The presence of police in riot gear intimidated citizens, and created the feeling of a police state at the September Republican National Convention (RNC), according to testimony at a public hearing in St. Paul on November 6. Approximately a dozen St Paul residents testified about their RNC experiences before a commission led by co-chairs Tom Heffelfinger and Andy Luger. The seven-member commission was convened by the City of St. Paul to investigate RNC security and planning, Heffelfinger pointed out, and is not focusing on individual instances of police or citizen misconduct. The commission is documenting testimonies from residents to make recommendations to law enforcement for future conventions.
Anyone interested in testifying to the commission should email their testimony to firstname.lastname@example.org by November 14th. The commission hopes to document its findings and recommendations by mid-December.
The most common refrain from those testifying was the sense of St Paul having been transformed into a police state and police using excessive force.
Vietnam veteran Bill Collins spoke of helicopters flying in attack formation during the Veterans for Peace March he participated in on September 1. He told the commission about his experience during the Vietnam War of a friendly fire incident and how the helicopters flying during the RNC brought back the fear he felt then.
Collins said the march was peaceful and it seemed to him that the police were “more concerned about protecting the delegates than the people of St. Paul.”
Police riot gear obscured names and badge numbers making identifying individual officers impossible, many complained, making filing a complaint futile. Others doubted a fair outcome of filing a complaint with the same department they had the problem with.
St Paul resident John Hughes provided emotional testimony in which he described his son’s arrest on Labor Day and subsequent beating in the Ramsey County Jail. All charges against Hughes’ son, Elliot, were dropped. He explained that they will not be pursuing an internal affairs investigation, frustration creeping into his voice, saying that he doesn’t believe Sheriff Fletcher can police his officers.
Grace Kelly recounted how she came to the aid of a man who was pepper sprayed by police. Her voice breaking she told of how he thought he was dying, “and he told me his kid’s names, he wanted me to be sure to tell them he loved them.” She said she tried to reassure him that he wasn’t dying, he would all right, but she was afraid the entire week. “We love our community and the community policing,” Kelly said, “we didn’t want to be like other cities.” Yet St. Paul ended up a military zone.
Michael Andregg, an adjunct professor in the Justice and Peace studies program at the University of St. Thomas, said he was disappointed that demonstrators had not been offered a free speech zone to voice their protests. His biggest concern he said was that “people’s constitutional rights were being stifled. He said that St. Paul felt like East Berlin with the presence of military helicopters and hundreds of riot police.
Andregg, who worked as liaison between activists and the police for a year, wanted to know if St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington was in charge of security in downtown St. Paul, or if “an anonymous Federal agent” was responsible. He argued that the atmosphere during the protests did not feel like community policing but like a “federal operation.”
“There was rapid transition from soft to hard tactical presence, which really intimidated protesters,” he complained further.
Other witnesses echoed Andregg’s testimony.
“I saw young children pointed at close range with projectiles…. people were maced and beaten. I did not see anyone do anything that would warrant this kind of treatment,” testified Meredith Aby, an activist with the Anti-War Committee. Aby has attended previous conventions in Los Angeles and New York City where she says she did not experience what she saw in St. Paul during the RNC.
She also said that the press conferences that the police held prior to the protests were, “fearmongering tactics aimed at discouraging people to come to the peaceful marches.” Aby said that many witnesses and victims find the police intimidating and are not likely to go to them with accounts of their experience.
The final person to testify was a member of the North Star Health Collective. Kat Donnelly, a registered nurse and EMT, said about half of the Collective were arrested despite large red duct tape red crosses on their clothing. However, she said what concerned her most was the severity of the injuries she saw especially compared to what she had experienced during other, larger, demonstrations or the 2004 RNC in New York City.
Kathy Easthagen is a freelance photographer and writer in the Twin Cities.