A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to McCain's Speech
Our Skin-Burning, Cigar-Chomping, Jackass-Studded, Palin-Aghast Report from the RNC
The night before I am to be pepper-sprayed by a police officer, I run into two acquaintances from Seattle who have come to St. Paul to protest the Republican National Convention. They are drinking at the Pi Bar in South Minneapolis, one block away from being across the (usually figurative) tracks.
In honor of the convention, Pi Bar is throwing a "Flaming Carnivale of Deviance," a fire-lit parking-lot party straight out of James Dobson's darkest dreams: dykes on bikes, drag queens and transsexuals playing carnival games including a cock-ring toss, performance groups with names like "Bedlam Theatre" and "Gay Witch Abortion." The poster for the event features a clip-art drawing of the Republican elephant, bandaged and bruised, holding a crutch.
It's funny, but it's a fantasy. Two days later, the St. Paul Pioneer Press will report on 25 people treated at hospitals for injuries from police actions during tomorrow's protest, including two children who inhaled pepper spray. Two days after that, local news sites will post photographs of 17-year-old Keith Smith, bloodied and stomped by authorities while in custody, with a boot print on his back, and of 19-year-old Elliot Hughes, who will report being punched, hooded, and smacked around by police, who allegedly used him to practice their pain-compliance holds. But that is all to come.
As my Seattle acquaintances, Brady McGarry and DK Pan, are leaving Pi Bar, they invite me to stay the night a few blocks away, at their friends' place. The apartment—home to Francis, Angie, and Jenny—is a second-story walkup directly above a barbershop. It's big, open, and mussed. White Christmas lights festoon the slightly greasy kitchen and a sign, painted in green watercolor, directs visitors to the compost bucket. A poster of Bea Arthur hangs on the wall. A journal sits by the toilet: "The Poop Book," in which Francis, Angie, and Jenny detail the size and consistency of their extrusions, along with whatever thoughts drifted through their heads while divesting themselves. The entries are both narcissistic and introspective. The young women obsess over the details of their own shit ("burrito!") and muse about the purpose of their lives.
Outside in the dark, McGarry and Pan talk about police who allegedly wept during the WTO riots in Seattle. "That's really radical," McGarry says softly, smoking a cigarette. "That's the seed of a groundswell." We talk about the preemptive raids of the past two days here in the Twin Cities—about police who charged into five different residences and held their occupants, some of them video bloggers, at gunpoint. The conversation drifts toward the war in Iraq that McGarry, Pan, and 10,000 others will protest tomorrow. McGarry mentions his childhood friend Jason Bogar, an army corporal killed in Afghanistan earlier this summer. Protesting war is not, for him, an abstract exercise.
The next morning, McGarry comes by my couch with a Sharpie and suggests we all write the phone number of a legal-defense collective on our thighs, just in case. If I hear about trouble at a certain intersection, he says, that'll be them.
"Well, see you at the barricades." He pauses. "I've always wanted to say that."
"On TV it looks huge, but the Xcel Center, a squat sports arena in downtown St. Paul, is not a big building. In the afternoons, before the halls are thick with people, you can walk the interior perimeter in five minutes. Its capacity is 20,000, and there are 10,000 protesters in front—one protester for every two people inside—chanting through the barricades and past a line of police: "Who is a terrorist? Bush is a terrorist! Who is a terrorist? Bush is a terrorist!"
Curious Republicans venture down to gawk. Several look like bad TV movie versions of themselves, the kinds of flimsy clichés you'd expect from a bunch of Democrats throwing a Republican-themed costume party. Dennis G. Lennox III, 24, from Michigan, wearing antique, round-rimmed glasses and resembling a daguerreotype of an owl, censures protests as "uncivilized" and adds, "They should do something more productive, like write articles and essays."
Saul Farber, 22, running for New York State Assembly, and Andrew Abdel-Malik, his friend, watch warily through the barricade. "Shit, I think they want to jump the fence," Abdel-Malik says. "You wearing comfortable shoes?" Farber answers, in all seriousness, "Yeah, I can run in Prada loafers."
Dan Kramer, 40-ish, who owns a PR firm in Sacramento—his previous employer was Nichols-Dezenhall, a spin machine for the former CEO of Enron among others, dubbed "the pit bull of public relations" by Business Week—struts around with indestructible hair and a smug smile. "It's very interesting," Kramer says, after having his picture taken from behind the barricades. "Most of those folks look so well-off, well-to-do." So protesters have to be poor? "Mmm," he non-answers. "If I didn't know better, I'd think some of them were getting paid to be out here. Mmm."
