It wasn't even noon, yet the temperature was pushing 90. A massive anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-Republican parade was scheduled to kick off in an hour, and the Republican National Convention was scheduled to start a few hours after.
All morning, Fox News had been hammering the prediction that 50,000 protestors were expected to march through St. Paul, Minnesota. The implication was that less than 50 grand would be called a failure, which meant the odds were already stacking up against the anti-Republican protestors. Monday, the first day of the convention, was also Labor Day and the final day of the State Fair—an event as dear to Minnesotans as hockey and Garrison Keillor. The St. Paul police were also doing everything possible to neuter the protests. Over the previous weekend, they'd raided a few staging areas, including the ad hoc headquarters for Indymedia, which had served as an information clearinghouse.
As if the odds couldn't get any worse, two days before Monday's planned massive march—timed to coincide with President Bush's address—the president canceled his trip to Minnesota, removing the protestors' primary archenemy.
But even so, by noon more than 10,000 had gathered in the sweltering heat on the grassy lawn surrounding the capitol building.
"How could I not come?" asked one middle-aged, bearded protestor standing in the crowd. A special ed teacher in the Twin Cities, he was angry about the Bush administration's education programs. "They were taunting me, bringing their criminals to my front door."
Later, the Associated Press and CNN would cap the "official" count at 10,000, but that estimate clearly low-balled the parade, which eventually filled almost eight extra-large, extra-wide Midwestern city blocks; event organizers placed the number at more like 25,000.
With less than an hour before the parade's official, city-sanctioned beginning, organizers busied themselves corralling protestors in an orderly line—Iraq War veterans behind the Out of Iraq Now group, and Obama supporters behind them.
Just then, about 600 mostly young protestors broke from the officially sanctioned parade and began snaking through downtown streets.
"We're tired of waiting," explained one young protestor. They dragged two children's wagons, each containing a PA system blaring '80s house music.
"We're holding a dance party against the war," chimed in a sweaty sophomore from nearby Macalester College. Many in the splinter group carried signs that announced, "Funk the War."
Flanked by roughly 200 fully armored police, the group pushed through downtown, opposing traffic and playfully banging on bus windows carrying RNC delegates. At an intersection, about midway between the capitol building and the Xcel Convention Center, where the Republicans were gathering, the party stopped. Madonna's "Like A Virgin" blared, a conga line whipped around the intersection, and riot police lined up three rows deep, batons resting in their palms.
Two locals carried a sign, "Not One More Penny for this Criminal War," taped to the end of a hockey stick.
"We're here to show that democracy is not a spectator sport," one explained plainly.
His friend pulled down his black bandana, smiled, and slugged him playfully on the shoulder. "Dude, don't just give the talking points." He continued, "This is a few minutes from my house. It's like..." He paused. "...serendipitous. Holding the convention here, they were just asking me to come down and protest." He pulled his black bandana back over his face and loudly declared, "Make hockey, not war," jumping into the impromptu conga line.
Two minutes later, seemingly unprovoked, two police officers along the far edge of the crowd hunkered down and—pop, pop—fired tear gas; one shot directly into the crowd and another aimed high, dispersing the stinging gas widely into the windy afternoon.
The protestors instantly scattered. Three young men stretched out on the sidewalk and poured water over their faces. A block away, a church turned on its hose to wash down tear-gassed protestors.
Ten minutes later, the anti-war dance party reconvened, Madonna blaring at full force once again. A few protestors are still beet-red from the tear gas, but otherwise undeterred.
Several blocks away, the family friendly parade finally began its orderly protest. A police vehicle that looked like a golf cart on steroids led the crowd; it carried a large sign flashing "Follow Me," and the crowd obeyed.
For the next two hours, the group worked its way in an orderly fashion through the city-sanctioned parade course. Meanwhile, the Funk the War dance party and other splinter groups scattered around downtown. That evening, the AP and CNN reported widely on the few incidents of vandalism—a window smashed at Macy's, a brick thrown through a bus window, a few trashcans knocked over, and a squad car's windshield busted. At least twice again, police had fired tear gas into the crowd and, by evening, arrested 280 protestors.
That night, the St. Paul police chief explained that his officers were "terrified" by the black-bandana-wearing protestors and the mayor complimented them for their "restraint."