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Some question police after 800 arrests at GOP convention

By The Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Police packed away body armor, gas masks and pepper spray on Sept. 5 — but not the questions about their tactics during the Republican National Convention.

They made more than 800 arrests related to the convention, including nearly 400 on Sept. 4 as protesters blocked traffic on streets and bridges a few blocks from Xcel Energy Center. In Denver, site of the Democratic convention a week earlier, only 152 people were arrested.

Hundreds of officers in riot gear — some on horses — poured into St. Paul's streets starting on Aug. 31 to hold demonstrators to approved routes and quell disturbances. They used tear gas, pepper spray, percussion grenades and sticks to control protesters who overstayed permits or veered into unauthorized areas.

Police Chief John Harrington said the 3,700 officers who worked the event showed patience and moved in when they had to. He said they focused on people they expected to cross the line into committing property damage or violence, and tried to contain other protesters without trampling on their free-speech rights.

"Nothing burned in downtown St. Paul," Harrington said. "No one was injured in downtown St. Paul. With the exception of one or two windows, downtown St. Paul remained open for business."

But protesters and some observers said the show of force raised the tension level.

"You could literally go nowhere without being confronted by a Robocop in the most intimidating, threatening gear, who wouldn't give you directions, who wouldn't do anything except threaten you and tell you to move, move, move," said Dianne Mathiowetz, an anti-war activist from Atlanta.

Some showed injuries they said were caused by rubber bullets or rough handling during arrest.

Those caught up in chaotic mass arrests included journalists, legal observers and others who hadn't intended to commit civil disobedience — including two Associated Press reporters and an AP photographer.

On Sept. 5, an attorney for the Associated Press sent Harrington a letter asking for an accounting of police treatment of photographers Matt Rourke and Evan Vucci. Rourke was wearing AP credentials when he was arrested Sept. 1 while covering protest violence in downtown St. Paul, and was held for 10 hours before being released.

Also on Sept. 5, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent Harrington and Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher a letter asking them to drop the criminal citations issued to up to 20 journalists who were detained while covering the Sept. 4 protests.

The ACLU of Minnesota is preparing to coordinate legal representation for some protesters, and is looking into the use of chemical irritants and mass arrests as it prepares a possible lawsuit against the city, said Chuck Samuelson, the group’s executive director.

Another group of six protesters held a news conference on Sept. 5 to show bruises, scratches and other injuries. Two said they planned to sue and others said they were contemplating legal action.

Pre-emptive arrests before the convention and the aggressive look of riot police heightened fear and anger among the protesters, said Demi Miller, who walked the demonstrations as a member of the Peace Team, a group in yellow vests that sought to defuse tensions.

Miller said the law enforcement strategy changed from day to day.

On Sept. 2, the day after nearly 300 people were arrested during scattered acts of violence on the convention's opening day, police prevented the band Rage Against the Machine from playing at a free concert on the Capitol grounds.

Hundreds of angry concertgoers joined an anti-poverty march that had just come down the street.

"Suddenly we had this huge group of really enraged or upset people energized to go screaming into downtown with the poor people's march," Miller said.

By the end of the evening, 10 were arrested and police fired pepper spray and percussion grenades to disperse those who lingered after the march broke up.

But the officers also showed restraint. In some cases, they waited for hours and took verbal abuse. They gave several dispersal warnings before using more drastic tactics.

During a peaceful standoff on the night of Sept. 4 at the intersection of John Ireland Boulevard and Rice Street near the Capitol, one man agitated the crowd by roaming through the protesters and swearing at them. After about an hour, police suddenly moved to arrest him. Then one officer used a bullhorn to tell protesters not to worry, that they were only arresting the man causing trouble.

"Continue to speak your minds," the officer told the crowd.

Protesters cheered and clapped.

Police arrest nearly 400 as GOP wraps up convention
At least 19 reporters assigned to cover protests were detained, including two AP journalists who were issued citations for unlawful assembly and then released. 09.05.08


AP photographer, TV-radio host arrested during anti-war protest (news)
286 people were arrested yesterday in St. Paul, including two producers with syndicated Democracy Now! show; all journalists were released by this morning. 09.02.08

Minn. police release jailed Ky. journalism students (news)
Britney McIntosh and Edward Matthews were photographing violent protests in St. Paul when they were arrested, held in jail for two nights. 09.04.08

Journalists swept up in GOP convention protests won't face charges (news)
'This decision reflects the values we have in St. Paul to protect and promote our First Amendment rights to freedom of the press,' mayor says in statement. 09.22.08

Let’s hope convention cities respect right to protest (commentary)
By Gene Policinski To shut down demonstrations, police and public officials must have more supportable reasons than vague concerns over order, safety or image. 08.24.08

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