Lockdown in St. Paul

There was a criminal conspiracy engulfing Minnesota’s Twin Cities during the Republican National Convention (RNC)–but it didn’t involve masked anarchists, as mainstream media outlets warned.

The real conspiracy was a plot by 30 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to repress dissent and protests under the rubric of “national security” and the “war on terror.”

The repression caught in its wake antiwar protesters, environmentalists, pacifists, anarchists, socialists and reporters–in short, anyone who might show (or report on) signs of dissent against a government waging two barbaric wars while it can’t even provide health care to its own people.

As of the late afternoon before John McCain’s convention speech September 4, at least 320 people had been arrested in the previous five days–on the street or in police raids. At least 16 of them faced felony charges, and 47 others faced serious “gross misdemeanor” charges. Other reports put the number of felony arrests as high as 120–at least five of them involving minors.

As of September 3, many of those arrested remained in jail, held illegally beyond Minnesota’s 36-hour limit on detention without formal charges. Reportedly, many prisoners hadn’t been allowed to meet with lawyers or make phone calls–and some prisoners were said to be holding a hunger strike in protest.

Outrageously, eight people have been charged with “second-degree furtherance of terrorism,” “conspiracy to riot” and “commit civil disorder.” Not one of them was charged with any actual act of violence or property damage.

Government documents show that their organization, the RNC “Welcoming Committee,” along with other activist groups, had been investigated–and infiltrated–over at least the past year, with the help of the FBI and FBI-led Minneapolis Joint Terrorist Task Force.

As Indymedia observed: “Based on past abuses of such informants by law enforcement, the National Lawyers Guild is concerned that such police informants have incentives to lie and exaggerate threats of violence, and to also act as provocateurs in raising, and urging support for, acts of violence.”

Despite flimsy or nonexistent evidence, over the Labor Day weekend, several homes and activist meeting centers were raided. Computers, cell-phones, e-mails, political pamphlets and protest plans seized, and dozens of people were arrested.

These first raids occurred before any protests had even been held in the Twin Cities. As Glenn Greenwald observed on Salon.com:

Just review what happened yesterday and today. Homes of college-age protesters were raided by rifle-wielding police forces. Journalists were forcibly detained at gunpoint. Lawyers on the scene to represent the detainees were handcuffed. Computers, laptops, journals, diaries, and political pamphlets were seized from people’s homes. And all of this occurred against U.S. citizens without a single act of violence having taken place, and nothing more than traffic blockage even alleged by authorities to have been planned.

Bruce Nestor of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild noted that “conspiracy to riot was the charge used against the Chicago Eight in 1968 as part of a politically motivated prosecution…These charges are an effort to equate publicly stated plans to blockade traffic and disrupt the RNC as being the same as acts of terrorism. This both trivializes real violence and attempts to place the stated political views of the defendants on trial.”

The red herring of “terrorism” was used as a cover for rampant violations of activists’ civil liberties–beginning with the “pre-emptive” arrests, raids and harassment prior to the protests.

For example, police in the Twin Cities impounded a bus owned by the family of Delyla and Stan Wilson for “safety violations” after pulling them over on Interstate 94–prior to the large Labor Day march on the Xcel Center, the site of the convention.

Police began tailing the Wilson family–who were leading a demonstration in favor of sustainable gardening, recycling and water conservation–after deciding that their gardening and environmental tools could be used as weapons. Responding to accusations that the police took the Wilsons’ bus to stifle dissent, police Sgt. William Palmer said the family was “free to go to the protests,” but they “just can’t drive this bus to get there.”

Another group of activists from the organization Earth Justice were detained on their way to the protests, and their bus seized by police. And on August 31, police tailed and then detained activists who had been attending the Veterans for Peace (VFP) conference at the Ramada Inn in Bloomington, just outside the Twin Cities.

Law enforcement personnel also surrounded a house where members of Eyewitness–a group that had successfully fought unjust arrests from the Republican convention in New York City in 2004–were staying.

Police escalated their tactics from harassment to outright brutality during largely nonviolent direct action protests on Labor Day.

When protesters tried to block traffic leading into the Xcel Center, the cops attacked protesters with chemicals and projectiles. According to the Coldsnap Legal Collective, “With no provocation, police have indiscriminately used rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and chemical irritants to disperse crowds and incapacitate protesters.”

A Coldsnap spokesperson told reporters that prisoners were denied medical treatment as punishment, including one arrestee with hemophilia, another with asthma and yet another with a broken finger.

According to the Wall Street Journal, police responded to protests with “pepper spray, tear gas, smoke canisters and what they call ‘distraction devices’ that give a loud bang and a flash of light…” A member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) who witnessed some of the violent police attacks told reporters that police were “treating [U.S.] civilians like you would Iraqis.”

Parts of the city did seem to be occupied by an army. According to the New York Times, as “the protests grew, scores of National Guard troops in riot gear and gas masks fanned out around” the Xcel Center, while “[p]olice helicopters buzzed over St. Paul…Humvees painted in fatigue green ferried water to police officers…and city dump trucks were used to block traffic on some streets.”

