By Ray LeMoine
Below is my diary of the RNC. Here’s a video short that the trip produced.
I’m in Minneapolis, having arrived from Denver on Sunday night. With me: Inigo Gilmore, a British journalist and filmmaker who recently relocated to New York after a year’s stint in Bangkok for Channel 4 UK. That morning, we’d awoken to find our rented SUV had been broken in to, and someone had stolen the tapes from Obama’s stadium coronation. The video and still cameras were safe, but everything else—chargers, bags, tripod, batteries—gone.
So our arrival at the Republican Convention came without glory. Luckily we were staying at a nice loft in downtown St. Paul, just blocks from the Xcel Center. To forget about our Denver loss, we trekked across St. Paul’s quaint downtown looking for a bar. It’s 10m. The bars, which normally close at 2am, are supposedly open until 4am all week, but few people are out.
“The thing about St Paul is that it’s only a few hundred thousand people,” says the local who’s guiding us. “It may be the smallest city to ever hold a national Convention.”
We stop at a dive-y bar on 7th Ave, St Paul’s pedestrian mall. Neon beer signs dangle on the windows. Dart boards and pool tables are visible inside. Sitting outside, we realize 20 or so Texas delegates surround us. Clustered around two pitcher strewn tables, the Texans meet every cliche: loud, foul mouthed, cross bearing, light beer loving, and cigar chomping. They wear orthopedic shoes, unrevealing dresses, snakeskin, denim…
Our next stop was another bar filled with boozing Texas delegates. Third stop: booze, Texans. Later, we even stumble on a hotel with a sign reading, “WELCOME TEXAS DELEGATION! Crowne Plaza Hotel…”
Aside from cowboy hats and generic clothing, what else did these Texans have in common? A shockingly passionate love for Ron Paul and his post-libetarianism. Few of the Texans we meet even like John McCain.
“We support McCain because we are Republicans,” one says. “But Ron Paul is beyond partisian politics.” Then comes a detailed Paul “Revolution”-ary spiel, which I block out. Yet as Convention eve came to a close, the Paul insurgency made clear that this year’s GOP was indeed a fractured party.
Monday. The Twin Cities got hit by twin bombshells. First, due to Hurricane Gustav, day one of the Convention was canceled, meaning no President Bush. Second, Sarah Palin, the dark horse Alaskan Governor McCain chose for VP, has a 17-year-old pregnant daughter. Some Convention so far, eh GOP? No opening night and so much for the whole family values and no sex before marriage thing.
Around noon we hear about a anti-war protest. Venturing from the loft, on 4th Street, up a block or two, we quickly realize this is no mere protest. On a street corner stood fifty plus cops in full riot gear—helmets, bulging pads, gas masks, sticks and tazers at the ready. The police surround about twenty black-clad, masked anarchists. The anarchos are backed against a building and all have their hands up, but they yell to the few onlookers and journalists on hand.
“We did nothing!” one kid in googles yells.
“These are our streets!” they chant.
A few blocks away we spot a beat-up blue Volvo blocking a major intersection that connects St Paul to the highway that leads to Minneapolis. About two dozen cops cordon the area. Inside the car I see a black clad youth chained to the steering wheel. A big yellow forklift arrives. I hear a buzzsaw. The cops are cutting the anarchist out of the car. Once he’s been removed and arrested, the forklift removes the car and dumps it on a grass lot.
Pushing further downtown we cross paths with about two hundred “direct action” folks. They even have a trance/techno soundtrack (c/o a red wagon with a stereo and “Funk the War” signs). But the mostly black wearing bandana crew seem confused as to where they’re headed.
“C’mon, this way,” yells one.
“No, this way,” shouts another, who eventually wins out.
But the confusion ends when it comes to the marchers’ intent. These folks want nothing short of destruction of the capatilist state. I’ve witnessed a few dozen riots in my day—mostly sports related—but I’ve never seen such a long, uncontested orgy of smashed windows, popped tires, trash can flipping, road blocking, and wreckage. Inigo captures a long shot of people running up the road by a big Macy’s, where a black woman sits on a bench smiling, Macy bags at her feet. Just then, two anarchists charge from behind with a metal grate. It takes a few tries, but they smash the windows.
After nearly an hour of rampant destruction, the anarcho crew hits a dead-end. The Convention cordon was in front of them; behind, a wall of cop cars and foot patrols. The hardcore rioters disappear into a parking lot that is connected to various alleys. They change clothes. Out with the black, they rejoin the downtown Convention fray. A tactical victory for the anarchos!
Any open society needs fringe elements, and these direct action anti-capitalists do have some valid points. Yes, free trade has had limited positive affect on Latin America’s poor. And the US military-industrial complex does act imperious. But having spent the last hour chatting with these kids—and don’t fool yourself into thinking these are hardened political activists, few were over 23—the lack of basic political understanding is revealing. Even the difference between direct democracy and a republic is unclear to most.
