over!" he tells me.
Three of the kids—they all look to be in their 20s or late teens—have red tape that forms crosses on their backs. They call themselves "medics." They're here in case anyone gets hurt. I ask if they have any formal medical training, and one of them points to a first-aid kit fastened around his waist like a fanny pack. They all wear radios that let them communicate with other medics across the city. The radios crackle every few seconds.
As more police arrive, the disgruntled youth delegation moves across a nearby bridge and blocks the onramp to Interstate 94. "Out of your cars, onto the streets!" they chant. The drivers stay in their cars, except for one who emerges and gives them all high fives.
Two cops approach the group. A medic pulls out his radio. "To Snipe, to Snipe, this is Whiskey Tango, do you hear us? We've got two coming." The police, both women, ask the group to clear the ramp. Some do, some don't. "These people have nothing against you," one of the officers explains, indicating the drivers. "Just give us a few minutes," pleads a protester. One officer pulls out a can that looks like WD-40. "If you do not move, I will mace this group," she says. They move.
More cop cars arrive. I count five. David Goodner, a 27-year-old student from the University of Iowa, grabs the bullhorn. "Our government has killed over a million people," he shouts, "and all we're doing is blocking an intersection. Who's the criminal?" I ask Goodner if he's the leader. He explains that they have no leader; they're a peaceful grass-roots organization with a bottom-up power structure. Still, someone needs to use a bullhorn.
Behind us, cops in riot gear are emerging from a van. The protesters start moving west. I ask one if she thinks it's going to get ugly. "I don't know," she says. "I don't trust the cops at all."
The protesters, still banging and clanking and chanting and singing, arrive at the intersection of 12th and Minnesota. "Continue crossing the street," instructs a cop. "Stay! Stay!" yells a kid with a red bandana. A block away, the riot police are moving toward us in two columns. They're decked in black, with visors and body armor. A few have gas masks. They stop at the intersection, pull out arm-length wooden batons, and form a line. "That's crazy, man!" I hear someone say. "They're like Star Wars!"
Faced with armed riot police, the group moves back across the bridge. It's hard to tell who's in charge. It seems to be whoever has the bullhorn. "What are we doing?" asks one person. "Crossing," says another. I ask Goodner if they have a plan. He says the goal is to block traffic for as long as possible. "These riot squads are going to be really slow," he says.
As if they heard him, the police break into a trot. The protesters start running, too. The mob seems to be growing—now it's a mix of protesters, gawkers, photographers, and reporters. I hear a helicopter overhead. I can't help thinking of Grand Theft Auto IV—when you hear the copter, you know you're doing well.
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.