by Joel Kilgour / Diluth News Tribune / September 19, 2008
ST. PAUL – It was a lose-lose situation: hundreds of riot police lining every bridge over Interstate 94, blocking traffic and blocking 2,000 anti-war marchers from downtown St. Paul on the final day of the Republican National Convention. The standoff lasted several hours, ending with an explosion of tear gas, flash grenades and police horses. Nearly 400 people were rounded up and arrested, including passersby and credentialed journalists. With such a strong show of force against a peaceable assembly, the police set themselves up for a public-relations nightmare.So you can imagine my surprise when I heard city officials declaring the operation a success. “Nothing burned in downtown St. Paul,” Police Chief John Harrington told a reporter. Well, that was a relief. But what did arson have to do with the protest? Nothing and everything, as it turned out.
Months earlier, local and federal law enforcement agencies began issuing vague warnings of violent plots against the RNC. They told Minnesotans to prepare for the worst as they proudly displayed a growing arsenal of crowd-control weapons. The media dutifully repeated the warnings, and the effect was chilling. Over and over, people around the Twin Ports told me they were afraid to take part in RNC-related protests. They worried that the police, under tutelage of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, were building the pretext for a clampdown. Some signed up to go anyway; many opted to stay home. Without firing a shot, the authorities scared people off the streets.
The St. Paul Info Wars took an alarming turn three days before to the convention when the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department and FBI launched “pre-emptive” raids on activist centers and private homes. The primary targets were members of the anarchist group, the RNC Welcoming Committee. But they also raided an independent media center and an environmental education bus. The warrants listed as weapons common household items like glass bottles and curtain rods, yet the mainstream media seemed largely convinced of what officials described as an anarchist (whatever that is; no one bothered to explain) conspiracy to harm RNC delegates and the police. I didn’t hear any tough questions on the news that night about the reliability of paid informants or Sheriff Bob Fletcher’s chronic inability to distinguish civil disobedience from violence. I didn’t hear any reporters pose what should have been an obvious question: If I have a hatchet in my garage, am I a violent anarchist, too?
For all of his doomsday pronouncements, Fletcher arrested only a handful of the nearly 100 people detained at gunpoint during the raids – which was enough to set an example. Within days, the state had formally charged eight young people with thinking of disrupting the RNC. The most frightening of the counts against them was “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism.” That’s right, “terrorism.”
The hysteria made a mockery of real violence, but it was effective. For the duration of the RNC, every unpermitted protest – including a “Funk the War” dance party – was called a riot. The confusion between genuine threats, isolated acts of property destruction and peaceful dissent seemed deliberate. It excused mass arrests and the use of potentially lethal weapons. It kept people off the streets, and it convinced at least some segments of a skeptical public that a $50 million security budget was justified. Journalists who tried to cover the “riots” firsthand were detained and arrested at an unprecedented rate.
But neither were the permitted marches immune. As thousands hit the streets in peaceful protests against the Iraq war and economic policies that have left millions of Americans in poverty, police were mobilized in a way that suggested war. Snipers eyed us from rooftops, helicopters hovered overhead and thousands of militarized police herded us like cattle. It was equal part paranoia and vendetta: Theycouldn’t divide our groups, so they went on the offensive against everyone. (In one shameful display of fear-mongering, the city attorney’s office issued a brief to a federal court warning of “immeasurable risks to public safety and security” – including terrorist attacks – if the court accepted an anti-war group’s demand for a more reasonable march route).
When police on the ground seriously overstepped, cell phone cameras caught them in the act. The violent footage will rightly be fodder for lawsuits. But the problem in St. Paul wasn’t as much the individual officers (some were pleasant while others looked at me like they wanted to crack my skull), as a coordinated, top-down campaign of intimidation and disinformation. This is a new and very sophisticated era of state repression in which the police are militarized, the feds call the shots, and slick PR campaigns prey on public fears and play loose with the truth. Whether the agencies in charge of protecting us hit us with rubber bullets or news conferences to keep us out of the streets, the damage to a free society is the same. [Go here for the original.]
Joel Kilgour of Duluth is an activist educator and member of the Northland Anti-War Coalition.