The Times reported that Jerah Plucker, a documentary filmmaker, was swept up by police–along with several others–while listening to music in a park along the Mississippi River. “Over the loudspeaker [the police] are saying, ‘You are being arrested.'” Plucker told reporters. “They’re telling us, ‘Sit down, put your hands on your head.”

Many others–both protesters and bystanders–had similar experiences. A 17-year-old youth was arrested trying to get into a concert on Monday on Harriet Island. He was soon released, but not before his photo was broadcast on television identifying him as an “anarchist” bent on “disrupting the convention.”

Dylan Asplen was charged with “felony riot”–and spoke to his mother on the phone from jail. His mother, Annette told reporters that they “arrested him for walking down the street. He said he didn’t do anything. I am so mad, you have no idea…It’s a police state.”

Keith Smith, a teenager from Menomonie, Wis., told reporters he was beaten by police and then released without any medical treatment. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported that, “sitting in his home in Menomonie, he lifted his shirt and displayed what appears to be a boot print on his right shoulder… He also has scrapes on his arms, chest and hip.”

Anita Betancourt, speaking outside the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center days after Monday’s arrests, told MPR she was waiting for her 19-year old daughter, who had been in the Twin Cities to protest the war and convention because her brother was serving in Iraq.

As MPR reported, Betancourt’s daughter told her mother in a phone call that “the police just shot her and arrested her, and she was just standing there. She told Betancourt that everything–all of a sudden–was just chaos all around her. They started pushing and shooting people, and the gas and pepper spray and all that stuff.”

Attorney Matthew Ludt–who has represented some of arrestees–told MPR that “not only were they trying to keep demonstrators, protesters, people who want to get their message across off the streets…they swept up everybody else, which was bystanders as well as journalists.”

Reporters appear to have been systematically targeted by law enforcement during the protests. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman was arrested and physically assaulted September 1 and charged with obstruction of a peace officer, as were DN! producers Sharif Kouddous and Nicole Salazar.

Kouddous and Salazar were reporting on one of the protests against the convention. Goodman was then arrested for the “crime” of asking after her wrongfully arrested colleagues. According to an emergency alert from DN!:

During the demonstration in which the Democracy Now! team was arrested, law enforcement officers used pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and excessive force against protesters and journalists. Several demonstrators were arrested during this action, as was a photographer from the Associated Press.

Other independent journalists were also arrested, including Chicago-based freelance reporter Nathan Weber, who was thrown to the ground and received blows to the back of his head. Four journalists from a student newspaper in Kentucky were detained as well. The student-journalists were charged with rioting while covering Monday’s protests. Like Weber and the DN! producers, the Kentucky students showed their media credentials–but were arrested anyway. One was still in jail as of September 3.

The escalating repression and arrests continued for the rest of the week. This included hundreds of riot cops in full gear lining the streets of the permitted Poor People’s March September 2 to try to intimidate the marchers.

On September 3, following a Rage Against the Machine concert at the Target Center, 102 people were arrested for the “crime” of marching through the streets and chanting about “democracy.” According to reports, police fired “two rounds from what appeared to be either a beanbag or a pellet gun” and pepper-sprayed people as they left the concert.

Even before the concert began–at around 7 p.m.–an activist campaigning for presidential candidate Ralph Nader was arrested outside the Target Center. His crime? Informing people about an upcoming Nader campaign rally.

The point of the raids–and the repression since–is clearly to intimidate radicals and progressives. But the issues that led thousands to protest the Republican convention in the Twin Cities–as well as the Democratic National Convention in Denver–aren’t going away. Nor are the growing expectations that something must be done to address these injustices.

If we are to continue organizing and speaking out, we must stand behind all the victims of this police conspiracy to stifle dissent.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ms. DeJesus said on September 6th, 2008 at 4:10pm #


  2. DavidG. said on September 7th, 2008 at 12:51am #

    The Fascist State of America is up and running. Its goal is to conquer the world using duplicity and military force.

    First it has to conquer its own citizens. Given their current level of ignorance and docility, that won’t be too hard!

  3. Hugh said on September 8th, 2008 at 8:27am #

    Well it bwas well known that the RNC Welcoming Committee had worked for months on strategies to disrupt the convention. And there was just enough violence going on to justify a serious police response.

    Police seized all kinds of improvised weapons and explosives too.

    There were tires slashed, windows broken, vehicles overturned…what did they expect??!!

    This is who we should listen to instead of the Republicans?

  4. James L said on September 8th, 2008 at 5:05pm #

    Though it is known that the RNC Welcoming Committee had been planning a full year with the intent of disrupting the Republican National Convention, I think that most are unaware of what these people were even planning. The media has been fanning the flames of conspiracy. In all reality, the only thing the group “threantened” was to create disruption by creating blockades throughout the city of St. Paul so that they could make their message heard. The media may tell you they meant to harm police officers, cause vandalism, set off bombs. This is, frankly, bull. The weapons that police confiscated from the homes of supposed anarchist activists consisted of gray water, not urine, compost, not feces, nails, hammers, rags, hatchets. In other words, what do you normally find in a house that is inhabited? Bravo on you for your ability to be completely ignorant as to the issues of reality. And the destruction that was caused during the RNC? Over 90% of the arrestees were from out of state.