VOICES: Volunteerism skewed by fear


I’m chickenshit and it tears me up. I feel the need to show solidarity and to take action through marching in some of the protest rallies this week. But fear keeps me from it. Zealous police actions steer me from it. Paranoia could destroy ya’ – so I avoid it.

Amnesty International USA came to St. Paul this week with their 2008 Guantanamo Cell Tour and I signed up to be a part of the experience, to volunteer a shift for AIUSA, interact with RNC-ers and without a doubt for cool, free swag. The replica cell is located off 7th Street at Walnut in Downtown St. Paul. And is a couple doors down from the Ramsey House. Wednesday is its last day here so I wanted to share this before it goes to its next metropolis.

Be sure you know how to get there. Here’s my tale of woe – one un-credentialed and illogically vectored. The RNC’s redistricting around the Xcel sends the mind reeling when trying to plan how to drive to anywhere near the venue.

I parked on a side street near the Minnesota Historical Society. Just because I did it be sure that you don’t. You need a permit to park in the area. I know that now.

What you see first is the barricade beginning just beyond the historical society’s parking lot entrance. Jersey concrete barriers cleft the street as it descends the 5th Street hill to the convention center. What’s striking is the 6-foot fencing that is on top of it. Whether there is barbed or razor wire atop it escapes me but it looks menacing nonetheless.

Tuesday’s sweltering morning began with me parking illegally and beginning my trek to Walnut Street. Servicemen in fatigues, sporting hefty guns, sticks line the fence all the way down the hill. Their wheat color flak jackets match the concrete blocks nicely but I wonder if they’re sweating like I am and do they chafe.

I’ve walked down the hill and see that I can’t cross Interstate 35 because it’s blocked. It’s a paddock and the only way around is up another hill. A couple escorts me back up the hill and tells me that I have to do it if I want to get anywhere. I have to descend via the MHS’ parking lot, they say. By the militarized entry for credentialed people I deduce.

We approach the driveway of the MHS and I turn into the paddock sweating profusely. I’m a little dizzy from excursion, humidity and obesity and lurch forward hoping I can start descending again. The couple yells no, soldiers move forward and I’m stammering, ‘do you know how I can get to 7th and Walnut?’ “Not this way, maam” an officer shares. ‘D’oh!’ I blurt. The couple, soldiers laugh. I drag ass outta’ there, embarrassed.

We descend through the lot and I ask passersby how do I get to 7th and Walnut? After several dunno’s and shrugs I get a proper answer, “Oh, you have to go back up the hill, cross the street past the barrier and go up another hill, take the foot bridge crossing 35 by the hospital.” You’ve got to be kidding me. The couple moves on. I’m drenched in flop sweat and go back to where I started.

I get in my car before the traffic squad tickets me and drive down the oh-so-vexing hill and merge onto 35E. Using prayer and colorful recriminations I willfully snake “Raindrop” (my car) and find legal parking within a block of 7th and Walnut Streets. Yay!

The morning is spent amongst Amnesty International’s USA staff and volunteers aged 21 to 70-ish. The Center for Victims of Torture, a Minnesota based organization shares table space at the Blaze-Orange and black tent. The weather is turning. Wind gusts force volunteers and all to protect handouts with splayed fingers, heavy books and chains.

We are schooled on the message AIUSA’s cell is there to provide: Close Guantanamo Bay’s detention center. We learn that detainees are held in cells like the one on display for up to 22 hours in one day. They are exposed to extreme heat and little else. Other tactics utilized throughout their detention is sleep deprivation and intimidation with loud music. We will be asking people for petition signatures on the group’s mission calling for:

* Pledge(s) not to forcibly send released detainees to any country where they may face serious human rights abuses.

* Establish a fair and transparent process to assess the case of each detainee to be released in order to establish whether they can return safely to their country of origin or whether another solution should be found.

* Charge those to be prosecuted with recognizably criminal offenses and provide them with a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal, such as a US federal court. There should be no recourse to the death penalty.

A few RNCers visit the display but are reticent to interact, take handouts, make prolonged eye contact and verily speed walk away. At least they stopped by and I thank them, albeit to retreating backsides. Code Pink members who are visiting from Austin, TX take the tour and sign petitions in support of human rights. Rock the Vote vendors breeze through. And a bevy of FOX-TV affiliates film the display and interview AIUSA staff. Most notably for me is a O’Reilly Factor producer who respectfully takes stock footage and interviews staff about the Guantanamo Cell. I am sure to smile and flash a peace sign for the camera in my blaze-orange for justice shirt.

I’ve seen him before, this producer, at Freepress’ National Conference for Media Reform in June. He ambushed Bill Moyers asking leading questions for Bill O’Reilly’s show. And paid for it. It was humorous to watch as he sprinted away from 20 or so citizen journalists documenting the interaction. If you haven’t seen it, go to the uptake’s website and look for it. It’s hilarious.

My shift gets done after the rain. During the lunch hour I take leave. Or, I at least tried to escape. Raindrop was out of gas. Thankfully, the hybrid beast had enough energy to coast to the Mobil at Grand and 7th. Phew.

I merge onto 35E southbound so I can exit at St. Clair and reenter 35 northbound. I didn’t punch it to cross the expressway so I could find my way home. So I pulled off Highway 52 and put a few more gallons of gas in the tank. I buy a map and return to the Gitmo cell. I wanted to ask a policeman the best way to get to Interstate 94 from that location. I wanted to invite friends to go to the cell and knew directions would be necessary for my west metro pals.

I drive up 7th Street two blocks from the cell. The paddock’s entry to RNC Land isn’t manned. That’s weird. I spy to my right a grouping of men in blue. YAY! I head their way. Hats say MPD. Perfect, I think. Minneapolis policemen would know how to get me home. “Sorry, you’d know better than me. We’re from Milwaukee, volunteering for the RNC.” What the FOX!? The next grouping I approach are from Ohio.

Back on Walnut, I get directions home from a man paid to know his way around. A limo driver who’s stretch cruiser idles near the Gitmo Cell, waiting for a VIP attending the convention. He tells me how to go and I leave. I had wanted to attend the poor people’s march. But, fear and hunger drove the car home. I was just along for the ride. I’m proud of what little I did to raise awareness. And glad for the new cool shirt. Maybe in another life I’ll be more brave and stand up for what matters most – justice.