Minnesota Peace Team: Partisans for Nonviolence
by Phil Stoltzfus
Minnesota Peace Team volunteers work the line between riot police and protestors during a tense standoff on the John Ireland Blvd. Bridge in downtown St. Paul on Thursday, September 4, 2008, the last day of the Republican National Convention. While this confrontation ended without incident, later in the evening, as John McCain addressed the convention, 323 nonviolent demonstrators were arrested in a police sweep on the nearby Cedar St. Bridge and Marion St. Bridge. On Feb. 20, 2009, the St. Paul city attorney dropped charges against all 323. [Photo by Phil Stoltzfus]
September, 2008 represented a remarkable moment in the history of peace team work in North America. For the first time, the model of nonpartisan international peace teams, as understood and developed by Nonviolent Peaceforce in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, was put to the test on the domestic front by Minnesota Peace Team (MnPT), a start-up organization of citizens concerned about the potential for violence at Republican National Convention (RNC) protests. During the RNC, teams of 4-6 MnPT volunteers, dressed in yellow vests and hats, provided a nonviolent presence in a number of highly volatile situations. Peace Team members were instrumental in explicitly lessening tensions between riot police and crowds through engaging on the ground with agitated individuals and police commanders, serving as mediators between advancing riot police and protesters, standing among vulnerable groups, and assisting the injured. In retrospect, there is much we can learn about both the successes and mistakes on the MnPT experiment. In particular, I want to investigate here the utility of the concept of “nonpartisanship” as a marker for self-understanding in domestic peace team work.
In the year and a half leading up to the convention, local anti-authoritarian and anarchist groups, coming together via the ironically-named RNC Welcoming Committee, networked across the country to bring allied groups to St. Paul for the stated purpose of disrupting or blocking business as usual at the convention. The vision of many of these groups was to re-create the experience of the 1999 WTO Seattle protests, which succeeded in altering the course of the talks and dramatizing the reality of popular resistance to the excesses of corporate globalization. Yet in the case of St. Paul, activists pushed the bounds of the Seattle notion of a nonviolent “diversity of tactics,” producing and distributing posters calling for protesters to come to St. Paul in order to “crash the convention” and “smash capitalism.” Meanwhile, the Twin Cities had been given $50 million in federal money to prepare for security. Some 3,700 National Guard troops and riot police were mobilized from across the country, and various federal agencies, including Homeland Security, took on a role in security arrangements.
Three months before the convention, the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers sent two representatives to a week-long peace team training sponsored by Michigan Peace Teams and Nonviolent Peaceforce, the latter having recently decided to explore the development of domestic peace team projects. Upon returning to Minnesota, the two helped organize the MnPT initiative. Unlike peace team organizations with explicitly faith-based mission statements, such as Christian Peacemaker Teams as well as Michigan Peace Teams themselves, Nonviolent Peaceforce uses the term “nonpartisan”—“a nonpartisan unarmed peacekeeping force”—to identify themselves. Written materials developed by Nonviolent Peaceforce were used in the ten-hour weekend trainings that all MnPT volunteers were required to attend. The term “nonpartisan” entered into the Peace Team vocabulary through an informal mission statement written by one of the MnPT leaders, identifying the organization as “a nonpartisan group that responds to community requests to be present in potentially volatile situations.” Peace Team volunteers also used the term to characterize the essential nature of what they perceived their peacekeeping role to be, involving, at times, various levels of engagement with security as well as with march organizers and “anarchist” groups—but without “taking sides.”