The more we talk, the more typecast they seem: Lennox is the fossil and Kramer is the unctuous villain, but Farber is one of the rare heartening conventioneers. Sincere and friendly, he calls himself a fiscal conservative, not a social one. Farber predicts that the party's base will move away from the religious right in the coming years—that the creationists and the homophobes are facing their twilight. Farber and Abdel-Malik won't go on the record as being for drug legalization and marriage equality. But Abdel-Malik acknowledges: "Conservatism is about keeping the government off your back—and that includes what people choose to do with their own bodies."
Outside the Xcel Center, some protesters split off from the big march and fan out into the streets of St. Paul, tipping Dumpsters into intersections and locking down thoroughfares by holding hands through lengths of PVC. These latter protesters are distinct: mostly wearing black, mostly white and well-tanned, and most of them keep their faces covered.
A group of 100 or so of these black-clad protesters runs down to the Mississippi River, which flows behind the Xcel Center, clearly trying to find a back way in. They don't chant slogans, they just move. "Tighten up the line!" their young field commander yells. "Keep moving! That's the best way to keep from being arrested." Six of them carry a sign that says "DIRECT ACTION." One stops for a red light and wonders aloud: "Why are we obeying the law?" Another on a bike, bleeding from his head and down his shirt, is all grim smiles.
A line of riot police wearing gas masks greets the protesters on the back side of the building. More riot police approach from two other directions, pinning the protesters against the river. Coast Guard boats, with big machine guns, glide by. The protesters try to cross the street toward the police and, behind them, the Xcel Center. The riot cops fire a tear-gas bomb. And that's that. There's another tear-gas bomb, and then another, and the riot cops close in from up and down the street, liberally pepper-spraying the protesters and pushing them toward a park. A phalanx of riot police walks ahead of me, on the heels of two young women, who are complying with instructions, going exactly where they're told. One of the cops lifts the women by their shirts and pushes them, gratuitously, into a cloud of tear gas. Then he douses their faces with pepper spray.
I get my notebook out.
A female voice behind me says: "Hey! Keep moving!" I turn to see another phalanx of riot cops. I flash my RNC media credentials and say: "You go on without me. I'm just reporting on this." I turn back towards the action to begin taking more notes. From behind, a cool shower sluices down my head, down my body, and into my pants. The sound of a clink as she throws the empty canister on the pavement. It's pepper spray. A lot of pepper spray.
In seconds I am a blind, wheezing, snotting, doubled-over wreck of a man, stumbling ahead of the police line while being jabbed in the back and told to hurry up toward the park. The pain is searing. I walk into several small trees along the way.
Eventually, I fall to my knees, gasping on the pavement. A street medic pours some antacid on my face and shoves a piece of paper into my hand: "Keep this. It's a pepper spray aftercare guide." Then: "We have to move. They're going to start firing again." I wrench my eyes open long enough to see we are in the park. There is a fountain—blessed, blessed water—just behind a row of riot police on horseback. I stagger, still doubled over, toward a policewoman, holding out my press credentials. I plead. She flips the credentials over, like she doesn't know what they are. "Yeah, right," she says sarcastically, and waves me past.
I lurch toward the fountain, feeling guilty for all the people without credentials still stuck in the park. Someone I can't see says: "Oh my God! What happened to him?" Someone else answers: "He's been maced. Do not go over there." I strip to my underwear and hop painfully beneath the cascade, rinsing everything—including my balls, which burn like fire. I bike furiously to the house where I'm staying. Moving through the air cools my skin. I run every red light I can and, when I have to stop for cars, hop and flap my arms like a bird. People smile and point. A black man drives by and shouts, "Damn! Look at that white boy!"
Back at the house, I stand in the shower for a long time, panicked that the burning won't ever stop. Later, I find out that pepper spray, made with a gluey substance that adheres to clothes and skin, is not water soluble.
Police arrest a lot of people during the convention—102 in Minneapolis, 716 in St. Paul, 30 of them journalists—and gas an unverifiable number. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul spent $34 million on hiring officers from other cities, $1.9 million on pepper spray and tear gas, and $1 million on gas masks.
Pepper spray, incidentally, is banned for wartime use by Article I.5 of the international Chemical Weapons Convention, ratified by the United States in 1993.
"Look, the protesters are deranged," says either Ryan, Brian, or Tony. It's hard to remember who is who. The triumvirate works for Republican senator Norm Coleman (currently fighting a reelection challenge from Al Franken), and we're all a little drunk. "Their stated objective is to kill a cop," says Ryan, Brian, or Tony, thumping the table. "But," he shrugs, "this is America."
The four of us are smoking cigars and drinking Scotch on the deck at Solera, a four-story restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. Solera enjoys a fancy reputation, but its decor is cowardly: generic dark carpet, generic- sleek wood tables, generic-white lighting fixtures.
