The Show Must Go On

From the Xcel Energy Center to the riot zone, we're covering the RNC

The Republicans may have canceled most of their convention activities Monday due to Hurricane Gustav, but protesters didn't get the message. Bearded men in tie-dyed shirts walked around with college kids rocking Che Guevara signs. Toward the back of the Capitol grounds, a St. Paul police officer stood with about 15 other officers on bikes. Clad in Reno 911 shorts, he surveyed the Capitol lawn. "We've got plenty of police," he said. "National cops from across the nation are here this week."

The anatomy of this protest march was strange. Below a melting ice sculpture that read "Democracy" was a makeshift dance party led by a guy who had mounted a boom box onto a wagon. The gathering had the feel of Thriller meets Hamas.

Then the dude with the wagon decided it was time to protest—an hour before the start of the scheduled march. Several hundred people followed him, along with several hundred more photojournalists. The group walked against the one-way streets of St. Paul, blockading traffic. A few drivers—the smart ones—flashed peace signs.

Soon the action started to heat up. Bandana-faced protesters slid goggles over their eyes. Ahead of the group a large number of riot cops formed a wall, diverting the anarchists onto Seventh Street. The mounted police rode in. When dancers got a little too close to the police, they got faces full of pepper spray.

Protester-medics ran in to help, dumping vinegar into the eyes of those hit. Many shook with pain and fell to their knees. "My fucking skin is burning off," one protester moaned. Over at Central Presbyterian Church, parishioners stood outside with garden hoses and buckets of water, gladly washing down pepper-spray victims.

Meanwhile, other groups of masked protesters descended on St. Paul. There were reports of broken cop car windows, slashed SUV tires, and attacks on downtown businesses. Police cordoned off a section of downtown and wouldn't let anybody out.

One masked protester wearing black camper shoes stood at the back of the pack and looked around. "I'm not sure where the rest of my friends are," he said. "These folks we're walking with right now are just here to have fun...that's not really what we're here to do." With that he adjusted his black kerchief and disappeared into the fray.

The protests were met with a staggering amount of force: riot cops, National Guard, secret service, Ramsey County police, and others. Approximately 284 people were arrested Monday, with 163 booked at the Ramsey County Jail. A press statement given by the RNC Welcoming Committee read, "In spite of the arrests of our friends, we are excited by the fact that the number of people willing to take to the streets and express their dissent is growing." They plan other protests throughout the week. Bradley Campbell

Color-Coordinated Cowboys

Khaki cowboy hats, denim shirts, and boots crowded the lobby at the Crown Plaza hotel Monday as members of the Republican Party's Texas delegation found themselves all dressed up with no place to go.

"It seems like there are more media here than delegates," said alternate delegate Stephen Thompson, from Del Rio. Thompson was especially peeved that prior to entering the Xcel, he had to get rid of his fanny pack, finish his granola bar, and dump his can of Coca-Cola.

The 400 to 500 Texans in St. Paul plan to dress alike every day of the week. "We are pre-coordinated right down to the slacks," said Larry Jones of McKinny, Texas. He assured us that throughout the week we could find Texans in red polos with the Lone Star on the shoulder, delegation neckties and scarves, and Texas flag shirts.

Joshua Kemps, a 22-year-old Texas delegate, wore a stuffed elephant on top of his cowboy hat. He purchased the accessory online for $25 just for the convention. "This way I can show both sides of my nature—my Republican side and my Texas side—all at once," he said.

The cowboy hats are not just a symbol of Texas, though—they serve a practical purpose: to protect the wearers from the sun. "There will be no red necks here this week," said Thompson. —Beth Walton and Erin Carlyle

Delayed Gratification

When asked, most delegates we spoke with on the convention floor Monday said they fully understood and respected John McCain's decision to suspend nonessential convention activities. But not Jack Wolfe. The white-bearded immigration absolutist from McAllen, Texas, calls them as he sees them, and he thinks Republicans are becoming too "touchy-feely, like the Democrats."

