As the Republican National Convention convened Monday in downtown St. Paul, more than 10,000 people took to the streets to protest the Iraq War and demand new priorities for the nation.
“The war costs $10 billion a month,” said Polly Pampusch, who teaches English as a second language at Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul. “I’ve been teaching for 30 years and the last eight years have been a very tough time for our schools.”
The march, organized to protest the war, drew a diverse group of citizens who said the country is headed in the wrong direction. The event was timed to coincide with an appearance by President George W. Bush at the convention, but Bush canceled his speech so he could track the effects of Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast.
The communities in the path of the hurricane were also on the minds of the protesters, who collected donations for Gulf residents affected by the disaster. Demonstrators also made a link between the Bush administration’s failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina three years ago, the Iraq War and the many unmet needs in the United States.
“We demand a reordering of national and local priorities . . . toward jobs, education, health care, rebuilding our infrastructure and an end to poverty as we know it,” said Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, which represents clerical workers at the University of Minnesota.
As the protesters exercised their free speech rights, hundreds of police – some in riot gear – lined the sidewalks of downtown St. Paul. After the march, some 50 people were reportedly arrested for smashing windows and violating the convention security zone. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, police fired rubber bullets into one crowd and used tear gas and pepper spray.
As the anti-war march neared the Xcel Energy Center, site of the Republican national convention, demonstrators were herded past large security fences that blocked access to the facility.
Nearby, a sign on the Dorothy Day Center, a homeless shelter operated by Catholic Charities, read, “Our political agenda: food, shelter and dignity.”
That sentiment was echoed by many in the march.
“When will we come out in numbers to say no to inequality, hunger and homelessness in the United States of America?” wondered Cheri Honkala, organizer for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.
“It is our families that go to war because they are poor in this ‘economic draft.'”
The campaign planned a Monday evening “Truth Commission” at a local church to call attention to the problem of poverty in Minnesota and across the nation.