The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the RNC
Michael Andregg, observer on the scene and participant in many ways
[for mnblue.com, Sept. 24, 2008]
Date: Sat, 11 Oct 2008
Michael is one of long term members of MAP, and perhaps is even one of the founding members of the organization. Dr. Andregg is very well informed and a long-time St. Paul resident and peace activist. These accounts are passed along with his permission. His website is http://www.gzmn.org. Visit sometime.
There were no serious casualties over five days of confrontations between protestors and police from all over America. That is the best I can say about the extraordinary events in St. Paul from August 31 through September 4 of 2008. That good result was possible because of strenuous efforts extending over a year among peace people on both sides of the tactical lines to restrain their more angry or disturbed colleagues.
St. Paul looked, felt, and sometimes acted like a police state during these days. That is the worst impression that will linger. Proactive arrests of potential protestors including several journalists and beatings of helpless people in the Ramsey County jail beg attention I will give them later. One video is especially disturbing, this captured by Fox 9 News, of repeated macing, knocking to the ground and a rough arrest of an 18 year old Wisconsin girl named Leah Lane who was not really very dangerous. In fact, she was a model pacifist, forgiving her tormentors. These were Minneapolis cops, by the way, not St. Paul Police Department. Judge for yourself: http://www.myfoxtwincities.com/myfox/pages/News/Detail?contentId=7430234&version=1&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=VSTY&pageId=3.2.1
Before analysis I want to share observations that will linger in my mind. Full disclosure - I worked hard as a public liaison between many groups in the peace community and the St. Paul Police for the year prior. So I had a real commitment to preserving peace in my home town which included protecting persons of any political persuasion and their opportunity to speak freely about political topics - no matter what their cause or ideology. We failed perfection at both objectives, but things could have been much worse without our efforts.
Day 0: (Aug. 31, 2008) During a permitted Vets for Peace march the day before the RNC began, I saw St. Paul air ringed by five Federal helicopters orbiting the Capitol to the Xcel Center. Legs hung out open doors, in a position used by military units when they intend to wipe out leadership on the ground. This tactic was disgusting to veterans who have risked their lives defending the right of Americans to protest, and the Constitution which was violated in various ways these five days.
Day 1: On the day of the biggest march, over 10,000 peaceful protesters and a couple thousand heavily armed police interacted without serious incident. There were a few violent punks who falsely claim the philosophical label anarchist and broke four windows, (not counting those on a couple of squad cars also damaged) and a few jackboots in uniform who came to fight and did. About 250 people were arrested on Shepard Rd. some of whom worked hard to block traffic but many of whom did not. All appeared caught in a pincer movement that allowed no escape for the innocent mixed among the guilty.
The memory that will last for me was more humane. My peculiar mission that day was hunting agents provocateur, who can easily turn a peaceful situation into a riot. Whether they are animated by the right, the left or by loony tunes means nothing; behavior, everything. We caught three Minneapolis cops under cover, assessed them and let them go in peace. One was searching for his 16 year old daughter, terrified that she was getting sucked into a danger zone. His buddies were along because he was afraid of what might happen to him while surrounded by 10,000 + passionate folks with excellent reasons to be suspicious about undercover cops.
Day 2: The Poor People's March highlighted the Orwellian as $50 million in police resources were devoted to make delivering a piece of paper and a flag dangerous for Cheri Honkala and a couple of thousand economically desperate people. They wanted to deliver a simple message to the rich and powerful people inside the Xcel. It was called the "March for our Lives" because she knew that homeless people are dieing in our streets every day, that destitute people are dieing every day in America for lack of healthcare, while the affluent sip champagne and dine on shrimp and filet mignon. The police let them be for awhile, actually wore them out leading them on long detours. But as happened most days, eventually someone found reasons to rough some protestors up, tear gas flew, and they ended up arresting at least one journalist who was trying to document the scene. He was also shot in the back with a non-lethal weapon as he obeyed one line of police to move into another that was firing.