Activist Steve Clemens, for example, participated in a civil disobedience protest on Sunday sponsored by Veterans for Peace. He was arrested along with eight others for attempting to deliver a letter to George Bush’s people inside the Xcel Center calling for the president to immediately end the Iraq war, and citing how the war violates international law and international treaties. Yet throughout the rest of the week, Clemens switched roles and worked with MnPT. On Tuesday, for example, he was in the line of fire when police began shooting flash bombs and tear gas into a crowd of people that had just finished a permitted, legal march sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign. Tempers flared as people on the street (whether protesters or not) searched for escape routes between squads of riot police who were blocking intersections in several directions. After a period of time, four riot police removed their helmets, handed off their batons, and walked out into an intersection to talk to Clemens and another MnPTer. “Look, we’re all tired and we’d like to leave,” the police said, indicating that they would stand down and not release more chemical devices if the remaining people would move toward the sidewalks. After communicating this information to people on the street, MnPters found that the situation de-escalated quite rapidly and there were no additional arrests or injuries. “When you put on the Mn Peace Team vest,” Clemens explains, “you are taking on a role as a non-partisan. In that role, we were going to try to protect demonstrator, counter-demonstrator, police, and bystander alike.”
A similar situation took place the next day after a Rage Against the Machine concert in Minneapolis. As thousands of concert-goers streamed out of the Target Center, some chanting anti-police slogans, police in full riot gear, mounted and on foot, lined up to sweep through the crowd. MnPTers worked the street in front of the building for about twenty minutes, talking to concert-goers and police, and eventually the police marched off to line the sidewalk and a major confrontation was avoided. A few minutes later, as I stood on the sidewalk, a protester ran up the street and was tackled against the pavement by two riot police. “Help me, help me!” he cried out. My wife Candace Lautt and I pressed forward, calling out “Gentle!” and “He’s a human being!” Police immediately moved in front of us to block our path with their sticks. The protester, as he was being arrested, as well as other protesters on the sidewalk behind us, knew that we as MnPTers were watching out for his safety and were pro-actively monitoring the situation by our presence. Several minutes later, four members of MnPT, attempting to accompany (from the sidewalk) a spontaneous group of after-concert marchers, were arrested in a block-long sweep. In these cases, “nonpartisan” did not mean hanging back and observing, but rather assertively placing ourselves in the middle of potentially violent situations, in reality taking on similar risks as those faced by the marchers and demonstrators themselves.
The last day of the convention, Thursday, provided a variety of situations that stretched “nonpartisanship” to a breaking point. The Anti-War Committee planned to stage a civil disobedience blockade as close to the Target Center as they could get after the end of their permitted rally at the State Capitol late in the afternoon. At about 5:15, hundreds of demonstrators had their way blocked by hundreds of riot police in the middle of the John Ireland Blvd. Bridge. The standoff lasted for about an hour, with no major incidents. One Peace Team placed themselves right at the front of the demonstration, facing riot police with tear gas canister shooters poised at the ready, and Anti-War Committee protestors sitting in the street nearby in a disciplined, nonviolent manner. One independent protester began verbally harassing and provoking the police in front of us, threatening to create an incident that could have pulled everyone into a confrontation. As shown in the accompanying photo, two MnPTers engaged him with smiles and support, after recognizing that he actually lived on the same street as one of the MnPTers. Within a few minutes he changed his approach, kneeling down with several other protesters in a line in front of the riot police, preparing nonviolently for the expected command that would begin release of the crowd-control devices. As CNN circled overhead, broadcasting pictures of the standoff to a national television audience, the main Anti-War Committee group eventually voted to declare victory, get up, and march off to another intersection. The John Ireland Blvd. Bridge standoff, then, ended without any injuries or mass arrests, and the Peace Team played a precarious yet positive role, right in the middle of it.
