Wednesday, September 3, 2008

St Paul Protest March Update

United for Peace & Justice
Tuesday Sept 2 2008

Yesterday, on a hot and humid day in St. Paul, Minnesota, upwards of 40,000 people marched to the front door of the Republican National Convention to say 'US Out of Iraq Now', 'Money for Human Needs, Not War'; 'No to the Republican Agenda'; 'Yes to Peace, Justice, and Equality'.
Like most major marches, no one knew for certain how many people would turn out for the March on the RNC. The media coverage of the long struggle with local officials for permit rights had, in the end, helped organizers get the word out throughout the Twin Cities area for the march. Groups all around the upper Midwest organized buses, vans, and carpools to bring people into town. It was clear that this was an opportunity not to be missed. As the Republican Party was beginning its four-day gathering to nominate John McCain as their presidential candidate, we would be on the streets to raise a clear strong voice addressing the war and a range of other issues.
The demonstration began with a two-hour rally that felt even longer. It was hot as the sun beamed down. The weak sound system prevented lots of people from hearing the speakers on the stage, one of which was UFPJ's Co-Chair George Martin. Yet, everyone was patient, knowing that it was important to give people time to gather before heading out for the march.
A little after 1:00 PM, the march kicked off and was led by a contingent of veterans and military families - some of the people most impacted by the war in Iraq. I watched the march go by, and what a sight that was! People from many walks of life, some young, some old, some from close-by in St. Paul and Minneapolis, some from faraway places - all of them gathered for the march. Contingents of immigrants, labor, poor people, young people, doctors, religious, and faith-based groups and much more took part in the march, carrying tons of great homemade signs and banners. Literally, tens of thousands of people united in their call to end the war now!
It was a powerful statement of the deep opposition to the war in Iraq that exists in every corner of this country. It was a clear call for an end to the threats of war with Iran. You couldn't miss the demand to turn our nation's priorities around and start meeting the needs of our communities and stop feeding the machinery of war with our tax dollars.
The march took a route that went in front of the Excel Center, the site of the RNC - though, once in that area, marchers had to walk in an area with huge fencing on both sides of them. While there was hardly any police presence at the rally site or with the march itself, there was a massive police operation in the downtown area, especially near the Convention Center. The march route turned around at this point and returned to the starting location on the lawn of the State Capitol. All but a few hundred people left the downtown area, exhausted and hot but glad to have been a part of this important mass mobilization against the war.
Some people stayed downtown; and before too long, there were confrontations with the police. I was not in attendance downtown during the melee, and I'm not able to report back firsthand, but from the information that I have received and heard, it is clear that the police overreacted and used excessive force, using pepper spray, hitting people with batons, pushing people back with horses, and much more. Regardless of how we feel about the activities of the some of the people in downtown St. Paul, the actions of the police force were deplorable. In the end, the police arrested 284 people, including at least four journalists.
United For Peace and Justice was proud to have been part of the locally-led coalition that organized the demonstration, and we congratulate the organizers for a job well-done. We are pleased that we helped get the word out and mobilized people to be at this march and other activities in St. Paul during the RNC, just as we did in Denver for the DNC.
We urge you to keep watching the news to see how things unfold in the next few days, especially in terms of police conduct. They need to know that people around the country are watching!
UFPJ was also working to spread the word about the major national mobilization, Million Doors for Peace, scheduled for September 20. A group of staff and volunteers was actively leafleting in both Denver and St. Paul, at a whole host of locations in both cities, to ensure that people and the groups they are associated with become involved in this very important mobilization.

Wednesday Sept 3 2008
We are sending you this message because the situation in St. Paul is very grave and we're concerned that the real story is not being told by the mainstream media.
Over the past few days, the heavily armed and extremely large police presence in St. Paul has intimidated, harrassed and provoked people; and, in a number of instances, the police have escalated situations when they used excessive force. They have used pepper spray, including spraying at least one person just inches from her face as she was held down on the ground by several police officers. They have freely swung their extra long night sticks, pushed people around, rode horses and bicycles up against peacefully gathered groups, and surrounded people simply walking down the streets. On Tuesday evening, they used tear gas on a small group of protesters in downtown St. Paul.
The massive police presence and the uncalled-for actions by the police on the streets has not been the only problem. The police raided a convergence center and several locations where people are staying over the weekend and they have stopped and searched vehicles for no clear reason.
On Tuesday afternoon, they literally pulled the plug and turned off the electricity at a permitted outdoor concert. The timing of this led to a situation where hundreds of understandably angry people ended up joining a march being led by the Poor Peoples Campaign for Economic Human Rights, a march that organizers were insisting be nonviolent. In other words, the police set up a dynamic that could have turned ugly, but the skill of the organizers kept things calm and focused.
All of this - and much more - needs to be understood in the context of the overwhelming presence of police. Police from all around the Twin Cities have been put to work, and they have also brought in police units from around Minnesota and from as far away as Philadelphia, PA. The National Guard and state troopers are in the mix, to say nothing of the Secret Service, Homeland Security and who knows who else from the federal government!
We are very concerned about what this all means about the right to protest, the right to assemble, and the right to have one's dissenting voice heard. We are worried about what it means about the growing militarization of our nation and the ongoing assault on the Constitution. We shudder to think about how the influx of new weapons and armed vehicles and everything else will be used in the neighborhoods of St. Paul and Denver: both communities each received $50 million from Homeland Security to purchase the equipment and pay for the policing during the conventions.
There are still two more days of the Republican Convention in St. Paul -- two more days of protest and possibilities of police mis-conduct, over-reaction, and excessive use of force.
We urge you to call the Mayor of St. Paul right now! Let him know that people around the country know what's happening! Urge him to stand up for the Constitution and to take action to end the militarization of the downtown areas of his city! Urge him to reign in the police and help bring civility to the streets of St. Paul!
Mayor Chris Coleman: 651-266-8510
And call your local media outlets to demand that they tell the real story of what's happening in St. Paul this week.

