Mayor Interrupted: My weekend non-meeting of the minds with Chris Coleman

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by Rich Broderick • September 1, 2008 • The conversation started off on a positive note. More than positive. I shook the Mayor’s hand and commended the St. Paul Police Department for its low profile during the weekend’s worth of patently unconstitutional raids around St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“I know John Harrington slightly,” I pointed out, “and he doesn’t seem to be the kind of law enforcement official who engages in breaking the law.”

But his reaction was not positive. I fully expected that at some point in the discussion I intended to have with him that he would probably get a little testy. I was surprised, however, by the way he instantly flared into a defensive crouch – and never came out of it.

“All we are trying to do is separate the people who are here to protest peacefully from those who are planning to commit acts of violence,” he declared heatedly.

Our exchange took place outside the Black Dog Café in Lowertown St. Paul late Sunday afternoon in the midst of the café’s annual Labor Day Weekend block party. The Mayor had just put in an unscheduled appearance to greet the crowd and to remind us to be thinking of the people of New Orleans (Gustav was still bearing down on the Gulf Coast that day) even while we were out here having a good time. It seemed an oddly self-contradictory admonition, but whatever. It’s the kind of thing politicians say.

Just before Coleman mounted the stage, I had turned to one of his assistants and advised, “Tell him to go up there and say, ‘I had nothing to do with any of it!’” Meaning, of course, the raids. His assistant seemed to think that was pretty funny, which is why I thought it might be possible to have a reasonable conversation about the raids with the Mayor.

I was wrong.

“I’m not defending violence,” I began to respond, but was cut off.

“You all say that” [who are the ‘all’ in whose company I am being lumped, I wondered?] but then you criticize us [and who are the ‘us,’ I wondered, in whose company you are lumping yourself, Mayor? Ramsey County Sheriff Bully-Bob Fletcher’s gang of thumpers?] when we arrest people who came here to cause violence.”

How do you know “they” came here to cause violence, I asked, trying to keep my voice as mild as possible to offset his increasing agitation.

“I’ve seen the evidence with my own eyes,” he snapped.

And when exactly did you see this evidence?

“At the Sheriff’s press conference.”

“And how do you know this evidence was actually seized during the raids?” I inquired.

He dismissed my question with a wave of his hand.

“Look,” I pressed on, “all I’m asking is that you keep an open mind. If Fletcher really found bomb-making materials during the raids, then how come everybody on the premises wasn’t booked and locked up? How come all but a few of the people detained were let free to roam the streets again? What about the statement the cops in Minneapolis made about the freelance journalists they detained Thursday night – that they found marijuana on them? If the cops really found that, how come they didn’t charge them with possession?”

“We’re not interested in a few potheads,” he objected scornfully. “We’re just interested in stopping people who are planning to cause violence.”

Well, this wasn’t going anywhere, but I tried one more gambit.

I said, “No one’s blaming you for what’s happened, and like I said, I really appreciate the St. Paul police staying out of this as best they can. All I am asking is that you keep an open mind. Try to remember that the people who were arrested are innocent until proven guilty.”

But that just incensed the Mayor even more. “My mother’s going to be in that march tomorrow [meaning the official ‘permitted’ march taking place Monday afternoon from the Capitol past the Xcel Center]. I don’t want her marching next to some guy with a machete!”

Gentle reader, forgive me. I couldn’t help myself. “Then why not ask Bob Fletcher and his boys to leave their machetes at home?” I asked.

“I’ve got to go,” Coleman blurted out, then walked off, not even pausing for the obligatory politico handshake.

I’m sure he did have to go. It _was_ a sultry afternoon, and he looked a tad overheated.

In recounting this, I’m not trying to come down too hard on the Mayor. He’s a decent enough sort, and, truthfully, he really isn’t to blame – although the city has from the first tried to put up the front that it’s been in charge of the RNC, the reality is quite different. From the get-go, this circus has been handled by the feds as a Homeland Security event, as a crisis-waiting-to-happen that had to be forestalled by whatever means necessary, even if it meant trampling on our civil and human rights and treating the Constitution as no more than the “piece of paper” George Bush has thoughtfully described it as being.

No, what interests me is not bashing Coleman but rather inquiring into the reason or reasons for his defensiveness – an emotional response that occurs when, among other circumstances, we are not quite as certain of our feelings or convictions as we pretend to be, when we are uneasy about the position we are espousing.

So I am inclined to give Coleman, and R.T. Ryback, who has been similarly silent about the raids, the benefit of the doubt. In his heart of hearts, I suspect that he realizes that what happened this past weekend is deeply suspect – that the issue of who is and is not breaking the law not quite so cut-and-dried as he proclaimed to me.

But why he would feel it necessary to condone the raids rather than question their propriety or even, as St. Paul 2nd Ward Councilperson, Dave Thune, has done, simply declare that “this is not the way we do things in St. Paul,” is beyond my ken. I will, however, offer at least one speculation.

As social creatures, we should never underestimate the powerful appeal of being part of the inner circle. Or how averse we are as social creatures to do or say anything that might jeopardize our membership in that inner circle.

One can only imagine the months and months of “top-level” meetings and presentations that both mayors have been involved in. The presentations by the Justice Department and the FBI, the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security – meetings and presentations in which neither of our elected officials would have had much real say on security at the RNC. Even so, imagine being the mayor of a mid-sized Midwest city finding yourself rubbing shoulders with high-ranking federal officials. How flattering!

In journalism, there is a widely recognized threat to traditional objectivity that goes by the name of “acculturation.” It is the principal downside of beat reporting.

A reporter assigned, say, to the police beat will naturally come, over a period of time, to think of the cops as colleagues, take on some of their attitudes and values, and begin to look the other way rather than report on instances of police brutality or corruption when such reporting would be seen as “ratting on friends” and immediately sever that social bond.

Has Chris Coleman succumbed to some version of this phenomenon over the past several months? Not sure, but it might explain the way he acted Sunday afternoon. Or perhaps he was feeling touchy because it was becoming evident that the boon to St. Paul’s purse and reputation that was supposed to come from the RNC is turning into a fiasco that will probably end up costing the city money — and sullying its image.

Either that, or it was the heat.