Six students pepper-sprayed at Republican Convention protest

By Peter Wright

About 300 Macalester students and their guests marched to the state capitol on Monday, joining a group of approximately 10,000 protesters downtown to respond to the Republican National Convention. Many protesters returned to campus that afternoon unscathed, but several students were burned by pepper spray.The march from campus was organized by the Macalester chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Protesters left campus shortly after 10:15 a.m., following Summit Avenue most of the way to the capitol.

As the marchers assembled, tension arose when police officers arrived on campus.

Emily Cox ’10, a member of SDS who was helping to organize the crowd, said that a team of riot police lined up by Wallace and in front of Kagin. A group of Minneapolis bicycle police sat on the benches by the flag pole and an unidentified helicopter hovered over the campus.

“We weren’t really sure what they were going to do,” Cox said.

Shortly before the marchers left campus, President Brian Rosenberg arrived at the Campus Center with Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre, Dean of Students Jim Hoppe and Director of Security Terry Gorman.

Rosenberg said that he would prefer not to see police on campus because the events over the weekend had been peaceful and quiet, but he said that there wasn’t anything the college could do about their presence.

“I was as surprised as anyone when they showed up,” Rosenberg said.

Bassam Khawaja ’11 rode ahead of the protesters as a scout. He said that he was initially nervous about police intervention with the march because it was not a registered protest. Overall, though, he said that the police covering the Macalester march seemed “pretty accepting.”

The bicycle police ended up riding ahead of the marchers, stopping traffic at intersections, while the officers in riot gear followed the group in several unmarked vehicles.

Aside from a handful of counterprotesters and jeers from neighborhood Republicans, the march from Macalester was largely unchallenged.

Once the feeder march from the campus reached the capitol lawn, Macalester students split into different groups and mixed into the crowd of over 10,000 protesters and onlookers.

From the capital, a group of several thousand protesters marched to the Excel Center and back. Many of the students stayed in the main field of protesters, but around a dozen members of SDS split off the front with their own protest.

Cox said that the SDS members were participating in a march called Funk the War, a program created by another chapter of SDS that uses dancing blockades to make their statement. Khawaja said that the Funk the War group was allowed to pass by several units of police until about twenty minutes into the march when the protest came to a halt.

According to Cox, bicycle police had blocked the intended route of their protest, causing the group to stop.

The police began using their bikes as a blockade to actively push protesters back when, without warning, they began firing pepper spray, according to Khawaja.

At least six Macalester students were hit with the spray. By Khawaja’s count, three of them were hit “badly.” Cox said that she was burned on her face and back. Khawaja was also affected, as was Kevin Boueri, a freshman member of SDS who also scouted during the feeder protest.

Cox said that the students continued protesting after the incident, but they had to stop regularly to rinse the burned areas.

“[Pepper spray] doesn’t go away,” she said. “It can burn for half an hour to two hours.”

Cox, Boueri and Khawaja shared the opinion that the police were out of line when they fired pepper spray into the crowd.

“I think they were excessively brutal and they showed disturbing readiness to use force,” Khawaja said.

Following the pepper spray incident, a group of protesters who were not from Macalester split off and began throwing debris into the road and smashing windows.

Khawaja said that they were most likely younger protesters. He did not personally support their actions because, in his opinion, they lacked a point and overshadowed the messages the bigger groups wanted to send.

“It takes the emphasis off what people down there were trying to do,” Khawaja said.

Cox echoed those sentiments, adding that mainstream media coverage has largely misrepresented the protests by focusing on that small group of individuals.

Cox returned to downtown St. Paul to join a smaller protest on Tuesday night, and once again the police used pepper spray, along with tear gas and concussion grenades to clear a crowd.

She said that a group of protesters she and a few other students were with had gathered in an intersection and stopped moving. The crowd was chanting at police when Cox with several other Macalester students started to leave.

Cox said that police had blocked off the street, leaving only one way out. When they began firing tear gas, which she felt was unprovoked and without warning, they fired it in the way of the one exit available to protesters. She said that protesters ran away, holding each other up and telling others not to become too panicked.

“What we saw last night was a police state,” Cox said.

Boueri, who was also with Cox’s group at the Tuesday protest, said that it seemed a lot of the security forces downtown appeared to be using it as a setting for training and simply didn’t seem to know how to react when faced with a protest.

“They’re not trained to be riot cops,” Boueri said. “Most of these people are just cops.”

Despite the visibility of police and the slimmed-down first day of the convention, Cox and Khawaja said that they thought the turn out from Macalester was very good.

“A lot of action still happened,” Cox said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Cox was not aware of any Macalester students being arrested as a direct result of the protesting, but some may have been detained.