Dissonant Democracy: Protest, Brutality and Healing at the RNC

This is my incredibly true story of RNC demonstrations in three part dissonance

Part One: My Crazy House, My Committed Community

ImageI am hosting dozens of young activists at my home. Already my house is crowded. My friends and their two young kids needed a place to stay after becoming homeless after the market demand for new graduates plummeted. My single-dad friend and his two young kids needed a place to stay suddenly, too. Unable to rent due to bad credit history, with a job working third shift, he couldn’t afford childcare and housing. Even before out of town activists arrived, our three bedroom house had up to five kids under ten, and four adults. Even without added pressure, our social system and local economy showed cracks. Still, in the community people hold each other up.

Beginning last weekend, August 30-31, two dozen youth with their backpacks and zines arrived in groups looking for floor space or a lawn to roll out sleeping bags. My neighbors provided a big soup pot. If there’s room for two, there is room for three. If there’s room for seven, there’s room for seventeen. We accommodate.

Foreshadowing the week to come, as out of town guests arrive, before RNC starts, police raided many community houses in Minneapolis and St Paul. My ex’s house, the house that brought over surplus dumpstered yogurt and cheese, the one that fixed my bike’s flat tire-all raided by police with guns blazing. Armed with a warrant, during night time hours "under the cover of darkness" to prevent the "loss, destruction, or removal of objects" police broke down the Twin Cities activists’ doors. Most of those present in these homes were detained, identified, photographed, and released. However, during these weekend raids and picked up off the street, eight anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizers associated with the RNC Welcoming Committee were targeted for serious charges.

By Wednesday, September 3rd, Ramsey County Prosecutor charged these eight activists detained during the pre-emptive raids with Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism. In the first application of Minnesota’s version of the Patriot Act activists associated with the RNC Welcoming Committee Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, Luce Guillen Givins, Erik Oseland, Nathanael Secor, Robert Czernik, Garrett Fitzgerald, and Max Spector, currently face up to 7 1/2 years in prison.

Recently, law enforcement agencies revealed that multiple paid informants and infiltrators were used to gather information about the RNC Welcoming Committee. This did not surprise those involved; three months ago the local free paper reported on the recruitment of moles to infiltrate RNC protest organizations. RNC Welcoming Committee activist William Gillis analyzed the situation, saying the use of infiltrators "includes befriending and working with [a] group to move that group’s agenda forward. That is work of sick people, and a sick tactic used against activists." Cela Kutz commented on the difficulties in maintaining friendships in that environment, "We suspect that there are four infiltrators in the Welcoming Committee. It has definitely negatively affected how we as a group have come back together and been able to work together."

Over the duration of the RNC, 818 people were arrested. Many more are detained and released on the streets without charges. Presumably information gained during detentions without charges is used for monitoring activists’ movements. The large number of people arrested, the enormity of the charges on a select few, powerfully impacts our intertwined community.

Part Two: Health Care at the RNC

"I’m so excited, inspired really, to see the difference in interactions between providers and patients," states Dr. L a volunteer with North Star Health Collective a health activist organization providing free care for RNC protesters and community. "The goal here is to eliminate the power differential between us doctor types and the people we serve." Dr. L sits in the triage area at the Wellness Center at the RNC leading an orientation session for fellow EMT and medical student volunteers. I volunteer with Dr. L and assisted in the founding of the health collective. Our Wellness Center sits within walking distance of protests, across the street from the Level 1 Trauma Center in the County Hospital.

For the past 8 months, local health care providers and activists have been meeting to discuss the needs of the community during the convention. North Star coordinated and provided health care services, resources, and training for protests and participants during the RNC. The services come with a radical social critique of medical system, "We reject the idea that health care should be distributed based on ability to pay," states a founding collective member Kim Christoffel, a graduate student in Social Work at the University of Minnesota. The three principals of unity in North Star Health Collective include:

  • Resist the commercialization and corporatization of our health care.
  • Organize on the principles of decentralization, autonomy, sustainability and mutual aid.
  • Work to end all relationships of domination and subjugation, including but not limited to those rooted in patriarchy , race, class, xenophobia, and homophobia

Pharmacists, herbalists and doulas worked along side trauma nurses and physicians in a situation where lines blur between disciplines of medicine. ‘Sarah,’ a young woman hit with rubber bullets, enters the Wellness Center accompanied by a street medic and a friend. In tears she gulps breaths, "I was just standing there, turning to leave, and they shot me!" An herbalist sits down with Sarah to get the full history, while a nurse practitioner evaluates for serious medical injuries. After ruling out critical trauma, attention turns to healing and treatment. By the time she leaves the center, Sarah receives Tylenol, Motrin in addition to massage therapy and homeopathic remedies. This represents an innovative multiple treatment strategy led and directed by Sarah.

As a medical student, I created a brutality documentation form that allowed people like Sarah to catalogue their stories in a cohesive way. While only a part of the process, health care providers document instances of brutality so that we can help future legal defense cases or civil suits. More importantly, we allow survivors of violence an opportunity to share their experiences in a safe, comfortable atmosphere free of judgement. During the RNC, the most common injury was from chemical agents used for crowd control-second degree burns with skin peeling occurred with sustained contact with pepper spray and tear gas. These injuries are being reported to the National Lawyers Guild for use with the development of their work to protect civil liberties. The rapid response of community health care providers to support democratic justice movements builds opportunities for ongoing alliances in the Twin Cities. 