"Hurricanes come every year. They're going to come every year until I die," he said. "If we stopped everything every time one came along, we'd never get anything done."

We also caught up with Reza Goharzad, a correspondent for Radio Iran, an anti-regime station based in Los Angeles. He saw the revised schedule for the first day of the convention in more strategic terms.

"Look around," he said. "Ninety-five percent of the delegates are here. The convention isn't being suspended. The only people missing are Bush and Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. They have to act like they are busy monitoring the situation."

He has a point. It's not as if the first day of the convention was really canceled. If it were, all the delegates would have stayed away, which they didn't. Instead, the two least popular Republicans in the country—George Bush and Dick Cheney—were whitewashed from the gala. Hurricane or no, it was quite convenient for John McCain. Jonathan Kaminsky

From the Mouths of Babes

Jack Greenberg, a seventh-grader from West Haven, Connecticut, wants to be the next Brian Williams. The 12-year-old is armed with a microphone, camera crew, and his own producer and credentials. And due to the cute factor, he's getting interviews many journalists would die for.

We caught up with him talking with Sampat Shivangi, a delegate from Jackson, Mississippi. "He's going to be an anchor like Dan Rather or Peter Jennings someday," Shivangi said of Greenberg.

"Peter Jennings is dead," Greenberg responded.

Greenberg, who wrote two essays for Scholastic News in fifth grade to get here, is an old pro. He points out media elites and is quick to say who is who.

"Wolf Blitzer is here, Anderson Cooper is not," he said matter-of-factly.

All day, Greenberg questioned delegates about the economy, Sarah Palin, and the environment. Last week, he did the same thing in Denver. "No other kid reporter has done that," he said proudly.

When asked whom he supports in the presidential race, Greenberg grinned and responded like a true journalist. "I'm impartial," he said. —Beth Walton

Oh Anderson, Where Art Thou?

Absolutely horrendous news broke in the wake of the hurricane: Anderson Cooper might not come to Minnesota.

The impeccably moisturized superstar anchor of CNN, whom we featured in our guide to the RNC, skipped the start of the convention to do actual journalism. With hurricane Gustav barreling through Louisiana, the preeminent heartthrob of the modern era once again reported to ground zero.

Hear that noise? It's the sound of the Eagle patrons crying into their leather chaps.

Yes, Anderson, we understand there will be 14,999 journalists here in the Twin Cities, but not a single talking head can fill your custom Italian kicks. Without you here there will be no Anderson Cooper moments of insight, no slim-fitting suits to look at, and no penetrating...questions?

This news totally kills the CNN after-parties, too. You think anyone wants to swill vodka tonics with Lou Dobbs? —Bradley Campbell

O'Reilly Spotting

There we were, enjoying a few pints of Summit Pilsner at Sakura, when we saw him through the window. "Hey, is that...?" A quick double take confirmed it. Yes. There he was. The man, the myth, the shameless whore: Bill O'Reilly.

The gangly rooster strutted down Fourth Street flanked by what appeared to be two Agent Smiths. He exuded the kind of twisted, slinking arrogance that comes with years spent pandering to millions upon millions of doughy housewives and humpbacked halfwits.

We abandoned our beer and bolted for the door, fully intent on challenging Mr. O to a no-holds-barred thumb war. He had a solid one-block lead, and we were consequently unable to catch up before he was swallowed by what could most politely be described as his entourage. Not knowing what else to do, we drunkenly snapped photos.

Admittedly, the photo quality was about as distorted as the man's sense of decency. Matt Snyders

Al Jazeera at the RNC

Alongside the Xcel Energy Center, there is an approximately 12,000-square-mile area allotted for broadcast media, an asphalt jungle filled with tents, trailers, and correspondents from outlets too frugal to secure space indoors. Deep inside this terrain, we found the press cafeteria, at which sat a half-dozen swarthy men, most of them smoking cigarettes. It was—you guessed it—a team from Al Jazeera.

