On September 4 last year, I found myself in a jail cell on the last night of the Republican National Convention. I was one of many protesters, journalists, observers and medics who were arrested that night. It sucked. I hope I’ll never get arrested again, but at the time, I wasn’t surprised that it happened. I was reporting for the TC Daily Planet for much of that week, and the whole city seemed to have departed into a surreal fake war scenario, where everyone was shouting at each other, tear gas was going off right and left, and everyone in general was in a frenzy. [Click here for the story that Sheila wrote about her arrest last year.]
For me, that whole week is a vivid memory of chaos and heightened emotion. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience. Perhaps I learned that sometimes it’s better to stand a little bit away from the center of the action to get a story, but I’m not sure that would have helped: I probably would have gotten arrested anyway. In any case, I decided to talk to a few other folks who were heavily involved with the RNC, from various sides, and see what their reflections are one year later:
Sara Remke- Co-Owner of Black Dog Café
Sara Remke lives in St. Paul, and her business, the Black Dog Café, was located in the thick of things during the RNC. Code Pink, the women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement , made the Café their home base, and there were several concerts given that week.
Remke said that while she did expect a lot of police presence, she was shocked by all the police officers covered head to toe in riot gear.
“When you are walking,” Remke said, “and these guys are covered head to toe, and you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, it’s scary.” Remke was walking with her son and she said she heard one of the cops say to another “We’re going to kick some ass.” She said her son is now terrified of cops.
“I think the city was incredibly naïve thinking it was going to be boon for St. Paul,” Remke said. “Traffic-wise it was a nightmare. “I think — what a waste of money.” She said that while the Black Dog was packed, because it was right in the core, a lot of other St. Paul businesses, such as those on West Seventh Street, didn’t get the numbers they were promised.
Still, Remke said: “We had a lot of fun.” With the Café filled with protesters every night, she said she got to hear all the stories.
“I was amazed by how fast everybody could find out where stuff was,” Remke said. “The organization of all those indy media people was amazing. I really admired that about those kids. That they chose to do that, I found really impressive.”
John Choi, St. Paul City Attorney
By the time that the four days of the RNC were over, John Choi’s work was just beginning. As St. Paul City Attorney, Choi had his hands full with 676 RNC related misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. While he said that he had pressure from those who wanted him to dismiss many of those cases without review, he said he was happy that his department looked at each case in the same process that they deal with any misdemeanor: looking at all the evidence and facts.
“We weren’t going to let the RNC negatively impact the way we do things,” Choi said. Noting that normally the city attorney’s office mainly deals with domestic abuse cases, Choi assigned only three prosecutors to RNC cases in the three months following the convention, so that the other 20 prosecutors on staff could continue working with the usual cases the office processes. He wanted to be sure that the same process occurred for the RNC defendants as for any other person accused of a crime. “I’m happy we maintained that process — the results are what they are,” Choi said.
Choi said that ideally there would have not been such a high rate of declines (or people arrested who end up not getting charged with a crime), but, he said, “that’s the nature of the RNC.” He said a similar situation happened at the RNC in New York, and other events in recent years that involved a lot of protesters.
“We ended up dismissing or declining many of these cases ourselves just because the evidence was not there to prosecute those individuals,” Choi said. “But there’s a huge difference between probable cause is for arrest and probable cause for prosecution.” That is, in a trial, prosecutors must prove a person is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. “What we’re looking at in terms of ethical standpoint,” Choi said, “is whether or not we could succeed in a trial.”
As for the 39 journalists who had their charges declined (including mine), Choi said “It was inappropriate to prosecute journalists as a presence at unlawful assembly… it just seems inconsistent to prosecute a journalist who for the most part is there doing their job.” Choi said he would seriously encourage the legislature to amend the unlawful assembly statute and make an occupational exception for journalists. “Journalists are there doing their job, and it’s important for them to be there doing their job. Not exempting them isn’t a good policy from a legal standpoint.” He also said he would “encourage police departments in the future to get in front of issue — to have a policy to disfavor arresting journalists for presence at unlawful assembly.”
Choi said if the City of St. Paul were to endeavor an event like the RNC again, it should be prepared to secure additional funding for prosecution. “ No matter how much you prepare, … to be able to manage all of those arrests- you have to have resources,” Choi said. Still, he said he was happy with how quickly his office had gotten through the cases. “We took due diligence,” Choi said. “We looked at each case thoroughly. We took cases in a chronological fashion. By February 20 we had substantially reviewed all those cases.”
Dave Thune, St. Paul City Council Member
City Council Member Dave Thune said that the main thing that the city should have done differently was to have more community involvement in the planning. “There was too much secrecy,” Thune said, “Too much avoidance of public discussion.”
Thune said that he and other community members were “not consulted is the least.” He said that though he and others asked to give input, they were told they couldn’t give it.
“I’m not blaming specific individuals,” Thune said. “We have a really good department,” but he said the city got sucked into the national security issues. “I was at Smith Avenue Hall [the RNC Welcoming Committee Convergence Center],” Thune said. “There was nothing terroristic about that. I have never seen such well behaved kids.”
Thune said “Well, if I had known what was going to happen I would have dug my heels. I didn’t know. Hindsight is really good, I guess.”
“If I were a city,” Thune said, “I wouldn’t do it again for a million bucks. It didn’t bring us any money. It brought us a lot of heartache, bad publicity, and now people look at police in a different way. This was a national security military wet dream. They could play soldier. It was sick.”
Still, Thune said that the aggressive police presence was coming from national security forces. In contrast, Thune said: “The St. Paul cops were absolutely wonderful.” He recalled one officer giving a protester a lift to the front of the parade. The Philadelphia cops too, Thune said, “were incredibly good.”
The best thing, Thune said, is that “Nobody got killed.”
Sheila Regan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.
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