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Police tear gas protesters in the streets outside the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center September 2, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The GOP will nominate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the Republican choice for U.S. President on the last day of the convention. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

Calm returns to Xcel after police fire tear gas at protesters

by Sharon McNary, Minnesota Public Radio
September 2, 2008

Calm returns to Xcel Energy Center after police fired tear gas at protesters. About 2,000 protesters had marched on the Republican National Convention from events at Mears Park and the capitol grounds.

St. Paul, Minn. — Delegates leaving the Xcel Energy Center after the last political speech of the night found quiet streets and few signs that police had fired tear gas at protesters hours earlier.

The Republican National Convention inside the downtown St. Paul hockey arena had continued despite the clash outside. There were few arrests, and no injuries reported.

Delegates and others leaving the barricaded convention zone after the speeches ended seemed to be aware of the fracas outside, but were not greatly concerned.

"We're pretty sheltered in there," said Liz Neaton of Minneapolis, who had been working inside the convention hall.

Convention attendee and McCain supporter, Steve Ghostley, 21, of New Brighton, Minn., said, "I don't have anything against Democrats, but the radicals give them a bad name. Don't ruin our city like that."

It was a tumultuous end to what had been a mostly peaceful day. Before the march, protesters had squared off with police at Mears Park, leading to at least three arrests there.

As of 9 p.m. ten people had been arrested, said Holli Drinkwine of the Ramsey County Sheriff's office.

A 1,000-person march through St. Paul combined with a large crowd leaving a free concert on the grounds of the state capitol, at least doubling the number.

The mass reached the metal barricades surrounding the Xcel Energy Center and the Republican National Convention about 8 p.m.

After a protester tried to hang a sign on a barricade and another attempted to climb up one, police declared the crowd to be an unlawful assembly.

Many in the crowd left as ordered, but a few hundred remained, and police first used pepper spray on the crowd, then fired tear gas about 8:25 p.m. a Minnesota Public Radio reporter said.

Police fired the small orange-topped silver cannisters at crowds on St. Peter St. between 7th and 10th streets, the reporter said.

A group of protesters tried to breach the fence near the Xcel Energy Center where the Republican National Convention is underway, said Tom Walsh, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. Police said they moved them away from the arena and tried to make sure they don't regroup, he said.

Jeff Ley, 20, of Roseville, Minn., was among the crowd that had marched to the center. When the crowd was gassed, he began running, but then heeded the advice of other demonstrators who yelled at him to walk with his hands raised. He said a police officer stepped from behind a building pillar and fired pepper spray in his face.

"I put my hands up because I saw everybody else doing it," Ley said. "Then I got hit."

Many got caught in the gas.

"This is the last time I want to be part of history," said Bernie Swafford of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., her eyes streaming from the chemical irritant. She had come with her husband to the Xcel Energy Center to watch the action, not to demonstrate.

The raucus crowd developed from two events that converged into a single group.

People leaving the free "Ripple Effect" concert at the capitol were energized by an unannounced performance by Rage Against the Machine. After the band members were denied an official appearance by security forces, the band rushed the stage, one grabbed a bullhorn and they performed two songs, including "Bulls on Parade." The a capella performance seemed to mollify the crowd, which had protested the concert's abrupt end.

As the concert shut down about 7 p.m. about 1,000 marchers with Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign's "March for Our Lives" passed by, and concert-goers joined in, at least doubling the size of the crowd.

They reached the metal barricades surrounding the Xcel Energy Center shortly before 8 p.m. Cheri Honkala, an organizer of the march, asked the group to take a pledge of non-violence. Then she called for the war crimes prosecution of the people inside the convention.

Earlier, police arrested three people as the Poor People's March assembled in Mears Park about 5:30 p.m. Police used a taser to subdue one person and pepper-sprayed a small contingent of marchers who veered out of the park into the street at 5th and Wacouta streets, a Minnesota Public Radio reporter said.

March organizers had said they planned to deviate from the law-enforcement permitted route of the march in order to pass by the St. Paul city jail where Monday's arrestees were being held. They passed by without incident.

On Monday, about 200 rogue protesters roamed St. Paul, breaking windows, slashing tires and harassing delegates. Police arrested more than 280 people in conjunction with the confrontations; 130 were booked on felony charges, including one assault on a peace officer.

Downtown building owners estimated that about 15 windows have been damaged during convention protests with a value of about $20,000 to $25,000, Matt Anfang, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners & Managers Association, said late Tuesday afternoon. The group plans to survey its members after the convention to tally any other damage.

The skirmishes marred a larger, peaceful anti-war demonstration Monday which attracted 10,000 people to downtown St. Paul.

Organizers of the Mears Park event blamed police for the confrontations Tuesday. They had said htey would stage a "citizens arrest" outside the Xcel Energy Center, President Bush was to address conventioneers via satellite from the White House.

Honkala, of the People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, pledged multiple acts of civil disobedience throughout the week.

Tuesday morning, eight individuals, most in their 20s and from outside Minnesota, were scheduled to appear in court for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly. The Ramsey County court is expected to start dealing with some of the felony cases this afternoon.

Also on Tuesday, St. Paul Police arrested a group of five protesters near the St. Paul Cathedral shortly before 1 p.m.

The protesters had been loitering near the area before the cathedral's private security called the police, officials said.

They were not on church property at the time of the arrest and had not caused any damage, according to St. Paul Police Department Commander Steve Frazer.

Officers erected a mobile booking tent nearby, where they were processing the five people, Frazer said. None of the protesters resisted arrest. Some may be released at the scene.

Frazer said the five protesters were dressed in all black. Some were carrying backpacks with weapons, including nails, clubs and a bag of feces, Frazer said.

Minneapolis police officials say nine people were arrested around 9 p.m. Monday for non-protest related offenses, but police suspect they had been involved in the protests in St. Paul.

The group was busted for drinking in a park by the river. One person was given a citation and released at the scene. The others were taken to jail where they were identified, cited and then released. Police say one man was also charged with public urination for urinating in a squad car.

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington called yesterday's attempts to disrupt the RNC convention a failure. Harrington says the majority of the approximately 10,000 people who showed up to protest the convention did so peacefully.

"Yesterday there was a group of people -- not the protesters in my mind, not the group that was here to have their voices heard in protest -- but a group of criminals that came here with a very express goal and intent," said Harrington. "They came here to stop the convention, to crash the gates, to stop the buses and the delegates from being able to do their lawful duty. They failed."

President Bush will address the delegates at 8:50 p.m. via satellite from the White House. Former Sen. Fred Thompson will speak, as will Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrats' vice presidential candidate in 2000 and now a McCain supporter.

Monday, a small but persistent band of self-described anarchists were blamed for attacking delegates, smashing windows, puncturing car tires, throwing bottles and starting at least one fire. Their actions, designed to disrupt the convention, largely overshadowed a much larger antiwar march that snaked from the Capitol to the convention site.

Police say they are prepared for violent protests to continue all week, though they are hoping the worst is over.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman called on protesters to "engage in proper political dialogue."

"We will send a very loud and clear message to those who choose to break the law and endanger the safety of others," he said. "We will pursue you, and we will not let this stand."

(Minnesota Public Radio reporters Paul Tosto, Matt Peiken, Michael Wells and Whitney Stark, and The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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