One never knew which police, because a promise had been broken. Chief Harrington and Assistant Chief Bostrom promised us their police would have prominent, individual identifiers. These IDs did not 'make it onto the tactical gear' so that once they went tactical, no one could tell who among 3,700 officers was beating the wrong person, or spraying mace directly into the eyes of victims lying on the ground, etc. One young man named "Jason" was tasered for a very long time after on the ground in Mears Park. Who tasered him, I ask? And why so long if not for pain alone? http://www.kare11.com/video/player.aspx?aid=81605
On Day 3: I spent some time at a "Peace Island" conference at Concordia College in St. Paul, arranged to provide a quality academic alternative to marching in the streets. Since this was wholesome and nonviolent, it was totally ignored by the mainstream press. I transported a 29 year veteran of the US military and CIA (Ray McGovern) from the "free speech zone" near the Xcel to his panel at Concordia with other career national security professionals. They came to talk about problems in our government and law enforcement institutions. None of them were arrested. To get to the "free speech zone" (a small stage with sound gear provided by the City Parks Department) one had to park a mile away and navigate on foot past hundreds of police, both soft-shell and heavily armored tactical units, to a spot hemmed in by 8 foot steel barricades where others had been arrested the night before. As you might imagine, the audience at this lovely space was tiny.
Day 4: (Sept. 4, 2008, 4 pm) This was always billed to be the most confrontational march. So I left the tranquil peace people gathered on Harriet Island for music, food and art while the coast guard protected their river with two boats equipped with .50 caliber machine guns. Other troops guarded RNC delegates on a river cruise with M-16's. Not an average St. Paul day, but little chance of injury here, so I went where I might do some good. Within a minute of arrival at the Capitol, a tiny fight between two whomevers in the crowd sparked a massive presence of a variety of tactical assets. When the fight (or other incident) began, a crowd rushed around (like at any soccer or rugby match) so a squad of soft-suited bicycle cops rushed in to stop whatever was causing the ruckus. They were immediately surrounded by a crowd of hundreds growing fast, chanting "Let them go" and other advice. Since this was the angrier march, with many black bandannas about, anyone with the brains God gave a goose would be concerned.
Within seconds of their call for help, hundreds of tactical troops poured in from every direction, squads on foot, squads in vans, about 30 horse police (very well trained horses equipped with their own tactical visors, who had shown the days before how efficiently they can clear a path though people one fifth their size). As always there were helicopters overhead, and people watching from rooftops and windows.
Well they rescued their brothers and sisters in blue without beating up the bystanders, for both of which I am quite thankful. But the tone of things was different once all those black armored, anonymous troops were out and about with military equipment, batons, grenade launchers and tear gas/pepper spray canisters the size of fire extinguishers.
Here came the worst moment I can recall on the protest side. As 5 pm approached, the stage kept saying that the march was permitted. But they knew the permit expired at 5, they just objected to that, and all along they had intended to march to the Xcel Center after then to be present when John McCain spoke. As they were urging everyone to head out, as the crowd was already moving toward the Cedar Street route previous marches had followed, they said 'Oh, by the way, this march is now NOT permitted and you may be arrested.' Innocents may be jailed by such deceptions; innocents may get hurt. Jail and pain may be OK if you choose them, but not if you are deceived. By ~ 8 pm the police lost their patience and arrested more people than any day prior, about half of everyone arrested during the whole affair (~ 396 of 818).
