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ST. PAUL, Minn.—It's around noon and I'm driving to the Xcel Center in St. Paul when a group of kids pulls police tape across the intersection of 10th Street and Jackson. I ask a nearby girl to let me through. I'm not a cop, I say, and I'm not a delegate. I just want to find the parking lot. She smiles, flashes a peace sign, and turns away. Apparently people looking for parking are not the enemy.
I turn off my engine and get out of the car. They're chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets! Whose war? Their war!" A good quarter of them are wearing kaffiyehs. They drape a giant "REVOLUTION" banner across the street, low enough to graze windshields. Some of them have phone numbers Sharpied onto their arms. One girl has them all over her exposed midriff. "They're numbers for lawyers when we get arrested," one explains to me.
Click on the player below to see protesters at the Republican National Convention.
An Escalade tries to drive slowly through the tape, but a few kids stand in front of it, arms out, daring the SUV to hit them. It does, gently. They chase the car as it pulls away. A young guy with a beard and a green trucker hat slams his fist on the hood. I later ask him why. "He ran someone over!" he tells me.
Three of the kids—they all look to be in their 20s or late teens—have red tape that forms crosses on their backs. They call themselves "medics." They're here in case anyone gets hurt. I ask if they have any formal medical training, and one of them points to a first-aid kit fastened around his waist like a fanny pack. They all wear radios that let them communicate with other medics across the city. The radios crackle every few seconds.
As more police arrive, the disgruntled youth delegation moves across a nearby bridge and blocks the onramp to Interstate 94. "Out of your cars, onto the streets!" they chant. The drivers stay in their cars, except for one who emerges and gives them all high fives.
Two cops approach the group. A medic pulls out his radio. "To Snipe, to Snipe, this is Whiskey Tango, do you hear us? We've got two coming." The police, both women, ask the group to clear the ramp. Some do, some don't. "These people have nothing against you," one of the officers explains, indicating the drivers. "Just give us a few minutes," pleads a protester. One officer pulls out a can that looks like WD-40. "If you do not move, I will mace this group," she says. They move.
More cop cars arrive. I count five. David Goodner, a 27-year-old student from the University of Iowa, grabs the bullhorn. "Our government has killed over a million people," he shouts, "and all we're doing is blocking an intersection. Who's the criminal?" I ask Goodner if he's the leader. He explains that they have no leader; they're a peaceful grass-roots organization with a bottom-up power structure. Still, someone needs to use a bullhorn.
Behind us, cops in riot gear are emerging from a van. The protesters start moving west. I ask one if she thinks it's going to get ugly. "I don't know," she says. "I don't trust the cops at all."
The protesters, still banging and clanking and chanting and singing, arrive at the intersection of 12th and Minnesota. "Continue crossing the street," instructs a cop. "Stay! Stay!" yells a kid with a red bandana. A block away, the riot police are moving toward us in two columns. They're decked in black, with visors and body armor. A few have gas masks. They stop at the intersection, pull out arm-length wooden batons, and form a line. "That's crazy, man!" I hear someone say. "They're like Star Wars!"
Faced with armed riot police, the group moves back across the bridge. It's hard to tell who's in charge. It seems to be whoever has the bullhorn. "What are we doing?" asks one person. "Crossing," says another. I ask Goodner if they have a plan. He says the goal is to block traffic for as long as possible. "These riot squads are going to be really slow," he says.
As if they heard him, the police break into a trot. The protesters start running, too. The mob seems to be growing—now it's a mix of protesters, gawkers, photographers, and reporters. I hear a helicopter overhead. I can't help thinking of Grand Theft Auto IV—when you hear the copter, you know you're doing well.