Ten days ago, as the nation focused attention
on the hurricane nearing the Mississippi Delta, another storm was brewing far
upstream in St. Paul, Minn. – a storm far more dangerous, it turned out, but
one by and large overlooked by the fawning corporate media (FCM).
When I flew into St. Paul on Saturday evening, Aug. 30, I encountered a din
in local media about "preemptive strikes" on those already congregating
there to demonstrate against the Iraq war and injustice against the poor in
our country. St. Paul's Pioneer Press expressed surprise that "despite
preemptive police searches" and arrests, a group calling itself "the
RNC Welcoming Committee" was still intent on "disrupting the convention."
A headline screamed, "Preemptive Arrests of Protesters in Twin Cities."
But it was the article's lead that hit home: "Borrowing from the Bush
administration's 'preemptive war' playbook, police agencies in the Twin Cities
have made 'preemptive strikes' against organizations planning to protest at
the Republican National Convention."
In the following days I was to see, up close and personal, a massive and totally
unnecessary display of ruthlessness.
What struck a bell was that this domestic application of the dubious doctrine
of "preemption" was totally predictable – indeed, predicted by those
courageous enough to speak out before the U.S. "preemptive" attack
on Iraq. Ironically, it was FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, living in the
St. Paul area, who warned of precisely that in her hard-hitting
letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller three weeks before the attack on
Confronting Mueller on a number of key issues (like "What is the FBI's
evidence with respect to the claimed connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq?"),
Rowley warned of the trickle-down effect of "the administration's new
policy of 'preemptive strikes'":
"I believe it would be prudent to be on guard against the possibility
that the looser 'preemptive strike' rationale being applied to situations
abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude
on the part of law enforcement officers in this country."
Rowley called Mueller's attention to the abuses of civil rights that had already
occurred since 9/11, and she pointedly warned "particular vigilance may
be required to head off undue pressure (including subtle encouragement) to
detain or 'round up' suspects."
Transforming the Police
While in St. Paul, I got in touch with Rowley,
who has been politically active in the Twin City area, and asked for her reaction
to St. Paul's version of preemption. This was hardly her first chance to say
I-told-you-so, but she called no attention to her right-on prophecy five and
a half years ago.
Shaking her head, Rowley simply bemoaned how easily the artificial stoking
of fear had succeeded in causing the "otherwise wonderful community police
officers of St. Paul to turn on their own peaceful citizens (the surreal insanity
we witnessed during the RNC)." She added that once the Feds, the fusion
centers, and the contractors get into the act, "all the rules go up in
The "preemption" began on Friday, Aug. 29, well before the RNC began
on Sept. 1.
An academic doing research on social movement organizations, who for several
months has been observing the main protesters – the RNC Welcoming Committee,
the Coalition to March on the RNC and End the War, and the Poor People's Economic
Human Rights Campaign – provided this account:
"On Friday evening the space in St. Paul that was being rented
by the Welcoming Committee was raided by riot police, who knocked in
the door with automatic weapons drawn, forced the 60-70 activists inside
onto the floor, handcuffed them, then proceeded to confiscate all the
banner-making supplies and movement literature.
"Over the course of several hours the cops interrogated, photographed,
ran warrant checks, and eventually released everyone one by one. Then they
closed down the space for a code violation. The next morning a city code inspector
arrived and found no basis for closing the space.
"Saturday morning was one of escalation and terror. The Ramsey County
Sheriff Department, together with the St. Paul police, Homeland Security, and
the FBI, raided four private houses. At 8:00 a.m., dozens of cops in SWAT gear
broke down the door of one house where about a dozen activists were staying.
They were awakened with rifle barrels in their faces and forced to lie face
down for more than an hour.
"The cops stole all the computers and other electronic devices
in the house, and core members of the Welcoming Committee sleeping there
were arrested. It being a holiday weekend, those arrested for alleged
crimes could not arrive in court until Wednesday, at the earliest. Thus,
those trying to organize demonstrations will be in jail for the entire
time the RNC is going on. Four other houses were raided and dozens of
activists were detained."
The academic who wrote the report appealed to those concerned over "this
enormous police overkill" to contact the Twin Cities' mayors and demand
an end to the "witch hunt." He added, "The people who were arrested
were some of the gentlest, most dedicated activists I've ever met." A
far cry from the "criminal enterprise" described by notorious Ramsey
County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
Nanette Echols, a resident of St. Paul who had been extending hospitality
to the visiting protesters, insisted they had done nothing wrong. "In
the place they raided on Friday night they were showing documentary movies
to twenty-somethings in a clean, alcohol-free zone after dinner," she
Caving In to the Feds
The St. Paul City Council? Only one member had
the courage to speak out – Councilman Dave Thune, who was particularly enraged
that Sheriff Fletcher took action within St. Paul city limits:
"This is not the way to start things off. … I'm really ticked off
… the city is perfectly capable of taking care of such things. …This is all
about free speech. It's what my father fought for in the war. To me this smacks
of a preemptive strike against free speech."
