Nearly 800 people were arrested. Pepper spray and flash-bang grenades were repeatedly utilized to disperse crowds. Store-front windows were smashed and vehicle tires slashed. If nothing else, the four days of the Republican National Convention certainly succeeded in bringing some excitement to the normally sleepy streets of downtown St. Paul.
Before a sometimes rambunctious public audience today, a seven-member panel, led by former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, presented an 82-page report on policing during the Republican National Convention to the St. Paul City Council. While the panel generally concluded that the St. Paul police acted appropriately in overseeing security arrangements during the four-day gathering, it did offer numerous criticisms of the department’s preparations and tactics.
Given my experience being arrested while observing the RNC protests as a journalist, I remain quite interested in the truth about the police commanders' motivations.
In the hours immediately after my release from jail, I wrote the following editorial:
In St. Paul, Minn., riot police detained and ticketed journalists who were covering a peaceful protest against the Republican Convention on the night of Sept. 4. The officers' actions against these reporters were a grossly outrageous violation of the most foundational and sacred of American values.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
That unqualified statement of idealistic principle was ratified and became law in 1791, but it seems that 217 years was not enough time for the authorities in St. Paul to get the message. Although the American press has long been one of the freest in the world, the events of Sept. 4 are an ominous indication that perhaps that is no longer the case.
The Minnesota Independent reported that Nancy Doyle Brown, a media-reform organizer from the Twin Cities Media Alliance who spoke at a press conference on the morning of Sept. 5, defended the rights of the reporters ticketed the night before.
Journalists have "been detained and arrested, subjected to raids, pepper-sprayed, and more simply for showing up to work," she said. "These have been dark days for press freedom in the U.S."
Among the journalists detained Sept. 4 were Christopher Patton, a member of the Daily Iowan Editorial Board, Matt Snyders, and Dean Treftz. Snyders and Treftz are both former Daily Iowan writers who were covering the convention for other outlets; both of them were wearing press credentials, enabling them to enter the convention center itself at the time the police detained them. All three of these reporters conducted themselves in a thoroughly professional manner and at no time did anything that could be reasonably construed as identifying them with the protesters they were observing.
There is no question that the police specifically intended to detain journalists.
Writing on a blog maintained by City Pages, a Twin Cities alternative weekly, Snyders described how a police officer responded upon seeing his press credentials.
"Well, I heard that press are going to jail tonight, anyway," Snyders reported the officer said. "So it doesn't matter."
Treftz, blogging as a Youth Vote '08 correspondent for UWire, also described what the police told him when he asked how many people were being arrested.
"You're not press," the officer said. "You're prisoners."
Yet another member of the press who ended up becoming a prisoner on the night of Sept. 4 was Art Hughes, a freelance writer and board member of the Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hughes had written a guest opinion in the St. Paul Pioneer Press decrying the police's treatment of journalists in St. Paul in the days before his own arrest.
"[The police] have the choice of whether they're portrayed as brutish thugs trying to squelch the rights of citizens or as protectors of public safety tolerant of the First Amendment they're sworn to uphold," he wrote.
Unfortunately, the authorities made the wrong choice. Rather than simply acting to keep the crowd of protesters from disrupting the convention or damaging any property, the police choose to act aggressively to break up the demonstration. And rather than allowing the journalists observing the unfolding events from the protest's periphery to leave once the decision had been made to arrest all of its participants, the police instead elected to forcibly detain them as well, indiscriminately using pepper spray against those who had the misfortune of crossing paths with some of the more trigger-happy officers.
On Sept. 4, the police in St. Paul ceased being the public-safety officers they were supposed to be and became the sort of brutish thugs who harass and intimidate journalists simply trying to do their jobs. If it's against the law for journalists to observe the police's interactions with protesters, even those who are protesting without a permit to do so, then there is no one to watch the watchers. And history shows that no government can be trusted with such unaccountable power. Thus, this brazen assault on America's most basic freedoms must not go unchallenged.
I plan to write a thoroughly researched series of follow-up pieces at some point during the next few months.