Meanwhile, there’s a ten thousand-strong peaceful protest are visible from our vantage. We join the march. Iraq Vets Against the War lead the demo. Young men in uniform chant against McCain. It winds through the city and ends up on a slanting lawn in front of the State Capitol, a gold domed neo-classical building. But it’s boring. Aside from a brass band and dance troupe in all green spandex (from Williamsburg, BK, of course), there’s nothing going on.
So we head back towards downtown. But every street is blocked by a wall of cops. The police seem to have launched siege. Convoys of mini-vans filled with riot police move in and out. A helicopter hovers overhead. Inigo and I note how closely these cordon and convoy sweeps resemble Israeli action in Palestine.
Finally, at a checkpoint, a cop lets us through (we say we are media). Moving through downtown, we see the round-ups have begun. On one street we spot two tear gassed and tazed protesters hog tied to the pavement.
“Are they concious?” asks a legal observer in a neon green vest. The cops stare back without answering.
Across the street, a photographer and reporter for the New York Times are picking up rubber bullets with surgical gloves on their hands. Like us, the Timesman are surprised how long the rioters were left alone. “If this were New York, we’d be dead right now,” notes the photographer.
What is happening?
In New York during the 2004 RNC, the NYPD conducted mass round-ups before any riots broke out, arresting some 2000 over four days. The legal bills for these unlawful detentions have since topped $8 million. This year, the Twin Cities required the RNC to take out an unprecedented $1 million insurance policy—good for $10 million—against potential civil violation suits.
To minimize legal costs, the police in St Paul let the trouble makers run the city for a few hours and were now conducting a siege. By day’s end nearly 300 are detained, including radio host Amy Goodman and an AP photographer. Not wanting to get caught up in the sweep, we head out. After all, we’d heard the liquor lobby was having a party that night in Minneapolis. And so began our 80-hour Republican death march.
It’s a short drive to Minneapolis, but what a contrast. St Paul is your low key capital town, a Concord, Albany. Minneapolis is all skyline and Scandanavian looking housing complexes, true urbanity.
The party, dubbed “Spirits Of Minneapolis,” is being held on all three floors of Solera, a Danny Meyer meets Vegas style restaurant smack in the middle of downtown. On floor one, past a giant flower arrangement, is an open bar. A list on the bar names endless sponsors, from Moet Hennesy to Hendrix Gin to Makers Mark, Knob Creek, and every other major whiskey.
We spot some jounalists from the party’s co-sponsor, the Weekly Standard, blogging and mingling. Even Bill Kristol is there.
On the second floor: another open bar area, but this one also featured a buffet. A large patio held smoking salon with free cigars galore. Rudy G stops by to have a smoke. The top floor is a “World Music Lounge.” I bet this party cost about $300,000 dollars. And there are 600 events this week. My lord, how much is being spent on parties alone?
We leave at 2am.
Tuesday we’re joined by Mike Parzale from Grease Not Gas. Mike converts diesel engines to run on vegetable oil and is in town to talk energy policy. He meets us at a Human Rights First panel hosted by New Gingrich on the top floor of a skyscraper. A former Army LT Colonel cries while describing human rights abuses at Gitmo.
Of course, more parties are on that night (Bush also addresses the Convention via tele-link, but no one seems to care). GQ denies us entry to their penthouse event at the Graves Hotel, a corny boutique. Next door at Bellanote, a large Italian spot owned by the Solera folks, Bob Dole and the Bipartisan Policy Center host a party filled with sheriffs, ad execs, headhunters, and vodka touting blondes. The Tennessee delegation do a country music boogie at 1st Avenue, the famed Twin Cities nightspot where the Replacements and Prince got their start. Down the street, Otis Day and the Knights (the band who played “Shout” in Animal Hosue) play to 40 people at an oil lobby party at a 1000-capacity nightclub. There, I spot a young GOP chick in a Ramones t-shirt (Joey was Republican).
Around 3am we meet a guy with two well-dressed black hookers. A reattempt to enter at the GQ party at the Graves Hotel leads us to the after-party at the lobby bar. Inside the minimalist red lit lounge, 70 or so people drank standing or sat at tables. Needless to say, the hookers were a huge hit, attracting nearly every man in a suit at the bar. “Brooo!!!” says one young New York Republican in a Thomas Pink shirt.
But instant karma struck. See, we were forced to check Inigo’s main camera bag at the bar’s entryway because of the hotel’s no filming policy. Unfortunately, someone saw us check the bag and managed to convince the hostess it was theirs—and off they went. Yup, robbed twice in two Conventions. $12k in equipment, adios. Some tapes too. Ouch.
We manage to sleep for an hour or two…
Wednesday. The arrival of Sarah Palin.