Curious to know how things were working out for them, we approached and introduced ourselves. No notes, they told us, upon seeing our notebook. We asked if they felt at all weird being the, um, elephants in a room filled with so many Republicans. Not at all, they insisted. "We are journalists like any other journalists," one said.

Have they been enjoying our fair cities? "Yes," one of them told us, but upon further discussion it was revealed they haven't seen much beyond the Xcel, their trailer, and their hotel room. In this, it's safe to say, they are just like all the other journalists who've descended on our town this week.

Once the convention's over, they'll be flying back to Qatar. Jonathan Kamnsky

Freedom of the Press

We caught up with Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar of Democracy Now! on Tuesday at the Xcel. The two had been arrested the day before while covering protesters' clashes with cops in downtown St. Paul. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, hearing of their detention, rushed to their side and was arrested herself, charged with a misdemeanor, and released. Kouddous and Salazar were arrested on suspicion of felonious rioting and were told by police to expect formal charges by the end of the week.

The two suffered injuries during their detention. Salazar was thrown on her back by police and Kouddous was sporting a couple of nasty-looking gashes on his left upper arm. After Democracy Now! put out a press release, more than 1,000 calls streamed into the jail, and DFL Rep. Keith Ellison lobbied for their release. Instead of facing upward of a week in jail awaiting formal charges, they were set free after only about five hours. Still facing potential felony charges, the two, along with Goodman, are continuing to report on the RNC. —Jonathan Kaminsky

St. Paul's Gitmo

Guantánamo Bay has come to St. Paul. Folks can now bask in the Caribbean sunshine that is our off-site maximum-security holding base for terrorists and unlucky Pakistani sheepherders.

Amnesty International brought its life-size model of a maximum-security Gitmo cell to 270 West Seventh St. "Jen," an associate with the exhibition who didn't want her real name used because—um, maybe the fear of being sent to Guantánamo without any evidence—says, "The tour is a way to enable people in the United States to get a glimpse of the harsh realities of illegal detention and prolonged isolation."

Jen notes that the holding chamber—essentially a steel cube—was designed and created through interviews and input from former detainees. So folks can get a real feeling of the place where prisoners dry off after pleasant rounds of water-boarding—er, enhanced interrogation techniques.

"I think it provides a salient and tangible thing for people who wouldn't necessarily see the cell," adds Jen.

We checked out the cell Tuesday and found it to be surprisingly roomy. After reading reports of terror and abuse inside the teeny, tiny confines, we expected a room just big enough to fit a twin bed. But the actual holding cell, while sparse, is comfy.

Standing inside the terror chamber with a volunteer wasn't claustrophobic, and there was enough space to fit at least two more people with ease. And the ceilings are high enough to do jumping jacks. There are dorm rooms smaller than these cells—although the cell lacks built-in shelving, Ethernet, and a drunken roommate who wakes you up at 3 a.m. by humping a Tri-Delt.

Another volunteer a few blocks away agreed that the cell isn't all that bad. "But that's not the point," she added. "It's the fact that we are holding people indefinitely without any proof."

Check it out yourself. If you can't find it, look for the guys wearing bright orange jumpsuits. —Bradley Campbell

Never Forget (Except This Week)

Apparently there is nothing that makes Republican strategists more nervous than the possibility of being photographed in front of a Nazi flag—even if it is a historic memento and reminder of American servicemen fighting on the right side of one of the more justified wars in American history.

Throughout the past week, Republican Party planners made numerous requests to TRACES Center for History and Culture in St. Paul that it remove a Nazi banner on display at the front of its museum in the Landmark Center, says the museum's executive director, Michael Luick-Thrams.

The flag in question, taken by an American soldier from a German city hall, is part of an exhibit on the Nazi book burning of 1933. Luick-Thrams says the request is particularly galling considering that McCain was a POW.

"We think that the legacy of Nazism's defeat by America and its allies in the Second World War remains an inspiring and relevant one," says Luick-Thrams. "Why, then, are we being asked to alter our exhibit during the convention?" —Beth Walton

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