Analysis: Total property damage was less than attends some European soccer matches. There were no serious casualties despite many opportunities over five days of confrontations between protestors and police from all over America. Except for the Constitution of course, which was gravely wounded. Whether the Constitution can recover will depend on the lawyers now. They must decide individually and en masse whether they will honor the oath that every, single one of them has pledged to protect our Constitution and the rule of law instead of Kings.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher played a particularly bad role in this affair. He was at odds with St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington from the beginning. Harrington is a nationally recognized leader in the philosophy of "community policing" and St. Paul PD is two generations ahead of most large police departments. In fact, it was Fletcher's public grubbing for millions of dollars ($4.4 million, according to the MN Independent of April 17, 2007) to jail thousands of citizens expected to express their views vigorously that led me and former FBI attorney Coleen Rowley to send a letter to the Chief inviting him to a public program to discuss unintended consequences of such reckless behavior. That began a longer dialogue that affected people on many sides of the RNC events, all trying to minimize casualties and maximize freedom. http://www.minnesotaindependent.com/1597/sheriff-anticipates-arresting-thousands-during-2008-rnc
Of course, Mr. Fletcher needed to be ready for the rowdies who came to break windows, block traffic and joust with police. There were many legitimate reasons for law enforcement to be extra ready, including the tactical folks who must consider rare but real odds of horrible things like assassination of presidents or candidates. But Fletcher was foamy at the mouth about "anarchists" whom he forgets are mostly teenagers scared to death about their future. And who among the media asked, really, deeply asked why these kids are so scared?
Pre-emptive arrests of people who MIGHT commit crimes is the mark of police states. Fletcher helped the Feds in this endeavor. Jailing journalists you don't like while 'embedding' those you do was the early stain of Stalin and Hitler. Whether the Constitution will recover from wounds this grave depends on men like Mr. Fletcher losing the power they have abused.
There are some reports of beatings in his jail late at night. Elliot Hughes of St. Paul is the only one I know prepared to testify in public. Of course, Fletcher's jail is not the first jail where helpless prisoners have been abused, tortured or even died. But St. Paul and Ramsey County are too civilized to tolerate that. So our city fathers claim. Will the attorneys of St. Paul and Minnesota stand for this, or not?
Now, in their defense, police also picked up two men from Texas who allegedly actually made 8 Molotov cocktails which would be extremely dangerous to anyone. They were indicted by a federal grand jury on September 25, and charged with other weapons offenses. There were a very small number of actual guns confiscated from among the 818 people ultimately arrested during the five days of the RNC. So there were some real dangers mixed among the innocents.
It is very hard for passionate people to remember that almost every "anarchist" is also a teenager or youth who is scared about their future, depressed by the hypocrisy and corruption of politicians and governments they see, and finding it very hard to make their way in a ruthless economy that does not give a fig about them unless they have money. It is also hard for passionate people to remember that almost every "cop" is at once two things: a protector of people and property in her jurisdiction, and an enforcer of rules that are sometimes unfair.
Finally, what about the "Feds?" In the helicopters orbiting over the veterans and surveilling every crowd, in the tinted offices where information was fused and decisions were made, it seemed seldom St. Paul PD or Sheriff Fletcher who had the final say. The FBI, the Secret Service and Homeland Security were here as they should be during a national security event like a major political convention. Who were they, exactly, and what do they answer to? Why do they hide so compulsively? Answer these questions and you will find clues for much of what has gone wrong in America recently.
One thing Feds are these days is people looking for enemies, with multi-billion dollar budgets to justify. A cult of secrecy has crippled our intelligence agencies, and creates an environment where criminals in ties can flourish. I study spies. Believe me; they vary from saint* to sinner. But they are all human beings. Most of them have human hearts and actually mean well. Yet while all power tends to corrupt, secret power is especially seductive. The same procedures that protect weapons designs can easily protect criminals with authority.
A form of hysteria since 9/11 has been cynically exploited by politicians and proto-fascists attracted to themes like "Homeland Security" and the billions of dollars attached. These forces led to concepts like the "potential terrorist" which includes me, you, journalists and every other citizen who may have a gripe with City Hall some day. Be aware.
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Michael Andregg, first draft September 10, 2008 [edited again on Sept. 25]
Dr. Andregg is a citizen of St. Paul, MN, USA who teaches in the Graduate School at the University of Minnesota, and in the Justice and Peace Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas.
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