“He said, ‘We’re not here to spy on you. Is that what you think?’ ” recalled local activist Cheri Honkala about her follow-up phone conversation this month with U.S. Justice Dept. conciliation specialist Kenith Bergeron.
Bergeron had called Honkala at Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) headquarters on July 3 to ask if her group would be willing to participate in training to mitigate what he saw as possible violence during PPEHRC’s planned “March for Our Lives” at September’s Republican Convention in St. Paul.
“He basically implied violence toward myself and toward the other marchers,” Honkala said. “He said that he was concerned about a counter demonstration and that the (St. Paul) police had recently purchased 300 new Tasers,” said Honkala.
Bergeron’s office within the federal justice system is with something called the “Community Relations Service” (CRS) whose stated function is “mediation of disputes and conflicts, training in conflict resolution skills, and help in developing ways to prevent and resolve conflicts,” according to the government. CRS was created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and has a long history of involvement in defusing confrontations, including easing racial tensions in the South and helping pave the way for gay and lesbian issues to be addressed on college campuses.
“My question was, ‘Why do they have to be involved unless they have knowledge of an intention of violence. And if they have, they should reveal those threats to the public,” said Honkala. “He also told me that AIM (members of the local American Indian Movement) and the Welfare Rights Committee had said they would be participating in his training, which I later discovered was not true,” Honkala said.
Both AIM and the Minnesota Welfare Rights Committee, as well as the local Anti-War Committee, have gone on record as saying they would not be interested in federal training. They say that their own efforts to apply to authorities for common ground—like applying for the proper permits to demonstrate—have been frustrated or delayed. The Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War was forced into court with the City of St. Paul because city officials wanted to keep protesters out of the sight of convention goers.
Nineteen St. Paul and Minneapolis police officers were given CRS training on July 23.
“Police are one entity that may call us in—we may enter a community on our own or at the request of the community,” said Ryan Breitenbach, CRS Senior Counsel. “But we are unique within the Dept. of Justice as we have no investigative or law enforcement power. We only provide facilitation of dialogue, particularly in regard to protests or marches,” Breitenbach said.
“We are a movement that practices nonviolence. The federal government has never seen the need to become involved in our movement in more than twenty years,” said Honkala. “Our only other experience in dealing with the feds is our experience with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and their treatment of our local immigrantpopulation. We have many immigrants in our movement,” Honkala said.
“Communities often don’t want any kind of federal presence, and that’s understandable,” another CRS mediator, Patricia Campbell Glenn, told City Pages back in 2002. At that time, the Minneapolis City Council and local community leaders asked CRS to facilitate talks between the city and neighborhood groups after a riot broke out in the Northside’s Jordan neighborhood when a police bullet hit an 11-year-old black child in the arm. After a months-long mediation process between a diverse coalition of community groups and representatives of the Minneapolis Police Dept., a federal mediation agreement was reached.
Yet according to Honkala, CRS’s contact with her was a bit more heavy handed. In a subsequent phone conversation with Bergeron, Honkala said that her group had declined the use of CRS services.”He got really upset and started screaming,” said Honkala. “He told me that if anyone even had a heart attack during the march, that I would be held responsible,” she said.
So much for federal facilitation at the Republican Convention.