Questions that should linger after the tear gas clears
Date: Sat, 11 Oct 2008
Michael is one of long term members of MAP, and perhaps is even one of the founding members of the organization. Dr. Andregg is very well informed and a long-time St. Paul resident and peace activist. These accounts are passed along with his permission. His website is http://www.gzmn.org. Visit sometime.
The RNC has come and gone so it is important to focus now on critical questions for democracy.
-- Who was responsible for the militarization of law enforcement in a city known for community policing?
-- Will the Constitution be the greatest casualty of the visit by the RNC?
Full disclosure - I worked over a year as a public liaison between many peace groups and the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD). Not for the most radical protesters; they chose not to trust anyone who talks to cops no matter how benignly. I am deeply committed to both preserving peace, and enabling the fullest possible expression of civil liberties.
Thoughtful people on both sides worked hard to minimize casualties and maximize freedom of political expression (whether of Republican delegates or protesters here to point out harsh consequences of national policies). We were undercut by vast amounts of Federal counter "terrorism" money looking for targets, aided by a few yahoos in uniform eager for a slice of that pie. And, of course, by some alleged "anarchists."
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher put his name out early seeking $4.4 million to jail "3,000 - 5,000" protesters. He led the feds in preemptive busts of "potential terrorist" houses (violating the 4th Amendment of our Bill of Rights, since anyone "might" use garden tools to assault democracy) and preemptive arrests of journalists (violating the 1st Amendment, since anyone with a camera or pen "might" criticize the government or Fletcher's tactics).
By one count 36 journalists were arrested trying to cover events of those five days, along with 6 arrested preemptively. Preemptive arrest is standard practice in police states like North Korea and Burma. Is that the standard Minnesota aspires to?
Liaisons between polarized groups try to do two things. We promote positive dialogue to avoid misunderstandings, and we strive for promises of responsible conduct to protect the people and values at risk. The saddest thing I must report about SPPD is that they promised us ID's would be prominently displayed on all troops deployed. A commander on the scene, an honorable man I know, told me these ID's never made it onto their tactical gear. We noticed.
This was not a minor oversight since when things get tense it enables the less disciplined to abuse the power at their disposal. Another friend of mine who is also an honorable man got shot by something as he tried to obey orders coming from one tactical line telling him to move into another that was firing chemicals and other weapons at a crowd.
He was not the only one, but his irony was amplified by the fact that he had come to the "free speech zone" to document the poor people's march on Sept. 2. The main message of that group was reminding affluent Americans that poor people die every day in our country for lack of affordable health care and housing. That non-lethal weapon hit the Constitution at least as hard as it hit him.
The worst scene I saw was on August 31 during marches by Iraq Veterans Against the War and some Veterans for Peace with their families. Five helicopters came in from the west to orbit from the State Capitol to the Xcel. They may have been Special Forces or Secret Service. We could not know because of the secrecy the feds employ these days.
But everyone could see the men in harness, legs sticking out the doors in a position used to kill leadership on the ground in war zones. For veterans who have literally put their lives on the line to protect our Constitution, this was an absolutely disgusting tactic. Perhaps they were just practicing, but the clear impression left was that they did not like democracy.
I want to note some positive items also, because I know for a certain fact that there were people of good will behind many of those armored visors and black bandannas.
There were no serious, physical casualties despite many opportunities. There was less property damage than occurs at some European soccer matches. And ad hoc groups like the yellow vested Minnesota Peace Teams did many things to clarify communications, to calm down angry people and tend to wounded.
Even the "radicals" accomplished some amazingly positive things. They provided food and shelter to hundreds, maybe thousands of outsiders who came to express their views. They staffed a health clinic across the street from Regions Hospital at no cost to the public, and provided teams of health professionals and attorneys to accompany marches.
So calmer heads prevailed most of the time. Most marches started with blue-suited St. Paul cops on bicycles who threatened only the tiny number who came to break windows and block traffic.
Of course Sheriff Fletcher had to be ready to jail them. And the Secret Service had to be ready for much less likely but horrible possibilities like attempts to assassinate political leaders. It was our Constitution that was wounded instead.
Every attorney and judge in Minnesota swears to protect and defend the Constitution. Now they must decide if their oaths mean anything.
A kind of hysteria has descended on America since 9/11. Officials fueled by billions of dollars in counterterror money are hunting for reasons to keep that money flowing. 9/11 was a great national tragedy; I know people who lost their closest relatives on that day. But perspective is still called for.
We lose about that number (3,000) every six weeks to auto accidents. We lose the same to murders. We lose the same to suicides. And we lose a whole lot more to poverty, especially lack of health care and housing. But nobody loses their mind over these pervasive and lethal problems ignored in the rush to find a terrorist under every bed.
Sheriff Fletcher was foamy at the mouth about the "anarchists" most of whom are also teenagers or 20 somethings who are desperately depressed by the corruption of politics they see, and struggling to survive a ruthless economy that does not give a fig about them unless they have money. His hysteria fit quite well with Federal objectives.
The St. Paul Police are generations ahead of most in concepts of "Community Policing." That great image also suffered during the RNC.
Many are tempted to put these things behind us. It was exhausting and other problems clamor for our energy. City fathers and mothers should remember that a good reputation takes decades to create. But it can also be destroyed in the blink of eyes mesmerized by the McCarthyism of our time.
Do not ignore the question of who was responsible for the extreme militarization of law enforcement during the days of the RNC. By "who" I do not mean some committee or faceless bureaucracy, I mean who specifically by names was responsible. If those who abused their temporary power are not held accountable at the next election or in court, they will almost certainly abuse their power again.
Remember, all that hardware bought with easy money remains in storage, nearly new. If preemptive repression of journalists and cruel or unusual treatment of people practicing democracy goes unaddressed, these tools will be used again. They will be used against someone who disagrees with City Hall some day. Maybe you.
Michael Andregg is a citizen of St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. He also teaches in the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota and in Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
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