Swept Up In An RNC Riot

So, how was my day being a Roving Ranger at The Republican National Convention? Weird.

Since the RNC is in St Paul at the Excel Center, several blocks are closed off--including the Science Museum where I'm based a National Park Ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. My assignment today was to go out with fellow Ranger Caitlin and walk around offering people ideas on how to enjoy the Mississippi River while in town. It's fun, everyone was friendly and surprised to learn that they were so close to a National Park. We based ourselves in Rice Park--MSNBC has rented the park for the week and there was lots of traffic (and law enforcement). It was easy to pass out brochures to people on their way to the convention.

We even had some celebrity sightings--including Tom Brokaw above--okay, it's blurry and Non Birding Bill said that he'll take my word for it that it is, in fact, Mr. Brokaw, but I walked right by him, it was totally him...and yes Mom, he's as handsome in real life as you think he is on the news.

We even had some birding in downtown St. Paul--this is a common yellowthroat that was feeding on some insects up in one of the many trees in the park--this was one bad ass yellowthroat--it chased any house sparrow (about a third the size larger) that came near it. We were impressed.

It was after this point that things got a bit weird. Caitlin and I decided to head towards headquarters to fill up our water bottles, gather more brochures, and eat our lunch. We were looking forward to coming back in the afternoon. We knew the protest was about to start and were curious to watch it. On our way back, several police cars sped past us. NBB sent me a text saying that protesters were being sprayed on Minnesota and 7th Streets--the direction the cars were headed. It was not far from where we were--we could hears some distant screams. We made it to headquarters and NBB continued to send updates. We could see some police activity outside our window. They didn't seem too tense, so we didn't worry. We ate our lunch and headed back outside.

We could see about two or three blocks away, people dressed in all black were marching--they were headed the opposite direction we were at that point and figured we were safe. We got in touch with our immediate boss to tell him that we were safe and not to worry if he heard any news reports about protesters getting arrested or sprayed with pepper spray. He suggested that we call it a day, that we look too similar to police in our park service uniform and could be at risk (it's true, someone pointed to us and said, "Check it out, the National Guard is here."). We felt safe and saw that the group was several blocks away, going in the opposite direction. We told him we would try to press on, but would head back if we felt unsafe.

It's amazing how quickly things deteriorate.

The sounds of police sirens increased, a helicopter followed overhead, crowds were going in every direction. Soon all sorts of law enforcement vehicles were around us on the streets, sirens blaring. Caitlin and I both suddenly felt unsafe. Just as we were about to change direction, I turned around and said something along the lines of "Holy Crap!"

Riot police were running towards us. Now, this photo is blurry because Caitlin sensibly grabbed my arm to drag me away shouting, "No pictures! Run NOW!"

I couldn't help myself, I never thought I would be in a situation to have a large group of riot police running towards me. It was a memorable moment.

We dashed across the street and tried to find an open building to duck into and maybe get up to the sky way and out of the protesters way. I called NBB to tell him we were safe, but with all the people yelling around us and the constant din of sirens, it didn't quell any of his concerns. I learned later in news reports that the VAST majority of the protest was peaceful. Smaller groups broke off to just cause mayhem and that was what was coming our way. NBB kept texts coming of updates where pepper spray and tear gas was being sprayed. Fortunately, we were indoors so we weren't affected--it was very windy, I'm sure lots of people got some residual spray.

We made it to the sky way level and could look down at the forces mobilizing. Two groups of riot police were assembling to direct the coming mayhem makers. They were breaking windows, slashing tires and taking whatever wasn't bolted down and dragging it into the street.

The small crowd went right under our sky way bridge and continued to drag signs and sandbags in the road. There were quite a few photographers mixed in to capture the action. A few guys were throwing sharp metal objects in the direction of the police cars. Watching the crowd swarm was like watching a flock of starlings dart around in the fall. It was hard to concentrate on one person's destruction.

Several squad cars followed. A group of officers walked in front of the cars picking up debris left behind by the melee. It was strange to watch people swarm in with the group to join in the destruction. I could see nothing on them--no signs of why they were mad, no messages, they just seemed to be swept up in causing destruction. Again, I would like to say that this was a small break off group of the protest--the majority of the protesters were peaceful and got their message across--and stuck to the planned route.

When the crowd was corralled to the top of the hill, we could see clouds and all sorts of debris--orange cones and signs being tossed high in the air--it was surreal.

We saw at least one arrest. It was amazing at how well the guys who were breaking windows and slashing tires blended in with the crowd. It was kind of the birding equivalent of picking out a Ross' goose from a flock of 20,000 snow geese. There was a large group assembled in they sky way to watch the protest. I looked to my right and found myself standing next to a Minnesota icon: Klondike Kate

She was in booth near the sky way getting her portrait painted. If you follow the St. Paul Winter Carnival, you'll know who Klondike Kate is. Weirdsville. Talk about a random moment, watching a riot and standing next to Klondike Kate, and me in my ranger uniform.

We eventually made it back to headquarters. We could see some of the damages the rioters left behind--including smashed store windows and slashed tires on squad cars. We debriefed with our bosses and drank lots of water. I couldn't believe how one minute we're talking with out of towners, pointing out birds and the next, dodging unpredictable crowds. Bus service was temporarily suspended and I wasn't sure how I would get home to Minneapolis. One of the admin staff was kind enough to drive me home.

The numbers of riot police greatly increased, large groups were everywhere. It was so strange to see in sleepy downtown St. Paul. When I walked in to our apartment, NBB gave me a long hug, he'd been following the news and Twitter updates. I told him I was so grateful, he really helped us avoid some nasty intersections with the trouble makers that could have gotten us swept up right in the thick of things. We were closer than I really preferred.

Looking forward to a quiet day with birds of prey at The Raptor Center tomorrow.