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Will Riots Greet GOP at Convention?

By Katherine Kersten

Last Friday, I inadvertently found myself in the midst of the opening salvo of a battle to turn the Twin Cities upside down next year.

I was driving home at rush hour from downtown Minneapolis, when several hundred bicyclists blocked the street leading to Interstate 394.

My fellow motorists and I sat obligingly for several minutes, missing green light after green light. Finally, folks began angrily honking their horns. If two police cars hadn't moved the riders along, people might have leaped from their cars to take on the bicyclists themselves.

Later, the protest ride turned ugly. Two officers tried to arrest several riders who covered their faces with hoods while blocking motorists. They resisted, and about 30 protesters surrounded the officers, chanting "Let them go! Let them go!"

Forty-eight law enforcement personnel from six agencies responded to a police call for help, and chemical spray was used to control the crowd. Nineteen demonstrators were arrested.

Get ready, Minnesotans. The protest was "a kick-off" for a "weekend of organizing against the Republican National Convention" to be held here in September 2008, according to the RNC Welcoming Committee, a local anarchist group.

Across the country, similar groups have announced their intention to cause havoc in our cities next year.

Annette Meeks has seen these tactics before. In 2004, she was a delegate to the GOP convention in New York City.

Meeks, my former colleague at Center of the American Experiment, said that many of the protesters in New York differed markedly from their predecessors.

"It used to be peaceful ex-hippies with placards -- they're almost quaint by today's standards," she said. "In New ! York we saw a professional class of protesters, with an angry, violent mob mentality. Their goal is not to be heard. Their sole purpose is to create anarchy in our streets."

Meeks saw protesters use burning trash bins in an effort to shut down Manhattan's theater district. Swarms of bicyclists blocked traffic, crowds of protesters harassed delegates at their hotels.

"They screamed obscenities -- any way they could conjugate the F-word," she said. "Then they grew weary of yelling and started spitting and throwing thinngs at us."

Meeks saw the tip of the iceberg. During the convention, demonstrators rampaged through Midtown Manhattan, throwing traffic cones and other objects at cars and windows. A policeman was kicked unconscious. Protesters attempted to take over hotel lobbies.

'Direct action'

According to published reports, their plans included shutting down Wall Street, sealing off subway stations with police tape, using mobile infrared transmitters to change traffic signals, and carrying out "direct action" against businesses like Chevron and the Rand Corp.

The New York City Police Department -- hard-nosed and highly organized -- prevented the situation from deteriorating into chaos.

"The city was a security fortress like I've never seen," Meeks recalled. "The protesters were very well organized, but the police were even better organized. When police confronted them quickly and calmly, it destroyed their plans."

Twin Cities officials expect the 2008 Republican National Convention to be a public-relations bonanza. A major party convention should showcase a city -- its entertainment venues, its cultural institutions and its leaders. Organizers estimate that the convention will bring $150 million to $250 million to the metro area.

But if chaos erupts in our streets, the publicity could take a very different turn. About 15,000 members of the news media are expected here -- from Germany's Der Spiegel to CCTV, China's main TV ne! twork. T hey'll all be searching avidly for excitement to report.

"If we have mayhem, the good will that accompanies a well-presented convention will be instantly erased by acts of domestic terrorism," Meeks warned.

Signing up in droves

In such a situation, our first impulse is Minnesota Nice. Twin Cities lawyers are signing up in droves to aid what they may naively view as old-fashioned protesters. St. Paul is reportedly exploring the possibility of helping protesters find campgrounds.

But Minnesota Nice isn't likely to dissuade determined anarchists. When demonstrators converged on Seattle in 1999 to protest a World Trade Organization conference, the mayor welcomed them and police backed off. Protesters trashed the city so thoroughly that, within hours, the mayor declared an emergency and asked the governor to call in the National Guard.

In New York City in 2004, former Mayor Ed Koch implored residents to be civil, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered shopping discounts to peaceful protesters.

In the end, in what has been widely hailed as a triumph for police, New York controlled an estimated 400,000 protesters with remarkably little violence.

Even so, the city is still facing more than 600 protest-related lawsuits.

The Big Apple had 37,000 cops to contain a perfect storm of civic turmoil. Will we be up to it here, with perhaps 3,000?

kkersten@startribune.com

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