Free speech and the anarchic convergence of irony

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Wow. Like most of us on the generally quiet West Side of Saint Paul, I was shocked to wake up this morning and learn that my neighborhood had been the site of a giant police raid, claims of anarchist rabble-rousing, and midnight mayhem even before a well-heeled Republican invasion of our city.

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Adding to the discomfort are other reports of semi-arrests, shakedowns and seeming police state actions coming in from throughout the Twin Cities. Of course, maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised given what we’ve seen in the last eight years of Bush Administration disregard for civil liberties, Gitmo, wiretaps and god knows what else.
A new sympathy for anarchists is a first and perhaps lasting reaction to the news of our local roundup of the usual suspects.

But the raid on the Smith Avenue “Convergence Center” was for this West Sider also an ironic flashback to an event that happened during those now sometimes nostalgic Clinton years when democracy, or at least Democrats, ruled the land.

I refer to another much less publicized mini-riot that occurred at the same location in 1997 when it was the anarchists on the giving side of free speech abuse. Specifically, then they were the ones trying to crash in doors in the name of protecting us all.

Their direct foes then were a group of neo-Nazis who had surreptiously procured the Smith Avenue Rental Hall to host a birthday party. That it was to be Hitler’s birthday party escaped most everyone’s understanding.

But not the surprisingly organized anarchists who then were known as RABL or Revolutionary Anarchists Bowling League. They had somehow gotten wind of the plan and appropriately were spreading the word.

As then editor of the neighborhood newspaper, The Riverview Times, I was contacted a couple of days before the event and given something of a press briefing. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Nazis were soon to be descending on my neighborhood with goose-stepping Stormtroopers soon to follow.

To be sure, any number of genocide-apologizing, fascist-loving sociopaths in my neighborhood is too many. And I applauded then and now RABL’s committment to not letting any of us forget what Nazism stood for.

But the paranoia level and what all-consuming self-righteousness can lead to behalf of any political cause was becoming all too evident.

That lesson was all too real on the day of the event, an otherwise beautiful Sunday afternoon in August, when I went first to the Mounds Park location rumored to be the Nazi’s initial meeting place. Getting out of my automobile, pen and notebook in hand, and walking over to a picnic pavilion I found out how fast free speech can become a secondary concern for saviors of democracy.

I was almost immediately surrounded by bat and club carrying young men demanding to know why I was in that public park. Being middle-aged and not wearing a black shirt or skinheaded seemed also to make me more suspect no matter my attempts to explain my journalistic intent. Thankfully, one of the RABL belatedly recognized me and convinced his disappointed peers they would have to find someone else to beat to a pulp.

That clear desire was manifest within the hour when I returned to the Smith Avenue Rental Hall in time to see a half dozen slinking, pimply-faced Nazi-wannabees slip inside. They looked almost as pathetic as their philosophies – although interestingly their uniforms of black shirts and skinheads looked surprisingly like those young men I had just seen in Mounds Park.

That thought had barely flashed when I saw at least a dozen trucks, vans or vehicles full of my anarchist friends drive by, turn the corner and then quickly pull to stops on all sides of the building. The occupants quickly emptied out and to my shock came sprinting down streets carrying their clubs/bats and even something that looked very much like a battering ram.

These were very organized anarchists and their intent was clear as they took aim at the now locked Rental Hall front door.

Thankfully, to my mind, a Saint Paul Police squad car was miraculously cruising by almost at that moment. The two officers quickly called for help and somehow provided enough deterent to stop the battering. Within five minutes there were at least 20, and later 50 gendarmes were there to hold off about a hundred of the anarchists and a growing crowd of puzzled neighbors.

It was a screaming, shouting standoff for about two hours until the police were able to sneak the clearly terrified neo-Nazis out a side door. Semi-humorously, many of my West Side neighbors were truly confused which side of the police line represented the Hitler-lovers. “You can’t tell the Nazis without a scorecard,” joked one.

If there were good guys on this day it had to be the Saint Paul Police, who bore verbal abuse and undeserved insults while doing their job protecting the rights of a group they no doubt personally found repulsive. It was what democracy is always supposed to be about – letting everyone have a right to their say or expression, if only to show their stupidity.

Which brings us back to today’s situation and the strange ironies that now meet at the appropriately named Convergence Center.

Deciding to pay an impromptu visit, I had a wonderfully different experience this time with our neighborhood’s visiting anarchists. The RNC Welcoming Committee may not truly be welcoming to Republicans but the atmosphere on Smith Avenue certainly was. Freely walking anywhere in the building I saw only young people talking, lounging, talking on phones, eating etc. It looked more like a dorm than the center of violent revolution and social disruption that feds, and apparently our Ramsey County Sheriff believes.

The anarchists may not have the right to disrupt others freedom of association and speech. But certainly preemptive disruption of their rights, or anyone’s, does not ultimately enrich the rest of us. And how often have victims of domestic abuse been told that police can’t react until there is an actual violent act?

The strange twisting of roles we have seen in our Smith Avenue events (gee, I wonder what role the RNC plays?) is perhaps less of a twisting than a convergence of a shared social malaise.

Looking back I sometimes wonder if we haven’t all had a growing disregard for the free speech of others that helped lead to this crisis. But the anarchists appear to have at least made some progress, or at least to have realized that they are a lot more appealing as the abused underdogs. Hopefully our Saint Paul leaders and cops will soon reach the same sort of conclusion in standing up in favor of civil liberties as a key part of keeping the peace.

Maybe there’s yet hope for another form of convergence.