(ST. PAUL) Several thousand people gathered in the shadow of the St. Paul capitol building this morning to rally ahead of a protest march to the Xcel Energy Center, where the Republican National Convention kicked off (in abbreviated form, due to Hurricane Gustav) today.
Most of the protesters had come to express their desire for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, though their methods were wildly different: Teamsters dressed in blue union t-shirts lounged on the grass as Code Pink protesters, dressed in elaborate pink dresses and costumes, danced and waved; young men in black t-shirts, bandanas over their faces, held their fists in the air and chanted slogans while two men wearing giant Bush and Cheney heads danced to a song called "Insane In The McCain Brain" condemning the administration.
Photo Essay: See Images Of The Rally
More muted were members of Iraq Veterans Against The War, who, clad in stark black t-shirts, gathered in small groups away from the protest theatrics.
Vincent Emanuele, a member of the group and Indiana native, served eight months in Iraq, and said he didn't oppose the war when it started. But after seeing the "killing of innocents, abuse of prisoners, destruction of civilian property," he said he became disillusioned.
"This of course was completely contradictory to the mission that we were originally sent to do which was that quote unquote winning hearts and minds," Emanuele said. He spoke of "watching contractors handing out business cards to infantry guys as they were leaving Iraq, as in here was a job for you to do when you're done."
Melida Arredondo Alexander brought a coffin to the protest, as well as a photograph of her stepson, Corporal Alexander Arrredondo, who was killed in Iraq at age 20. She handed out copies of one of the letters Arrredondo sent from Iraq, which read in part, "I am not afraid of dying. I am more afraid of what will happen to all the ones that I love if something happens to me."
"The Bush administration will not show the caskets, will not show the dead, and will not show how it affects the families," said Alexander, a photo of her stepson on her t-shirt.
"John McCain, who served in Vietnam, has been stating very emphatically that the continued occupation of Iraq is to justify those who have died already," she continued. "And I find that to be immoral and in poor taste, to suggest that basically the blood that my stepson gave doing his job is sufficient reason to continue killing people and having casualties both of US troops and of the Iraqi people."
The crowd gathered at the capitol were peaceful, though by late afternoon, CBS News' Allison O'Keefe reports, downtown St Paul police appeared to be on high alert.
"Riot Police are everywhere, many of them with masks on, as one set of riot police fired off four rounds of tear gas in the direction of some anarchist protestors," she reports.
"The tear gas was released down by the river where a number of police on horses and bicycle cops, also wearing masks, have formed." (Here's a report on the clashes with police and arrests that took place after the gathering at the capitol.)
Back at the pre-march gathering, a dreadlocked man led a chant of "bring our troops home now" from the stage. Del Grote stood in the grass clad in a black-and-white striped prisoner uniform, adopted from a Halloween costume he made two years before.
He said he feels the president should be in jail, and explained that he didn't feel it would have been right to not protest because of Hurricane Gustav.
"The war in Iraq is every bit as important as the hurricane that is hitting the New Orleans area," he said. "I think they're totally two separate issues."
"They took such a beating after what happened with Katrina, that's why they're making such a big show of shutting everything down now," Texas native Mim Olsen in reference to the Republicans' decision to tone down their convention, arguing that their actions have not been sincere.
Minnesota native Lauren DeLand, who held a sign reading "STOP TORTURING PEOPLE YOU FREAKS," said she was protesting because of the war as well as "the future of reproductive rights in this country." She said the point of the protest wasn't to convince the Republicans gathered at the Xcel Center but rather to spur Americans in opposition to them.
"This is a message for the entire country, because in order to get Republicans out of the White House and out of government, we need to mobilize people to vote them out," she said.
UPDATE: At 6:30 pm local time, O'Keefe spoke to Doug Holtz of the St. Paul Police Department. He told her police have arrested 56 people so far – and they expect that number to rise. The arrests include trespassing, disorderly conduct, and gross misdemeanors, and include four felony charges. Holtz said that police have "stood the line while being pelted with rocks."
UPDATE: At 8:45 local time, the Minneapolis Star Tribune is reporting more than 100 arrests and use of tear gas and pepper spray by police.