Peaceful Poor People’s March ends in explosions of tear gas

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The Poor People’s Economic and Human Rights Campaign marched on the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, delivering an indictment of national leadership.

The first person I spoke to at Mears Park this afternoon was Alex Hux, a retired school counselor from Philadelphia who had come to Minneapolis with his daughter to protest the Republican National Convention. He said the goal of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign was to further dramatize and remind the public that people are still homeless; they have no healthcare, and are dying prematurely.

Hux said there were busloads of people coming from all over the country for the rally. The visitors have been staying in Bushville, an encampment they set up in a vacant lot by University and Dale. “Bushville reminds people of Hooverville,” Hux tells me with a smile. Their first camp was at Harriet Island, but they were evicted. Then the group arrived inside the Capitol building with their sleeping bags, but they were kicked out of there, too, and two activists were arrested.

Also at the rally, which began Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Mears Park, were Orion Wishness, and Marin Peplinski, who have members of the PPEHRC for many years. Wishness is currently unemployed, and Peplinski is a retired teacher.

“I think capitalism is unfair and undemocratic,” Peplinski said. “I grew up poor, in the Saint Paul housing projects. I vote for the socialist or the communist. I never vote for the Democrat. It’s like putting a band-aid on a rotten body.”

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Many of the people I spoke to early on at the rally were retired teachers. Some were homeless themselves, or had been on welfare, like Patty Smith from the Welfare Rights Committee who is a mom with kids, and Chia Xiong, a woman from Laos who says “they steal money from the poor to pay the rich.”

These people had gathered to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. Although the PPEHRC had gotten a permit to use the park, the city of Saint Paul had not provided a staff member to turn the sound system on. At one point, loud classical music blasted from the speakers, making it impossible to hear the leaders.

Yet despite the technical difficulties, the initial gathering was peaceful. The organization Seeds for Peace was giving out food. Parents were there with their kids, students were with their friends, and several theatrical groups gave performances throughout the park. There was even an appearance made by a troupe of Native Dancers made up in full traditional costumes and accompanied by incense, who performed after Clyde Bellecourt, a well-known Native American activist, addressed the audience.

Cheri Honkala was the main speaker of the rally. With the looming presence of dops in full riot gear surrounding the park, Honkala shouted “I am not afraid.” The crowd cheered uproariously. “What I’m afraid of,” Honkala continued “is people dying on the streets of Minnesota!”

Honkala called for a peaceful protest. She asked the group to not be distracted by the police or the troublemakers. She said she didn’t agree with breaking windows, but she said “I don’t give a damn if you are an Anarchist or a Democratic or Republican… We are not professional demonstrators. We come from the hood. Don’t anybody get in the way of our message today. It’s our time to end homelessness.”

But people did get in the way of her message. Soon there was a commotion on the street and everyone started rushing there to see what was going on. Despite Honkala’s pleas to remain focused, the confrontation between police and protestors was gathering everyone’s attention.

“Get out of my face,” shouted one officer to the protestors. Another officer’s horse got out of control. The crowd started , “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.” Hundreds of people with cameras were taking pictures of the cops on their horses, a few holding automatic rifles.

“There are too many people with press passes,” said one observer. “Cameras have gotten too cheap.” Indeed there were hundreds of people with cameras, who pushed up against the cops just as forcefully as some of the more rowdy protesters .

Then the man mumbled, “It’s all the fault of the anarchists.”

There was a group hysteria. Groups began fighting among themselves. One man had a seizure, and dozens of people started taking his picture. A group of unofficial “medics” urged the crowd to back away, because the flashes are what caused his seizure. When the picture takers wouldn’t back away, the medics shouted angrily. Then medics made a chain around the man and created a “privacy circle” as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Meanwhile the PPEHRC were urging people to walk away from the police, to keep the focus on the rally. Soon the march began, and the demonstrators and cops dispersed. The route for the march went from Mears Park toward Seventh Street, then west on Seventh Street over 94, then all the way to University Avenue, turned toward the Capitol, and then toward the Excel Center. The first half of the march was through a fairly deserted industrial area, with very few onlookers except police. At one point one of the police officers disappeared into the woods. At first I thought he was looking for evidence, but it seemed he just needed to relieve himself.

When the group went underneath the 35E bridge, everyone started shouting and an echo filled the space. One young man painted graffiti on the pavement. Another man took a picture of it and gave it to the police. I asked the photographer if he was a journalist. He said that he had a blog for his friends.

A commotion happened when the crowd reached the Capitol. Two young men appeared out of nowhere and jumped into vans, then screeched away. Then hundreds of young people appeared as well, apparently following the two men.

Rage Against the Machine had played an non-permitted concert at the Capitol and had run away, and their fans reached the street just as the Poor People’s March arrived at the same spot. In the ensuing commotion and confusion, the fans joined the Poor People’s March, not necessarily even knowing what the march was about.

As the crowd reached St. Peter Avenue, the tone changed. The crowd became much rowdier. At one point a young man pushed me and told me I was walking too slow, and cackled with his friend as they pushed forward.

The police once again formed a wall of fear at the intersection at Mickey’s Diner, and sprayed several people with pepper spray.

While the fear tactics of the police escalated the tensions, there were other guides that were more successful in trying to keep the crowd focused. Members of PPEHRC wearing fluorescent vests urged to stay away from the cops. A group of young people dressed in black urged the group to keep moving forward and “stick together.” Just before the march reached its endpoint at the large fence blockade in front of the Xcel Center, Cheri Honkala had the children and elderly marchers wait in a peace circle while she moved toward the fence, right in front of Catholic Charities. She addressed the police. She asked that someone from the Republican National Convention be brought to hear her message.

“We want to charge this government with Crimes Against Humanity,” Honkala shouted. “I just want to practice my First Amendment rights, and I can’t do that behind these gates. Don’t just stand there! Look at us! Please! I’m going to deliver the citizen’s arrest. Please don’t tase me. Please don’t pepper spray me. The whole world is watching.” Honkala pushed a flag-wrapped message underneath the fence. “Please,” she said. “We are human beings. We only want a better place for ourselves and our children.”

The indictment of the country’s leaders was delivered, wrapped in a flag, as close to the Xcel Center as marchers could get. Security guards would not pick it up or deliver it inside the RNC.

Honkala then left and began to lead the crowd back, but some people wouldn’t move. Many young people taunted the police on the other side of the fence. Finally, a group of young people in black shouted “Out of the cage and into the streets,” and at that point people started leaving.

As the People’s March continued past Mickey’s Diner, many young people remained in that intersection, shouting at the police. The police ordered them to disperse, but that only encouraged the antagonism.

Eventually, the police shot off an explosion of tear gas. The crowds began to run, screaming, with their hands in the air. It was a very unpeaceful ending to what was supposed to be a peaceful march.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.