Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Crackdown of Dissent in St. Paul: Preemptive Raids, Journalist Arrests, and Police Intimidation

At the end of my last article in which I summarized the police reaction to dissent during the DNC, I mentioned how there were already indications that we would see more of the same in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention. This observation unfortunately turned out to be accurate and now that the RNC has concluded, there is an opportunity to look back and examine how police dealt with dissent and with the independent media.

The first incident, which I discussed briefly in my past article, involved three members of the group Glass Bead Collective who were in town to document incidents of police misconduct. As reported in the Minnesota Star Tribune, members of this group were detained for over an hour after they were questioned about a rash of car burglaries in the area. Police searched the belongings of all three members without their consent and confiscated video cameras, cell phones, a laptop, and other items that belonged to the group. This incident set the stage for an array of police action that targeted peaceful protesters and journalists.

On the Saturday prior to the start of the convention members of I-Witness Video were gathered for a meeting in a house that they were renting while they were in town for the RNC. I-Witness video is a New York based organization that uses video to document police interaction with protesters in order to protect civil liberties. I-Witness video was largely successful during the 2004 RNC in New York City in providing video to clear many peaceful protesters of allegations by police. On Saturday August 30, members of I-Witness Video were gathered in their host house in St. Paul when they received two visitors at the front door. An FBI Agent and a Wisconsin Deputy Sheriff were at the door and inquired about the location of a gentleman that supposedly lived at that location. The Sheriff and FBI Agent specifically stated: "we're not here about the convention" and asked when the gentleman of interest may be returning home. The people inside the house said that they did not know and the agents then left. Two hours later upward of 20 officers arrived back at the house and surrounded the location. Those inside the house were told that if they left, they would be detained. The officers did not have a search warrant at that time, but stayed surrounding the house until one arrived over two hours later. The only problem was, that the warrant was for the address next door. Police moved into the location next door, detaining the owner of the building, and then moved into the I-Witness Video apartment by busting through the attic with guns drawn. 7 members were detained in the backyard while police took photos, made copies of documents, and searched through the entire house. When the police concluded their search, they released all of those detained and left the property. Video of this incident can be found here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. This video was shot by former Democracy Now! producer Elizabeth Press while she was inside the house working with I-Witness Video. You can also view comments by the landlord of the property here.

While this incident was one of many that occurred on the Saturday before the beginning of the Convention, it was not the last for I-Witness Video. Police returned to the same location that was raided on Saturday on Wednesday, September 3rd. Members inside the house noticed that police had pulled up to the house and started to unload equipment from their vehicles. An attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, Geneva Finn, went out and spoke with police. The officers said that they had received information that anarchists were holding people hostage inside the home and that they were responding to a kidnapping. Finn escorted the officers in to the location and showed them that no one was being held hostage at the location and then asked the officers to leave. The officers refused to leave until their Sergent arrived on the scene. After the officers left the members of I-Witness video were informed that their landlord wanted them to immediately leave the house due to all of the commotion over the past week. I-Witness video packed up, left, and set up shop at Free Speech TV's studios in St. Paul. I-Witness Video admits that all of this harassment by police has greatly interfered with their ability to do the job that they had set out to do.

In addition to preemptive raids on locations prior to the Convention, journalists found themselves targeted as they went about trying to do their job during the Convention. As was posted earlier in the week on this site , two producers of Democracy Now!, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar, along with host Amy Goodman, were arrested on Monday, September 1. Kouddous and Salazar were arrested as they were reporting on a protest that police converged upon and Goodman was arrested when she asked to speak with a commanding officer about the arrest of her producers. Salazar videotaped her own arrest and you can view the video here and you can view Goodman's arrest here. At the time of this article felony charges have not yet been filed against Kouddous and Salazar and Amy Goodman has been charged with a misdemeanor of obstructing a legal process and interfering with a peace officer. Along with the three Democracy Now! members, Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke was also arrested and later released.

On Wednesday, September 3, about two dozen journalists were arrested as they attempted to cover the protests on Marion Street Bridge. Protesters and journalists (including AP reporters Amy Forliti and John Krawczynski) were trapped by riot police on the bridge over an interstate highway. Police blocked both ends of the bridge, ordered approximately 200 people to sit down and keep their hands over their heads as police then arrested and led away protesters and journalists two at a time. You can view videos of this incident from WCCO here, The Uptake here, and Pioneer Press here. Police have been criticized in this incident and in other incidents from the week, for utilizing force against otherwise peaceful protests.

The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned these arrests and the organization FreePress has stated that the arrests were "an orchestrated round up of independent [media] covering the Republican National Convention." FreePress collected 60,000 letters by concerned citizens and delivered them to Mayor Chris Coleman's office on Friday demanding that all charges be dropped against journalists arrested during the Convention.

A preliminary tally has placed the number of those arrested during the RNC at 818 people, this number does not include those who were detained, like those of I-Witness Video prior to the Convention. As journalists and videographers were rounded up with other protesters a new precident for police action has been set. In future situations where large amount of citizens will protest I fear that the actions taken by the police in St. Paul will be viewed not only as a success, but as a new model of cracking down on dissent. The kind of preemptive raids on locations were seen on the Saturday prior to the Convention are of particular concern. In these scenarios, no crime had been committed and police detained and searched the locations preemptively. This type of action blurs the line between the protection of important rights and the action that police feel they can take against those who they feel have the potential to commit a crime. At the time of this article, 8 members of the RNC Welcoming Committee, an organization that provided logistics and coordination for many of the protests, have been charged with "conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism", a felony punishable by up to 7 1/2 years in prison. Those charged with this crime were arrested in the house raids before the Convention started and police have admitted to infiltrating this group in order to build a year long case against these individuals. Attorney Bruce Nestor is the Minnesota Chapter's President of the National Lawyer's Guild and states:

These charges are very significant for any political activist or anybody that cares about the right to organize politically or for freedom of speech. By equating plans or stated plans to blockade traffic and to try to disrupt the convention with acts of terrorism, the conspiracy nature of the charge, where you punish people for what they say or advocate, but not for what they do, really creates a possibility that anybody organizing a large-scale demonstration, at which civil disobedience may be a part of it or where other individuals may then engage in some type of property damage, creates the potential that all those organizers can be charged with these conspiracy charges and face significant penalties.

We will continue to follow these incidents and those individuals who have had charges filed against them and report back on the outcome. Regardless of whether many of the filed charges result in convictions, it is clear that St. Paul will be looked upon as a great success in the cities ability to contain and suppress dissent.

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