Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gustav, protests lead convention news - The Ottawa Daily Times

Kane Farabaugh
Special to The Times

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It seemed like Monday might have been a nonstory at the Republican National Convention. Most of the schedule for the delegates and speakers congregating at the Xcel Energy Center was cut, with only two hours of mostly procedural moves taking place as the government, and the nation, braced for Hurricane Gustav. Republicans felt it wasn't the right time to have a party.

But it was a holiday, Labor Day. And the weather was nice, with some 5,0000 people not working nor invited nor planning to attend the RNC. And they had an agenda at the steps of the Capitol in St. Paul.

It was humid and hot by the time thousands of people gathered there to listen to protest organizers and speakers rally against the war in Iraq. This was the first part of what was expected to be the largest organized protest during the convention. Police and the people gathering to protest were on edge after reports over the weekend of a raid on an anarchist group that calls itself the RNC Welcoming Committee.

The atmosphere at the protest rally point had the feel of a state fair or festival. There were food stands and a stage as well as waving flags, banners and signs of all kinds that helped the protestors tell a story or give the reason they felt motivated to join the massive demonstration.

In the crowd was James Gilligan, a former Marine who said he'd been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. Gilligan also said he spent the first months home from the war and out of the Marine Corps alone and homeless, unable to get a job or make money. He spoke of how he shuffled through the Veterans Administration health care system, unable to find the appropriate care he needed to treat what ailed him. That was the reason he decided to join the protest, marching with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Gilligan was not the only former member of the military at the demonstration. Gandhi Mohamed is a Somali refugee who settled in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 1993. He joined the U.S. Army when he came of age to gain his citizenship and serve the country that took him in. His plans to make a career of the military came to an end when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. As a Muslim, Mohamed couldn't reconcile his personal and religious beliefs with the demands of the military, and left the service. It's what drove him out of the service and into a crowd of several hundred fellow Somalis attending the protest, who also were gathered to draw attention to the strife in their native country.

As the protesters marched from a rally to make their way from the Capitol to the convention site, police went on alert as another crowd, a splinter group not part of the organized protest, made its way through the downtown St. Paul area.

I happened upon the group while clamoring to get footage of the hundreds of riot police geared up in the downtown area. The police were expecting trouble from this splinter group, and officers were donning gas masks and armor to prepare for any amount of trouble.

Trouble came not long after. To my right I saw a can of tear gas fired from a vehicle. The intent was to disperse a crowd, and as I ran toward the disturbance, dozens of young people in masks and bandannas were running in the opposite direction.

There would be several incidents where protestors and police would clash. By the end of the afternoon, the patience on both sides had worn thin. Demonstrators downtown broke the windows of a Macy's story and smashed the rear window of a Minnesota state police car. Faced with growing lawlessness, officers began to aggressively pursue the troublemakers and began making arrests. The National Guard was called to help restore order.

By the end of the day, officers made more than 200 arrests. Traffic, already heavy because of the convention, was snarled in most of the downtown area. Delegates attending the convention were held up at the conclusion of Monday's program because buses transporting them away from the Xcel Energy Center were stuck in the protest.

St. Paul police say many of those arrested could face felony charges. And it all happened on a day when the story about the convention wasn't a story at all, until a peaceful protest turned into a demonstration that put several hundred people behind bars.

Kane Farabaugh is a Midwest-based TV and radio correspondent with Voice of America (www.voanews.com). He is covering the 2008 Presidential election for VOA. A 1995 graduate of Ottawa Township High School, Farabaugh recently returned to Ottawa, where he now lives with his family. He's worked for various commercial TV stations as a reporter and anchor as well as the American Forces Network Europe based in Germany. The views expressed in this column are Farabaugh's and do not represent the views of Voice of America.

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