9pm. Richard Miniter, a NYT-best selling conservative author and former Journal reporter, is hosting the best party of the day (it runs from 3pm til 4am). It’s at a stately home in uptown St Paul, next door to the Governor’s mansion. A tent over the back yard covers a cigar bar, open bar, buffet, tables, couches, TVs, and a mixture of suits young and old. There are a few pearly women, including a beautiful Ukrainian running for Congress in PA’s 13th district. The party’s anticipation for Palin’s speech feels like Christmas eve with a bunch of 8 year olds.
Sarah Palin. McCain’s VP pick. No experience on the national stage, and there’s little public information on her. What did we know? She’s 49, a former lunch lady, and the ex-Mayor of a town of 6000. She hunts moose, runs marathons, dog sleds, and has served two years as Alaska’s governor. A self-proclaimed “hockey mom,” she’s the mother of five kids with weird names (including a down syndrome baby, a pregnant daughter, and a son about to go to Iraq). She’s pro-life and guns, loves Creationism…
She takes the stage at 9:30 central. Her voice is clear, accented, cute even (O-hhhiii-o, the mee-dyuh). She nails the jokes and jabs and gets the laughs and cheers. She kills the speech. Murders it. She makes so much sense now. Shots cut to her family. They’re almost too good looking. They seem to be tossing Trig, the down syndrome baby, like a football (before the speech is over one imminent British hack has dubbed him the “Quarterback Kid”).
Without doubt, it’s the best political debut since Obama at the DNC 2004. And the text messages start coming. “Obama’s fucked,” “Over,” “Republicans are back,” “Where did they find this bitch,” “America is a different place now”…
Time will tell how true this proves. But the Republican Party, fractured on Sunday, is united again. And in Palin they trust. For she is the Party base. A hyper-conservative Christian, she even wanted to ban offensive books as a mayor. But she’s also a reformer. She took on Ted Stevens and the corrupt Federal Alaskans. And it’s true, Sarah Palin has executive experience running a state bueracracy. And Obama doesn’t. What a brilliant counter-punch the GOP landed!
We leave Miniter’s gala to the Log Cabin Republican party downtown Minneapolis but show up too late. Fear not, Bono’s doing a jam down the street, or at least his ONE Campaign is. Daughtry is performing when we arrive. About a 1000 people groove to the alt-rock spewed by this ex-American Idol contestant.
“Why does this loser play sitting down?” asks one blonde in a McCain hat.
“Because he sucks,” says another in black cocktail dress. “The Dems got Kanye at the ONE party.”
When Daughtry ends, the DJ can’t seem to get the party going, and everyone leaves.
We end back at Miniter’s mansion party. By 6am it’s just us, Miniter, a rabbi, some nuclear security guy, and cigars and whiskey. What better company to begin understanding the Palin Effect? These folks explain every way in which Palin helps.
“Hillary can’t hurt Palin. America knows she hates Obama and has nothing at stake,” someone says.
Another: “McCain’s found his celebrity. The big crowds will be there for her…Obama is neutralized.”
Thursday. Big crowds indeed: 37 million watched Palin’s speech, dwarfing Biden’s 24 million viewers. It’s the most watched VP speech in history. At the Convention, all anyone is talking about is the race’s new dynamics.
McCain speaks at 9pm. A few minutes after he starts, I’m in the hall filming. How subdued. Few really cheer or seem that happy. Everyone has a Palin hangover. Well, that and many Republicans don’t really like McCain. Even though I’m watching McCain’s lips move, hearing his voice on the PA, my brain seems to refuse to listen to the actual speech. The pageantry and spectacle overpower McCain’s dull political rhetoric. The end…balloons, fake fireworks on a big screen, Heart’s “Barracuda” plays..
Google and Vanity Fair are hosting the evening’s major party. It’s at the Walker Art Center, which may be the best building in Minneapolis. Designed by Herzog and de Mueron, the Walker is a beautiful crooked and cantilevered slate square.
As I’m being handed my first specialty cocktail (champagne and absinthe) of the evening, Henry Kissenger walks by. I snag a handshake, then check my hand for blood. Woolfgang Puck did the food—lobster, crab, shrimp, liquid foie, and more. Upstairs, in a red lit gallery connected to a patio, about 400 folks chill while a DJ spins disco and Charlie Rose works the room. Google had to have spent $500,000 on the party. On my way out I spot the founder of YouTube chatting with an Al Jazzera producer.
The last stop of Convention 2008 is the Warehouse, a four day party thrown by John Boehner (OH-R). A few thousand crowd the giant, spare two-room space. Like cover bands jam in each room. Young Republican clones pack the space. The guys all in suits with bad haircuts; the girls, black dresses.
At about 330am a dickhead in black suit and no tie knocks my FOX News convention hat off, calls the two girls I’m with “whores,” then shoves me. A week of no sleep and Republicans left me no choice but to beat this guy’s ass, which I did with one quick shot to the head. Of course, the guy did nothing but whine to his friends. Fifty minutes pass. By then the kid had cried his way into getting thrown out. He called the police on me. They removed me but took my side and let me go. In fact, because of the fight, the police shut the whole party down.