Week of police repression against peaceful protests
Despite police attempts to intimidate students from participating, hundreds of Twin Cities youth walked out of high schools on Thursday, 4 September, to protest against the Iraq war, on the final day of the Republican National Convention. Over 400 joined an energetic rally and march, from the state capitol. The protest featured a theatrical mock trial, using giant puppet caricatures of Dick Cheney and other “War Criminals” who run Washington.
“While the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul roll out the red carpet for the convention, we say no to business as usual while the people responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis, Afghans, and U.S. soldiers come to our city to plot their next steps," said Desarae Walker, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota and an activist with Youth Against War & Racism and Socialist Alternative. "We are tired of paying for a war with no end in sight.”
The walkout also received substantial media coverage, including on TV news, in both local and national outlets (several links are included at the end of this article).
Most organizers of the event had anticipated a substantially higher turnout, but this was cut across by thinly veiled threats by police of violence against students who walked out – threats echoed by school officials. With the student strike called for just the third day of classes, there was little time for organizers to counter this fear campaign.
St. Paul Police Chief, John Harrington, told the press: “The one untoward event that we are hoping that most well-thought out students in the city will not take part in is …a call for students to walk out of school today. We think that’s a bad idea on almost every possible basis. The place for students today is to stay in school” (Pioneer Press, 9/4/08).
The police told St. Paul and Minneapolis school district officials that the streets of downtown St. Paul would not be safe for students participating in the student strike. This message was clearly conveyed to students and many parents, in some cases through automated phone calls to students’ homes warning of the alleged dangers and potential extra disciplinary action from the schools themselves
However, with walkout organizers publicly projecting a peaceful and permitted march, the only threat to students’ safety was from the heavily armed police! As promised by organizers, the walkout rally and march was a spirited, family-friendly event that proceeded without any confrontations with police. Hundreds of students peacefully left school in an act of collective civil disobedience, many participating in their first ever protest, demanding an end to the war in Iraq, and end to military recruiters in their schools, and money for education, not war.
Police Chief Harrington deceitfully told the media that students should skip the walkout since “there will be opportunities [Thursday] evening” to protest. Yet, that evening, over 1,000 people gathered at the State Capitol for a rally and march to the Xcel centre, where John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, was to give his acceptance speech. However, the police refused to grant organizers a permit to march after 5pm, effectively turning the streets around the Xcel into a “No protest zone” in the hours before McCain’s speech (rendering the First Amendment null and void on Thursday night).
Of those who turned out to the evening protest, nearly 400 were arrested after cops blocked them from crossing bridges to get anywhere near the convention site. About twenty members of the media, including two Associated Press reporters, were caught in this indiscriminate police round-up! This was the culmination of a week of police repression against mostly peaceful protests, which created an extremely anxious climate in the city – difficult conditions under which to mobilize fresh layers of youth into action.
Counter-Recruitment campaign grows
While the turnout on the 4 September student strike was smaller than past walkouts organized by Youth Against War & Racism, which have brought up to 2,000 youth out, the local campaign YAWR has led against military recruitment in schools is stronger than ever.
Earlier this year, YAWR successfully pushed the Minneapolis school board to pass a resolution substantially restricting military recruiters’ access to schools, and opening the door to a more institutional presence for the counter-recruitment movement in schools. This fall, YAWR intends to build on this success and expand our presence and base in Minneapolis high schools.
Just as important, over the last year, the core activist base of YAWR has continued to expand. This in part came out of a highly successful activist training camp YAWR organized, in August, in partnership with the Ruckus Society, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Socialist Alternative, and Headwaters Foundation for Justice. Out of this camp, and in the run-up to the RNC, a whole new group of youth leaders developed, solidified as a team, and politically educated each other. In many respects, this will likely prove the most important lasting success of YAWR’s student strike, because it lays the foundation for future youth movements to develop and flourish in the Twin Cities and beyond.
Further, a walkout by 400 students on the third day of school in the face of a hostile climate of police repression shows there is a substantial base of serious youth activists. Our key task now is to build off this success to organize more youth to take action to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and counter the presence of military recruiters in our schools.