RNC Protests: 16 park permits issued by St. Paul


The City of St. Paul has issued 16 park permits for gatherings of at least 25 people during the Republican National Convention. The permits have been provided to seven different groups planning events at the five downtown parks where such gatherings will be allowed. Most of the groups are expressly opposed to Republican policies, such as Women Against Military Madness, the Welfare Rights Committee and True Blue Minnesota. But at least one organization staging an RNC event, Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, is supportive of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here’s a list of permits issued:

Families United for Troops and Their Mission (Nancy La Roche and Merrilee Carlson), September 1, Triangle Park
“Peace Island” picnic (Coleen and Ross Rowley), September 4, Harriet Island Park
True Blue Minnesota (Andrew Hine), August 31 – September 4, Triangle Park
Ben Plunkett, September 1, 3 and 4, Hamm’s Plaza; September 1, Mears Park; August 31 and September 2, Ecolab Plaza
Welfare Rights Committee (Deborah Konechne), September 1, Hamm’s Plaza
Women Against Military Madness (Sarah Martin), September 1, Ecolab Plaza
Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (Cheri Honkala), September 2, Mears Park

There also will be the Labor Day event at Harriet Island, put together by SEIU. It doesn’t require a permit, according to the parks department, because it’s an annual event.

An additional six permit applications have so far been rejected by the city’s parks and recreation department because of too much demand. The successful applicants were determined through a lottery process.

Only five parks are available for events during the RNC. An additional eight locations, including Rice Park, Kellogg Park and Landmark Plaza, will not be open to gatherings, owing to either security concerns or because they’re reserved for convention activities. (See this February memo from the parks department for a fuller explanation of RNC permit guidelines.)

True Blue Minnesota was among the lottery winners. The group plans to stage anti-RNC events at Triangle Park on each day of the convention. According to Andrew Hine, one of the principal organizers of the gathering, they intend to utilize a 20 x 27 foot television screen to communicate their message. “It’s part digital billboard and part drive-in movie theater,” Hine says. The content will range from projections of single words like “shame” or “truth” to poltical cartoons to full-length movies such as the recent documentary Body of War.

RNC Protest 101 Extra Credit
By Chris Steller, Minnesota Independent

Courts say cities can regulate the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and assembly if the restrictions are content-neutral. But Bloomington’s protest ordinance exempts churches and schools, St. Paul’s exempts funerals, and Minneapolis’ applies only to protests during the Republican National Convention. All three tread on or over the content-neutral line of constitutional law, according to American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota attorney Teresa Nelson.

Bloomington’s public assembly ordinance (PDF, see 5.4C), approved in May in anticipation of RNC-related protests, grants the broadest exemptions. Elementary and secondary schools, public and private, don’t need to get a permit for public assemblies of more than 50 people on school grounds or public property. Nor do they have to pay the $15 city permit fee. And if they failed to get a permit, they wouldn’t be committing a petty misdemeanor. The same goes for religious organizations gathering on private property, which could include the contested interior of the Mall of America or the new Bloomington Central Station park area.

St. Paul exempts funeral processions from its public assembly permit requirement. In highly charged political environments in the Middle East and elsewhere, funerals frequently double as public assemblies for the purpose of political speech. St. Paul expects its own highly charged political environment during the RNC, but its 3-year-old ordinance lets funerals proceed without a public assembly permit. An assembly of 26 persons or more not judged to be a funeral procession would require a permit costing $10, without which participants could be charged with misdemeanors.

The Minneapolis City Council went back and forth and finally this month approved a public assembly ordinance that applies only during the time around the RNC (PDF, see 2008R-213), from Aug. 25-Sept. 8. Courts would likely buy an argument that the city selected that time period because that’s when it expects unprecedented protests. Still, the net effect is an additional layer of regulation on speech and assembly when most people seeking to exercise those rights will be anti-Republican or anti-war.

RNC protesters who can convincingly construe their demonstration to fit the definition of a school or church event, or a funeral procession, might get a free pass from public assembly regulations in Bloomington and St. Paul. Minneapolis doesn’t have such exemptions, but other oddities in that city’s ordinance will be the topic of a future installment of RNC Protest 101 Extra Credit.

“The reason we want to do this is to provide an alternative method of protest and dissent, a non-violent alternative,” says Hine, who co-founded the group with attorney Martha Ballou. “We live in St. Paul and we want St. Paul to look good, even from a protest standpoint.”

Harriet Island will be another central gathering point for non-RNC activities during the first four days of September. Service Employees International Union will be hosting a Labor Day festival on the opening day of the Republican gala. Then on the final day of the convention former FBI agent and congressional candidate Coleen Rowley will be holding a “peace island” picnic.

Meanwhile River Falls, Wis., resident Ben Plunkett has secured six permits for various events during the Republican festivities. Plunkett is a member of the Pierce County Board of Supervisors and a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He was elected in 2006 on the strength of 10 write-in votes (including his own) after no candidates filed for the post and was subsequently re-elected earlier this year. Plunkett also has a lengthy history of substance-abuse problems and criminal activity, as detailed in this 2006 story from the Pierce County Herald.

Plunkett says he intends to utilize “performance art” to address concerns such as health care and military spending. “The goal is to raise awareness and attention to issues in such a way that you’re not hitting people’s pre-set beliefs,” he says, “that you’re actually causing people to step back and think about these issues in a fresh way.”

Among the groups that failed to secure permits through the lottery process: the Colombia Action Network, Twin Cities Peace Campaign and the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera. The latter group is seeking the release of Palmera (a.k.a. Simon Trinidad), a leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who is currently serving a 60-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiring to hold three U.S. contractors hostage.

Mick Kelly, who applied for a permit on behalf of the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera, argues that the rebel leader was actually kidnapped by the U.S. government. “We would like to lay this issue at the door of the Republican Party,” he says. “The Republican Party has stood for war in Colombia and we are opposed to U.S. intervention there.”

Unfortunately, Kelly’s application to hold a rally at Hamm’s Plaza on Sept. 1 was denied. He believes the city is unfairly and unnecessarily restricting public gatherings during the RNC. “Basically the entire process for granting permits is crap,” he says. “The five spots and the lottery itself is part of an attempt by the city to put a window dressing of fairness on a process that’s very unfair.”