For background on the activities of the police in St. Paul, read Marjorie Cohn's article
Raiding Democracy in St. Paul
In the months leading up to the Republican National Convention, the FBI-led Minneapolis Joint Terrorist Task Force actively recruited people to infiltrate vegan groups and other leftist organizations and report back about their activities. On May 21, the Minneapolis City Pages ran a recruiting story called "Moles Wanted." Law enforcement sought to preempt lawful protest against the policies of the Bush administration during the convention.

Since Friday, local police and sheriffs, working with the FBI, conducted preemptive searches, seizures and arrests. Glenn Greenwald described the targeting of protestors by "teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets." Journalists were detained at gunpoint and lawyers representing detainees were handcuffed at the scene.

"I was personally present and saw officers with riot gear and assault rifles, pump action shotguns," said Bruce Nestor, the President of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who is representing several of the protestors. "The neighbor of one of the houses had a gun pointed in her face when she walked out on her back porch to see what was going on. There were children in all of these houses, and children were held at gunpoint."

The raids targeted members of "Food Not Bombs," an anti-war, anti-authoritarian protest group that provides free vegetarian meals every week in hundreds of cities all over the world. They served meals to rescue workers at the World Trade Center after 9/11 and to nearly 20 communities in the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina.

Also targeted were members of I-Witness Video, a media watchdog group that monitors the police to protect civil liberties. The group worked with the National Lawyers Guild to gain the dismissal of charges or acquittals of about 400 of the 1,800 who were arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. Preemptive policing was used at that time as well. Police infiltrated protest groups in advance of the convention.

Nestor said that no violence or illegality has taken place to justify the arrests. "Seizing boxes of political literature shows the motive of these raids was political," he said.

Further evidence the political nature of the police action was the boarding up of the Convergence Center, where protestors had gathered, for unspecified code violations. St. Paul City Council member David Thune said, "Normally we only board up buildings that are vacant and ramshackle." Thune and fellow City Council member Elizabeth Glidden decried "actions that appear excessive and create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for those who wish to exercise their first amendment rights."

"So here we have a massive assault led by Federal Government law enforcement agencies on left-wing dissidents and protestors who have committed no acts of violence or illegality whatsoever, preceded by months-long espionage efforts to track what they do," Greenwald wrote on Salon.

Preventive detention violates the Fourth Amendment, which requires that warrants be supported by probable cause. Protestors were charged with "conspiracy to commit riot," a rarely-used statute that is so vague, it is probably unconstitutional. Nestor said it "basically criminalizes political advocacy."

On Sunday, the National Lawyers Guild and Communities United Against Police Brutality filed an emergency motion requesting an injunction to prevent police from seizing video equipment and cellular phones used to document their conduct.

During Monday's demonstration, law enforcement officers used pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and excessive force. At least 284 people were arrested, including Amy Goodman, the prominent host of Democracy Now!, as well as the show's producers, Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar. "St. Paul was the most militarized I have ever seen an American city to be," Greenwald wrote, "with troops of federal, state and local law enforcement agents marching around with riot gear, machine guns, and tear gas cannisters, shouting military chants and marching in military formations."

Bruce Nestor said the timing of the arrests was intended to stop protest activity, "to make people fearful of the protests, but also to discourage people from protesting," he told Amy Goodman. Nevertheless, 10,000 people, many opposed to the Iraq war, turned out to demonstrate on Monday. A legal team from the National Lawyers Guild has been working diligently to protect the constitutional rights of protestors.

Marjorie Cohn is president of the National Lawyers Guild and a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. She is author of Cowboy Republic. Her articles are archived at