We are served veal meatballs and gallons of rare Scotch and cognac, and young women in black party dresses walk around with boxes full of cigars. Unbeknownst to Ryan, Brian, and Tony, my skin still tingles from the pepper spray (and unbeknownst to all of us, Elliot Hughes is in jail, being used like a rag doll). I take a cigar from one of the cigar sirens, sniff it, and accept a light. Ryan, Brian, or Tony does the same.
(Meanwhile, Hughes is coughing blood and vomiting while police call him "gay" and "a princess," as he will later recount at a press conference. The sheriff's office will counter that Hughes was being "extremely disruptive" and that "it took some force to control him.")
A middle-aged man at Solera's bar is saying, "The port commissioner was here last night and he's home sleeping it off." He chortles. "Every hot 18- to 25-year-old girl was here last night. It was one step short of a rave." The bartender asks me what I would like. A glass of 25-year-old Caol Ila Scotch. Retail price: $230 a bottle.
(Hughes: "Six or seven officers came into my cell. One officer punched me in the face... And the officer grabbed me by the head, slammed my head on the ground and reawoke me to consciousness. And I was bleeding everywhere....")
In the downstairs bar, a delegate from Georgia is slurring about race in the maudlin tones of an old man lamenting the New South. "It's like I always tell my daughters," he says. "If you see a nigger driving a limo, he isn't necessarily a drug dealer—he might be a chauffeur. And that's progress."
(Hughes: "They dragged me to another detaining cell. They put a bag over my head that had a gag on it.")
Before I can ask the delegate from Georgia what, exactly, he means with the chauffeur joke, he launches into a paean to his black tae kwon do instructor. "He's my master," he grins. His bald white head is sweating. "Isn't that funny?"
(Hughes: "They separated my jaw as hard as they could with their fingers. And they bent my ankles back. They basically bent my foot backward. I was screaming for God and screaming for mercy, crying, asking them why they were doing this....")
A man at a nearby table calls over to his friend, "I'll have another cocktail and then maybe two beers and then let's roll." I write that down, smiling. Now I'm the one feeling smug—the convention has no momentum and the country isn't paying attention. The Republicans, it seems, don't have a chance. And I'm really enjoying this cigar.
That feeling doesn't last. To everyone's shock and certain people's horror, Sarah Palin—John McCain's untested, unknown, and seemingly daft VP choice—galvanizes the Xcel Center with her pugnacious national debut. Even up in the nosebleed seats, conventioneers lean forward, really listening for the first time all week, their mouths slightly open. They'd been waiting for a watershed moment. For the last two nights, a parade of governors and former governors, senators and former senators shoveled out reheated pabulum: small government, torture, patriotism. Rudy Giuliani cackled and sneered, Joe Lieberman speechified waxily, and George W. Bush's brief video address was a zero.
But Palin flips a switch. She's been taking notes from a gifted director and, like Hamlet and Iago, she comes alive in her barbed asides. She spins a web of rhetorical intimacy, dismissing the media who are broadcasting her speech to the world—she's talking, it seems, only to the Republicans in the hall. She ridicules Barack Obama as a mere "community organizer." (Howls.) She stumps for direct action: "Terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America—and he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?" (Derisive laugher.) She arches her right eyebrow: John McCain "isn't looking for a fight—but sure isn't afraid of one, either." (Cheers.)
She's a bitch, but she's their bitch. And they love her.
By comparison, McCain's speech the following night seems simpering and overcooked: his experience, his willingness to swim upstream against popular opinion, his battle-won patriotism—all delivered in reedy, almost ghostly tones. He's been the Republican Party's whipping boy since he challenged Bush for the presidency in 2000, and it shows. He tries to co-opt the themes of Obama's acceptance speech by talking about fighting for change. It's a feeble gambit, one that discloses a Republican campaign back on its heels, playing defense, allowing Obama to dictate the terms of the debate. Protesters, who have infiltrated the hall, briefly interrupt his momentum before the Secret Service hauls them away. Even on the floor, conventioneers check their watches and whisper to each other. A few exit before the (anti)climactic balloon drop.
But, in his final seconds, McCain rallies with a burst of short, staccato sentences that reap the McCain's-a-fighter seeds Palin had sown the night before. "Fight with me!" he wheezes. "Fight for what's right for our country! Fight for the ideals and character of a free people! Fight for our children's future! Fight for justice and opportunity for all!"
The message: Direct action is good. Empty sloganeering is bad. Risking oneself for a heartfelt cause should be every American's highest aspiration. As McCain reads those words off the teleprompter, several hundred protesters are sitting in jail cells for doing precisely that: fighting for what they believe is right.
The balloons drop, the delegates applaud, and the penultimate act of the election play is over. The audience streams out of the arena, some to hotel rooms and some to parties.
After most everyone has left, the population of the floor changes suddenly and dramatically. For the first time in four days, the brown people outnumber the white people. They're the maintenance crew. They've come to clean up.