Commentary

The Shredding of The Bill of Rights in St. Paul

Our constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom to peacefully assemble and petition the government (or the governing political party) for redress of grievances and the freedom of the press were seriously damaged by the police in St. Paul at the Republican National Convention last week.

There were at least a dozen attacks on members of the press and independent media. Perhaps the most notorious of these abuses came with the arrest of media icon Amy Goodman.  She describes her arrest and the violent arrest of two of her producers:

“Nicole was videotaping. Her tape of her own violent arrest is chilling. Police in riot gear charged her, yelling, “Get down on your face.” You hear her voice, clearly and repeatedly announcing “Press! Press! Where are we supposed to go?” She was trapped between parked cars. The camera drops to the pavement amidst Nicole’s screams of pain. Her face was smashed into the pavement, and she was bleeding from the nose, with the heavy officer with a boot or knee on her back. Another officer was pulling on her leg. Sharif was thrown up against the wall and kicked in the chest, and he was bleeding from his arm.

“I was at the Xcel Center on the convention floor, interviewing delegates. I had just made it to the Minnesota delegation when I got a call on my cell phone with news that Sharif and Nicole were being bloody arrested, in every sense. Filmmaker Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films and I raced on foot to the scene. Out of breath, we arrived at the parking lot. I went up to the line of riot police and asked to speak to a commanding officer, saying that they had arrested accredited journalists.

“Within seconds, they grabbed me, pulled me behind the police line and forcibly twisted my arms behind my back and handcuffed me, the rigid plastic cuffs digging into my wrists. I saw Sharif, his arm bloody, his credentials hanging from his neck. I repeated we were accredited journalists, whereupon a Secret Service agent came over and ripped my convention credential from my neck. I was taken to the St. Paul police garage where cages were set up for protesters. I was charged with obstruction of a peace officer. Nicole and Sharif were taken to jail, facing riot charges.

“The attack on and arrest of me and the “Democracy Now!” producers was not an isolated event. A video group called I-Witness Video was raided two days earlier. Another video documentary group, the Glass Bead Collective, was detained, with its computers and video cameras confiscated. On Wednesday, I-Witness Video was again raided, forced out of its office location. How did things get so far out of hand?  Who was in charge?”

The Minneapolis Police that arrested Amy Goodman were under the direction of the St. Paul Police Department that seemed to be taking orders from the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office that was obviously getting its orders from the Secret Service. When Tony Bouza was Chief of Police for Minneapolis, President Ronald Reagan was coming to town for a fundraiser.  Some people wanted to protest his illegal war against the legitimate government of Nicaragua. The Secret Service came to town and met with Bouza.  Reagan had never seen a demonstration in his years as President, and the Secret Service was determined to keep the demonstrators blocks away and out of sight.  

Bouza was even more determined to allow the demonstrators to express their constitutional right to peacefully confront the President. The Secret Service tried to bribe Bouza with the privilege of associating with the President. It didn’t work. They threatened to federalize the hotel. Bouza said he’d see them in court. In the end, the demonstrators stood across the street, and the President’s limo pulled up in front of the hotel.

What happened in St. Paul?  

The Secret Service came to town with, according to some reports, $50 million in goodies and toys:  the fancy Batman costumes with shiny knee pads and chest protectors; the new Taser guns; new pepper spray and tear gas guns, etc. The demonstrators insisted on being visible to the Xcel Convention Center front door, so the Secret Service built them a cage they could walk through-an ingeniously intimidating structure that was meant to dampen free expression of dissent. Hopefully, the City of St. Paul will keep it as a monument to the 2008 repression of free speech.

In their City Service Agreement with St. Paul, Ramsey County and the Secret Service, the Minneapolis City Council and the Mayor piously hoped: “The model the group develops will include strategies to help ensure that law enforcement will not engage in ‘infiltration’ of lawful and protected associations, not use any information gained through such ‘infiltration,’ and treat those exercising constitutional rights of association, speech and petition respectfully.”  Only Council Members Cam Gordon and Gary Schiff saw through this giveaway of our constitutional rights and voted against the Agreement.

And what did the Minneapolis Police do after being given the green light to use all means to protect the Republican Convention?  

With the cooperation and under the orders of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office under the direction of the Secret Service and the FBI, the MPD raided the homes of two anarchist groups in the Powderhorn neighborhood. They didn’t find guns. They didn’t find anything that could threaten the life of another human being, but they locked up anyone they thought might be dangerous until after the Convention. They bragged that they were able to identify the people in the house because some of their agents had infiltrated the group.

So much for the pious pipe dreams of the City Council.

The use of police agents to infiltrate political protest raises serious questions about the police response to the demonstrations. Some have suggested that the more violent and extreme actions might have been taken by police agent provocateurs.

A group of anarchist photographers and reporters that followed most of the break away action on Monday said: “One kid who looked under 20 years-old jumped on top of a cop car that broke through the pedestrian barrier. Another two smashed windows of a Macy’s, First National Bank and an unoccupied cop car.  However, this was the work of maybe five or so people in the breakaway protest group.”  And, “When windows started to get smashed by a lone few, yells came out from the group such as, ‘What are you doing!?  You idiot!  How is that going to send a message?’”

Sue Kolstad (the brains behind local folk icon Papa John and the soul behind Andrew “Cadillac”), on seeing footage of the more extreme actions, said, “Why do those kids have on such nicely shined shoes and such neatly pressed jeans?”  And, “Why weren’t any of them arrested?”

The effect of the extreme protest actions did increase the intensity of the police response and make the protesters more fearful and defensive. The over-reaction of the police during the week of protests had a chilling effect on free speech and a free press.  

Council Member Gary Schiff is calling for hearings on the behavior of the MPD.  He is especially concerned about the attacks on journalists, the seizures of video tapes and the targeting of photographers.  He would appreciate people with firsthand accounts contacting his office at 612-673-2209.

Ed Felien is the editor and publisher of Southside Pride, a monthly newspaper locally owned and operated in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at edfelien@pulsetc.com

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