By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
A weird thing happens to your nervous system when a flash-bang grenade explodes close enough for you to smell it. The higher functions of your consciousness evaporate and you suddenly go into slow-motion autopilot. The rational part of your brain knows that flash-bangs are virtually harmless, that their function is to frighten, not injure. But that part of your brain is gone. Base instinct takes over and you're no longer human—just a hairless ape trying to avoid things that go bang.
As John McCain spoke inside the Xcel Energy Center Thursday night about America's obligation to confront "threats to peace and liberty in our time," armed agents were busy cuffing and detaining nearly 400 people a half-mile away across I-94. Most were protesters who had overstayed their permit. (Their freedom to assemble had expired at 5 p.m. that afternoon.) Many were journalists and bystanders.
It began that afternoon when 800 demonstrators coalesced on the State Capitol lawn. They marched southward down John Ireland Boulevard, only to find that riot police had blocked off the bridge going into downtown. The crowd headed due east to get around them, this time taking Cedar Street across the interstate. Guided by overhead helicopters, police had already repositioned and blocked off Cedar. After an hour-long standoff, the demonstrators followed the same route they had taken across the State Capitol lawn. They were outflanked once again. Authorities had John Ireland Boulevard sealed just as tight as it had been two hours earlier.
Just as dusk descended, the protesters headed north along Marion Avenue, away from the Xcel and away from the police. They took a right at University Avenue, filing down the eastbound lanes of the major thoroughfare chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!" They hadn't gone more than a block before the first smoke bomb was unleashed.
A thick billow of neon-green smoke wafted toward the crowd. Everyone retreated. Some ran.
"Walk!" yelled their fellow protesters, not wanting the officers to give chase. "Don't run! Walk! Don't run! Walk!"
It didn't matter. Loud explosions sounded and canisters flew in the air as we cut across University National Bank on the corner of University and Marion. We headed south on Marion—back the way we came—as impossibly loud flash bombs began going off around us with increasing frequency. Now people were running. Frantically scattering. A large number assembled on the bridge across I-94.
Standing across the street from the bridge, we could see they were bottlenecked in. Riot police had them ensnared.
Our only way out appeared to be a vast Sears parking lot behind us. We set off in that direction, unaware that our noose, too, had already been slipped. Droves of reinforcements materialized seemingly out of nowhere.
"Get back!" they shouted. "Get back!"
As if warding off vampires with garlic, I held my blue RNC press credentials in a vain attempt to summon their guidance. "Just tell me where to go," I said. "Just tell me where to go."
"That way!" roared an officer. He shoved my left shoulder and pointed across the street, away from the parking lot, back toward the bridge. The situation there looked every bit as chaotic, only more congested. I trotted in that direction, looking every direction at once, trying to avoid—
THUD! A skull-piercing noise exploded inside my cranium. It took a few seconds to realize that a flash bomb had just gone off less than 10 feet in front of me. Ears ringing, I turned around and stared directly into an inhuman gas mask. A muffled voice barked inside it.
"Move! Move! Move!"
But where? Officers were closing in from every direction. Now on the corner of St. Anthony and Marion, two dozen protesters, journalists, and bystanders suddenly realized they'd been had. The expertise with which the police had unfurled the trap was impressive in a way that makes your stomach churn.
Everyone's hands shot up.
"Everybody down!" bellowed numerous voices around us. "Get down! Put your hands behind your head!"
An elfin, curly-haired photographer tried to explain something to an officer, something about his equipment. The officer indifferently took out a Mace canister and unloaded it in his face. The photographer emitted primordial screams and dropped to his knees, rubbing his eyes and crying for help.
"I said put your hands behind your head!"
But he couldn't take his hands away from his face, which was now awash in tears and mucus.
"Put your hands behind your head, or you're getting Maced again!" This time, the photographer managed to pry his hands off his face and follow orders.
We sat in that position for a half-hour as police secured the area. A rigid silence had now replaced the shouting and screaming and exploding. Behind me, a sobbing middle-aged woman kept repeating that she lived in a nearby apartment, she didn't do anything, she was just outside watching. An officer told her to calm down and that "freaking out just makes it worse."
A female officer, noticing the press credentials around my neck, took them off and brought them to show a few of her colleagues. They stood in the middle of the blocked-off intersection and examined them. She returned and put them back around my neck.