Part Three: Brutality – Are We Safe?

We saw a trickle of injured protestors at the wellness center. On September 5th the members of the North Star Health Collective denounced the use of violence to suppress protestors. Garth Kahl, an EMT from Oregon explained, "There is a reason that these are called less-lethal weapons as opposed to non-lethal weapons. The indiscriminate firing of baton rounds, sponge grenades, and other blunt force projectiles in crowded areas is highly dangerous and irresponsible."

Throughout the organizing during the past year and a half, the Welcoming Committee endorsed a strong use of "security culture" to protect activists from arrest, prevent infiltration and disruption of long-planned-for direct actions or civil disobedience. One element of security culture utilized during Welcoming Committee organizing alienated many locals: vouching. This form of security allows entry to meetings or conferences only when two known activists ‘vouch’ for that person. Suspicion and paranoia pervaded the activist community, creating an elitist activist echo-chamber. The "security culture" failed to exclude three infiltrators, but successfully excluded a lot of community organizers.

[Photo: Foam bullet fragment shot at RNC protestors, picked up by Street Medics]

Some say the RNC protests have been the most heavily recorded event in human history. Protesters, police, and journalists alike carry cameras to document the call and response of the streets. Interestingly, a number of arrests have included reporters and journalists from mainstream media organizations. According to Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, at least 18 journalists have been cited covering the RNC protests, although more have been pepper sprayed, or detained and released without charges. The ACLU has called for investigations of violations of journalists’ civil liberties at the RNC.

Not only journalists, but our entire community has been violated. Most heavily impacted are communities of color. In her article “Where is the Color in the Twin Cities?” Lisa Albrich writes “I’ve just spent the past two hours on-line reading accounts of the police violence all over the Twin Cities. Not one article addressed the whiteness of the organizing. Not one article identified any of the people involved in the actions as “white” organizers or activists.” While much attention has been paid to arrests of prominent journalists & protesters harsh treatment during arrests, in the streets of St. Paul many community members feel invisible as they live out the RNC protest repercussions.  

Undocumented families, refugees have been staying away from their homes in highly patrolled areas near downtown St. Paul in fear of encountering police by accident. I visited and documented a gentleman of color who had no prior criminal history, who was detained without cause near central St. Paul. During his arrest, while handcuffed he was beat by a police officer. The victim had recently had major surgery, released from hospital less than a week prior. Later, during booking, the same officer punched him repeatedly in the head and neck in front of other officers who looked on without concern. When police realized that this man was severely injured, they drove him one block away from the hospital and let him limp his way to the ER.  

People of color, those most marginalized in our community, have faced severe consequences because of RNC protests. Police riled up, frustrated with protesters are taking out their anger on those without large wallets, or skin privilege. While not all RNC protesters are wealthy and white, both activists and journalists are socially well-connected and are a relatively protected group. Local long time Twin Cities organizer Marshall in an open letter to RNC activists writes, "Much respect, for real, to all of you who braved a lot of repression. It’s just important to put that repression into context so our little heads don’t explode with self-importance–Revolutionary Humility!"

Many have commented that the protesters have a strong sense of historical importance. Two days ago a street medic commented proudly to me, “They already are calling this the Battle of St Paul, just like the Battle of Seattle (1999 anti-WTO street protests.) I am so proud of the work we are doing!”  RNC Welcoming Committee anti-authoritarian/anarchist logistical support for the RNC protests spoke out on September 5th in an “unmasking” press conference. Showing the faces of six RNC WC members humanized an organization that had previously alienated many journalists and community activists by adopting a policy of no real time engagement with the media. 

During this press conference, Welcoming Committee members made strong connections and critiques of the police response to RNC protesters. “Brutality is not a surprise, but it is deplorable” Gillis states. Another Welcoming Committee member, 56 year old lifelong Quaker peace activist Betsy Raasch Gilman emphasizes the broader connections between the streets of St Paul and the world. “House raids that occurred this weekend in St Paul are very similar to house raids in Iraq” proposes Gilman. She continues, “There are no terrorists in Ramsey County Jail. There are terrorists in the Xcel Center (site of Convention).” 

I’m not sure of the lessons we should carry forward from the 2008 RNC. Emiliano, a director of a local bilingual political theater company, lectures on route to downtown St Paul, "The problem of the left is that we have not adapted our strategies. We have been fighting using the same tactics, confronting the police on their terms. Every time, they will win." In a game of cat and mouse, activists and police forces chase each other across the playing field of a city, media, and minds of locals in the Twin Cities. Nearly everyone is connected, from the girl working the neighborhood café, to my kid’s vice principal. The Twin Cities knows someone who knows someone arrested, pepper sprayed, or tear gassed. We walk tense, stiff on familiar paths to work, school. Soon it will be over. Then, we can begin our real organizing work again.

Rebecca Trotzky Sirr is a fourth year medical student at the University of Minnesota who organizes with the North Star Health Collective. North Star blends social justice and medicine to bring free health care to the streets of her community.

Rebecca was born and raised and currently lives in Minneapolis. Rebecca and her awesome 9 year old son want to know who thought it was a good idea to bring the Republican National Convention to their hometown, because they would like to give them a good talking to.