But directly before that incident, at 4:45 as the Anti-War Committee was preparing to start their march, MnPT leaders decided to encourage the Peace Team to intervene in order to warn people of the danger of participating in the event, which after 5:00, we had learned, was to be treated by the city as an unpermitted “illegal assembly.” A Peace Team leader approached the stage to attempt to warn the crowd from the microphone, and MnPT members circulating through the crowd, announcing that the demonstration was in danger of being declared illegal. Later, a Peace Team member walked between a line of protesters and riot police, announcing to the crowd nearby that the police had given them five minutes to disperse. Such actions had the effect of alienating MnPT from Anti-War Committee organizers and from some people in the crowd. The Peace Team found itself in the ironic position of being perceived, by these actions, as interfering with a disciplined and nonviolent anti-war protest. “We just want to make sure everybody is safe,” and “We want to make sure no one gets hurt,” were the phrases, taken from the informal MnPT mission statement, that Peace Team members used to explain actions such as these. Yet for some Twin Cities activists, such motivations and intent were interpreted as suspicious even before the convention began. After the experience of the Anti-War Committee march, such language came under fire as examples of a “peace police” mentality—the attempt, however well-meaning, to suppress freedom of speech and assembly and shut down confrontational protests.
I propose that in this and several other related cases during the RNC, the “nonpartisan” label functioned as a disservice to the Peace Team and led to confusion about its mission. To be sure, peace teams in such situations may very well not want to be associated with partisan political activity—i.e., with advocacy for one political party over another. In that sense the nonpartisan orientation would be, in my view, appropriate and accurate. In stressful situations, however, sensitive communications between, and perceptions of, interested parties in a conflict can quickly function to act back upon and distort the reputation of a peace team. “The Peace Team stood in a line and tried to physically block us from going on our march,” was the interpretation that one Anti-War Committee organizer later expressed to me. Without greater clarity as to the fundamental values out of which decisions will be made in such situations, the team is liable to be perceived as co-opted by more established powers; e.g., in this case, by the armed security forces seeking to control and diffuse protest groups, and by city authorities who are charged with managing the demonstration permit process.
The key error, in my view, is in assuming that the nonpartisan ideological structure of an intentionally international Nonviolent Peaceforce team, operating in a conflict zone outside of the home countries of team members, can be seamlessly imported into a domestic conflict situation. In the former case, a key component in the success of the nonviolent strategy is the power that is lent to the situation by outside, international actors. In the latter case, team members are working in their home communities—acting out of a role as enfranchised citizens representing the interests of themselves and their immediate neighbors. In the John Ireland Blvd. Bridge example, the angry protester was literally a neighbor of the MnPTer (as could easily have been some of the police, as well some of the Anti-War Committee protesters who committed civil disobedience, as well as some of the “black block” protesters interspersed throughout the same crowd). In order to think through proper procedures in such multi-faceted cases such as this, peace teams need clearer language and training related to consciousness-raising on anti-oppression issues (classism, racism, sexism). Tools for social analysis in relation to the critique of structural violence—militarism, police brutality, economic injustice—need to be incorporated into the self-identity of the team. Normative analysis as reflected in the team mission statement needs to involve recognition and critique of the identity and power of the team itself, and of individuals in the team, as politically-interested change agents in the conflict transformation process itself.
Domestic peace teams cannot afford to be perceived as “nonpartisan” in the face of fundamental questions of violence and injustice. To do so runs the risk of compromising the core value of nonviolent power and nonviolent social change that should, in my view, be informing and guiding a movement such as this. Furthermore, use of the term “nonpartisan” as a self-descriptor divests the team of crucial tools necessary to accurately evaluate and critique the effectiveness of its own expressions of power. A peace team made up of domestic actors functions by default as a political player in the domestic political space in which it operates. If we’re operating out of a stance of active nonviolence, we’re never purely “neutral.” The work of such teams is better interpreted, we might say, as an expression of nonviolent partisanship. It takes the side of nonviolence—of the gathering of people power to challenge violence and injustice wherever it may be found, to the point of the taking on of bodily risk and political risk.
There may be a useful role for peace teams to work in North America according to the Nonviolent Peaceforce model if the composition of the teams is international in character. But ultimately, I am convinced that at the present stage of development, peace teams acknowledging and adopting an approach of nonviolent partisanship represent a more viable model for North Americans attempting to carry out effective violence reduction projects on our own soil.
Phil Stoltzfus is Visiting Professor of Justice & Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN.