Members of the National Lawyers Guild filed a motion Sunday in Hennepin County District Court to stop what guild attorneys called unconstitutional actions by local police officials. The motion for a temporary restraining order comes after several days of targeted raids by law enforcement officials at locations housing people planning on protesting the Republican National Convention in St Paul. Police have also detained and taken cameras, notebooks and other reporting tools from several citizen journalists who work to document interactions between citizens and police.
“This has to stop,” said St. Paul attorney Gena Berglund, who filed the motion with Hennepin County District Judge Mark S. Wernick. “Democracy depends on the ability of citizens to document what happens to people on the street, in public places,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion.
Berglund said Judge Wernick maintained he probably wouldn’t be able make an immediate ruling because his calendar is full with probable cause and bail hearings.
Berglund is one of at least 100 attorneys from Minnesota and around the country to observe and work on civil rights cases related to the convention. They’re noticeable by the bright green hats they wear. Berglund said her office counts seven instances in recent weeks of police detaining people and taking equipment such as cameras, video equipment, and digital media.
Dozens of experienced lawyers, Berglund said, are “working their butts off” to retrieve items taken during police raids, including puppets, sign-making materials and “the things that protestors need to protest, which is a First Amendment right.”
As she spoke, police were holding a Hiawatha Light Rail train car filled with protesters at the Lake Street station. After several minutes, the rail car was allowed to proceed to its destination.
Over the weekend, police raided a defunct St. Paul theater occupied by the group, RNC Welcoming Committee. Police also closed in on several residences in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They handcuffed and detained dozens of people, including three members of the New York based Glass Bead Collective, a group known for documenting police abuses on videotape. The three, including Olivia Katz, were released and no charges were filed. Police eventually returned all the belongings they confiscated. “This doesn’t happen in New York,” Katz said, referring to law enforcement officials hassling camera-toting citizens.
Police, led by Ramsey County Sheriffs deputies, maintain the raids targeted self-described anarchists, intent on creating havoc during the convention. Six people were arrested. The sheriff’s office confiscated materials they say would be used to disrupt the convention, including buckets of urine, bolt cutters, homemade devices used for disabling vehicles (like buses carrying convention delegates), and various ‘edged weapons’ such as throwing knives and a machete.
“I haven’t seen any evidence,” said Bruce Nestor, a Lawyers Guild member working to free those arrested. Nestor said authorities have filed no formal charges, which he believes is a sign they have a weak case. “My guess is they’re relying on the word of police informants,” which he said is often shaky legal ground that, historically, has seen instances of fabricated testimony, with very little in terms of physical evidence to back it up.
Nestor maintains no one intended on flinging excrement during the convention. He said what police seized were buckets used to collect ‘gray water’ by the residents in an attempt to save water and resources.
“At least they got a search warrant,” Nestor said, favorably comparing the recent action to pre-emptive police raids during the 2000 RNC in Philadelphia in which authorities used suspected fire code violations to shut down protest operations. Most of the Philadelphia cases were dismissed and the city was forced to pay damages for false arrest.
As she waited on word from Judge Wernick about the restraining order, attorney Gena Berglund commented that these were the worst instances of unconstitutional abuses she remembers in Minnesota.
“This is not our local police acting by themselves,” she said. “They’re acting at the direction of the federal government. This is homeland security taken to the extreme. Some of us believe this is the new Red Scare.”
Her colleague, Bruce Nestor agreed. “This is a higher level of resources used here to investigate, infiltrate and disrupt protests than we typically see.” Nestor said police departments have shared tactics more readily on countering protests since the disruptive World Trade Organization convention protests in Seattle in 1999. During the convention, many businesses were damaged and protesters clashed repeatedly with police.
What’s happening here is certainly not normal but “none of it is unexpected,” Nestor said.
As of Sunday night, five of six activists arrested remained in jail. Ramsey County Judge Joanne Smith ruled there is probably cause to keep them in detention. The Ramsey County Attorney will not review the cases for formal charges until at least Tuesday. If the county does not file charges, the five could remain behind bars until noon on Wednesday. The county released one detainee, Monica Bicking, on Sunday. The reasons for her release were not explained to her or her attorneys.
Art Hughes is a free-lance journalist in Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org