“Our right to protest the government and its policies is not ‘suspicious behavior’; it’s Constitutionally protected speech.” Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office
I’ll admit it: since the Republican National Convention brought a militarized police occupation to St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve been shell-shocked. It’s one thing to have predicted the dangers to our civil liberties since the September 11th attacks and quite another to see one’s prediction in action.
An 18-month battle by a coalition of progressive activist groups to get permits for rallies and marches during the RNC ultimately meant very little in terms of law enforcement’s respect for the First Amendment. For those who only see the First Amendment through the distorted lens of the Religious Right, who are obsessed over the first sentence, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof,” here are the rest of the freedoms, essential to having a democracy, that the First Amendment protects:
“Congress will make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; of the right of the people to peacefully assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
House raids before the RNC resulted in preemptive arrests of people who had committed no crimes and had no weapons of any kind. Ordinary household items found in any garage, basement or under the kitchen sink have been imbued with menace by law enforcement. Consider it the domestic version of Iraq’s non-existent WMDs.
However, computers, cell phones, address books and political literature were seized, which may well have been much of the real point of the raids.
Journalists — especially videographers and independent media — were targeted by police, before and during the RNC, with their equipment confiscated by police. Corporate media showed little shock about this (when they bothered to report the targeting of journalists at all).
Independent journalist and Pacifica Radio’s Amy Goodman, host of Democracy NOW! asked St. Paul police chief John Harrington, “How do journalists avoid arrest?”
Harrington replied, “Journalists should embed with police.” Goodman was arrested along with two of her producers and I-Witness independent journalists and videographers who regularly contribute to the program.
Numbers of journalists arrested have varied from 21 to more than 40, from Goodman to an Associated Press photographer to Indy-Media journalists. I have no way to verify the numbers at this time. Charges they faced ranged from “failure to obey a police order” to “inciting to riot” to being released without charges.
FOX Television had an embedded reporter, Minnesota Public Radio had one and the Minneapolis Star Tribune had two embedded reporters. Corporate journalists have been embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the predictable results of reporting that amounts to PR for the American occupation and not reporting war crimes or the reality for the people being occupied. Much the same proved to be true here on the home-front, as corporate media simply repeated (without investigation) law enforcement’s hyped-up “anarchists are threats to public safety and security.” Much more needs to be said about the Corporate media’s role in the RNC but, that requires a future essay.
Did the anarchists have what some might consider “heated rhetoric”? Perhaps. Their aim was to “shut down the RNC.” But. for all who protested this coronation of power-without-accountability, “no business as usual” was to one degree or another the aim. The American people often seem numb or disconnected to the realities of U.S. policies abroad and at home. The slaughter of Iraqis is rarely mentioned. Poor people at home at invisible—or demonized. Corporate subsidies and bailouts plunder the economy while human needs funding is cut annually. CEOS make millions a year while ordinary workers run in place and unions continue to be under attack. The impacts of global warming are getting worse faster than originally predicted while government refuses to act. With blood and billions of public dollars, the few enrich themselves at the expense of all the rest of us and with the last two presidential elections stolen, a far more direct expression of democracy is critical.
Non-violent civil disobedience was planned, at most, to block Republican delegate buses from getting to the Xcel Center easily. A group of Iraq Veterans Against the War members were denied even a few moments to present their petition to John McCain—who trots out his experience as a Vietnam veteran and POW in every speech and interview he gives. It was no surprise that the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Human Rights had their “Bushville” tent city on Harriet Island violently raided by police, or that their peaceful march on Day Two ended in an escalation of unprovoked police violence, which continued through the final evening of protests.
We The People wanted to be heard and we were met by increasing levels of violence throughout the RNC.
One of the homes raided in the weekend before the RNC was occupied by members of the group Food Not Bombs, who have long been targeted by police in cities across the country for feeding homeless people in public parks, and who planned to provide food for the hundreds of young out-of-town protesters.
Is feeding people for free now considered “giving aid and support to terrorism”?
Medics—who were clearly identifiable as such– were targeted for arrest. Is providing first aid now a crime?
Video cameras and cell phones were confiscated by police. What was it police did not want documented and revealed to the public? Could it be that the videotape of Los Angeles police beating a subdued Rodney King echoed in the governmental memory?
As a longtime activist who has worked on police accountability and a journalist who has reported on police brutality for 30 years, I don’t share the illusions about who the police actually “protect and serve” that most white, middle-class Americans have. But, what I saw at the RNC was cops who looked like soldiers.
The process to “militarize” local police forces began in the early 1970s, with the creation of a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit in Los Angeles, who were trained by the Army’s Special Forces. That process has continued ever since with the Pentagon sharing weaponry and obvious military hardware like armored personnel vehicles. After the RNC, training in military tactics to be used by police against American civilians appears to be far more extensive than we previously understood.
Authority over the Twin Cities local law enforcement was given to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Mayors and City Councils, who are still congratulating themselves on “police restraint” and “how well the convention went.”
But I wonder how many people will NOT show up at the next protest because they are afraid. I fear the impact on democracy that heightened surveillance of progressive dissidents will have. Cheerleaders for police action during the RNC—whether public official or private citizens—fail to see the parallels with countries on the State Department’s annual list of human rights abusers.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. Those protesting the RNC acted on the democratic ideals of our founding documents. Dissidents are guardians of democracy.
Finally, I wonder how many of my fellow Americans give a damn about what happened here in St. Paul or whether they too busy being enthralled by American Idol and the start of football season.
Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis independent journalist, winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She is also producer/host of Catalyst: Politics and Culture on KFAI Radio.