Thune objected in particular to Fletcher's deputies using battering rams to
knock down doors, then entering with guns drawn, and forcing people to the
ground, as they did on Friday night.
This was the unsettling backdrop as I flew into St. Paul on Saturday evening,
to speak at the
masses at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on Sunday morning.
On Monday, I joined some 10,000 on a peaceful march from the Capitol to the
Berlin Wall of fences and the "organs of public safety" arrayed before
the RNC convention hall. On the fringes there was some property damage and
further arrests. What violence there was bore the earmarks of provocation by
the likes of Sheriff Fletcher and his Homeland Security, FBI, and, according
to one well-sourced report, Blackwater buddies.
That's right. Agents provocateurs.
Primary targets of the repression were the alternative media, including any
and all those who might have a camera to record the brutality, as was successfully
done at the RNC in New York four years ago. The manner in which Amy Goodman
and the two producers of Democracy Now! were deliberately mistreated
was clearly aimed to serve as a warning that the rules had indeed gone up in
smoke – the First Amendment be damned.
Tuesday evening, after speaking at the "Free Speech Zone," a fenced-off
area surrounded by the organs of public safety, I joined the Poor People's
march up to the fences before the RNC. I observed no violence at all; yet,
the police, FBI, National Guard, and who-knows-who-else decided they needed
to clear the streets. My friends and I narrowly escaped being tear-gassed,
pepper-sprayed, or worse. It was an overwhelming show of force, not to protect,
but to intimidate.
After speaking at a conference at Concordia University
in St. Paul on Wednesday, I was more eager to watch the Republican vice-presidential
candidate, Sarah Palin, deliver her acceptance speech than to risk the tear
gas and pepper spray.
The way she dissed community organizers was hard to take. But that would pale
in significance, so to speak, compared to the way the governor of Alaska proceeded
to ridicule the notion of reading people their rights. I had thought that despite
the distance between Alaska and Washington, the reach of the U.S. Constitution
and statutes extended that far.
Friends tell me I should not have been surprised. But, really! After the widespread
kidnapping, torture, indefinite imprisonment, and our cowardly Congress' empowerment
of the president to imprison sine die anyone he might designate an "enemy
combatant" – after all that… well, it seems to me that reading a person
his/her rights takes on more, not less, importance.
Not to mention the massive repression then under way right outside the convention
It was, it is, a scary juxtaposition. The following day Col. Ann Wright, other
members of Code Pink, and I went to the jail to offer support to the young
people who had been brutalized and then released. They had not been read their
rights. Many were camped out on the sidewalk, refusing to leave until their
friends still inside were also released.
Out of the jail came Jason, a well-built young man of about 20 years, who
needed help in walking. We talked to Jason a while, and he showed us the seven,
yes seven, Taser wounds on his body. One, on his left buttock, had released
considerable blood, creating a large stain on the seat of his pants.
The young protesters had some success in exposing
infiltrators in their ranks. During confrontations, members of the Welcoming
Committee, in particular, took copious photos of law enforcement officers and
then memorized the faces. This tactic worked like a charm in one of the St.
Paul parks, when a man who looked like a protester – dark clothes, backpack,
a bit disheveled – walked by.
One of the protesters recognized the man's face and searched through her camera
until she found a photo of the man actually performing the raid on the Welcoming
Committee's headquarters on Friday night. The young protesters asked the man
and two associates to leave the park, at which point the three hustled into
a nearby unmarked sedan.
The license plate, observed by a Pioneer Press reporter, traced back
to the detective unit of the Hennepin County sheriff's office, according to
the county's Central Mobile Equipment Division.
Protesters later drove two other men out of the day's planned march, one because
he was wearing brand-new tennis shoes. The two left without indicating whether
they were with the organs of public safety.
So there is hope. Young people are smarter than old ones. It is a safe bet
that in the coming weeks lots of unwelcome photos will be exposing various
agents provocateurs, including over-the-hill flatfeet in unmarked cars, as
well as young Republicans with unmarked tennis shoes. If those are the kind
of "sources" upon which the police, FBI, etc., have been relying…
well, that would be like having Shia reporting on Sunni, or vice versa.
The organs of public safety are probably not quite so dumb as to be unaware
that one cannot expect valid "intelligence" from such amateurish
antics. More likely, the attitude is that any kind of "intelligence"
will do for the purposes of local law enforcement and timid public officials
cowed by the Feds.
The original version of this article appeared on ConsortiumNews.com.