Hundreds Arrested at Conventions

Posted September 3, 2008 at 7:39pm

It was Monday, and Connecticut delegates had just stepped off their bus in downtown St. Paul, Minn. They had only a brief look at the Xcel Energy Center before protesters ran across the street and attacked them with buckets of bleach water.

“This very confrontational guy comes right up to me, cussing me out, calling me a scumbag, but he’s making contact with me physically,” recalled Connecticut state Sen. Anthony Guglielmo. “It was like being back in middle school.”

Guglielmo’s group eventually got in the door without injury, with soaked shirts and short breath their only battle scars.

But their experience was not unique this week in St. Paul, where an Xcel Center full of Republicans attracted thousands of protesters and hundreds of angry anarchists.

So far in the Twin Cities, more than 300 protesters, anarchists and reporters have been arrested. About 130 of those were originally booked for felonies, but ultimately fewer than half were formally charged.

And while that’s nearly twice as many as the 154 arrested at last week’s Democratic National Convention — most for misdemeanors — police tactics at both conventions, at least outwardly, have been very similar.

Groups of officers hang out on every street corner, looking like robotic elephants in gas masks, full body armor and helmets.

Police presence in Denver and St. Paul “was remarkably the same,” said Chuck Samuelson, the executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota.

“The difference was the Democrats weren’t in office for the last eight years. They didn’t start the war in Iraq, they didn’t destroy the dollar. You’ve got a lot of people who are upset with this administration.”

Both the Colorado and Minnesota chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union — along with groups such as the People’s Law Project and the National Lawyers Guild — are working in overdrive to address what they say are violations of civil liberties.

Police officials have applauded the work of their officers in controlling the mobs that have broken windows, slashed tires and thrown feces. But they’ve also taken criticism for booking many on felony charges, only to come up short when the defendants go to court.

On Wednesday, St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington noted that each day has had fewer arrests and more peaceful protests, while City Attorney John Choi said that anarchists are trained to confuse officers and thus make it hard for charges to stick.

“As each day has passed, we’ve seen greater and greater restraint,” Harrington said. “On balance, we have seen a very orderly convention.”

In Denver, the small number of protesters meant that thousands of officers stood on street corners looking bored.

But in St. Paul, visitors have gotten used to hundreds of officers in full riot gear on foot, on horses, riding bicycles and in cars. Every night, police use pepper spray, tear gas or flash bangs to disperse crowds.

Precautions have also increased. Connecticut delegate Michael Garrett said the delegation’s bus now takes a “very circuitous route” to the Xcel Center every day, with officers radioing ahead to see if the coast is clear.

The anarchists are “playing a hide-and-seek-type game where they’re trying to intersect conventioneers and trying to be where police are not,” he said.

Democracy Now producer Nicole Salazar was one of those arrested Monday night, along with host Amy Goodman.

She was thrown to the ground and handcuffed despite telling officers she was from the press, she said, and put in a cell with 17 other women for about five hours.

The massive police presence is “clearly really not calming things down,” Salazar said, adding that police seem to be trying to dampen any demonstration at all.

It’s a criticism that was repeated often in Denver, where the Pepsi Center was surrounded by heavy security fences and the demonstration zone was away from the main action.

But ACLU officials in both Denver and St. Paul are primarily worried about how police officers are handling the arrests and how those arrested are being treated.

This week in St. Paul, the ACLU has about 10 lawyers stationed at the Ramsey County Jail handling arraignments, while 50 “spotters” keep an eye on protests around town.

In Denver, the group is gathering information on the arrests and has already sent a letter to the Denver Sheriff’s Department accusing officers of mistreating arrestees at the warehouse that served as a temporary processing facility.

“There was definitely police action that happened during the DNC that raised really serious questions for us about the legality and propriety of their actions,” staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass said.

But, he added, “we’re still very much in the process of gathering information.”