Officials defend response as "measured"; critics say police were "spoiling for a fight."
By RANDY FURST and ANTHONY LONETREE, Star Tribune staff writers
Last update: September 3, 2008 - 11:29 PM
As the city of St. Paul heads into one last day of convention hoopla -- and one final day of protests -- state civil liberties leaders have accused St. Paul police of making many improper arrests and in some cases, provoking more problems.
"I think some of the police on the street have been very aggressive physically," said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota. "The phrase is 'spoiling for a fight.'"
But Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner did not think police were overzealous. "I see a pattern of trying to respond in a measured way," she said.
The dispute over how police handled the protests will likely be played out in Ramsey County District Court over many months. Of 71 felony cases brought by the police this week to the county attorney's office, 27 cases, or 38 percent, have been dismissed outright.
With about 300 local arrests so far, St. Paul has already doubled the 154 arrests in Denver during the Democratic National Convention.
"Nobody was charged with felony riot," said Sonny Jackson, a Denver police spokesman. Demonstration crowds were also considerably smaller in Denver.
Many arrests involved individuals or small groups, but there also were two instances Monday where groups of 40 to 80 people were arrested. It was likely during those incidents that bystanders may have gotten caught in the middle. Some of those were journalists and students.
'Look at the footage'
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman defended police officers in a Wednesday interview.
"We have for a year watched people who made very clear that they were coming to the city of St. Paul to commit criminal activity," Coleman said.
"What I have said from the beginning is that if you come to pick up a sign to exercise your constitutional rights, you'd be welcome, and we saw that. We had 10,000 people who successfully and peacefully marched on Monday."
Coleman said he watched police "in the face of taunts and swearing and spitting, stood there, very, very reserved ... They didn't react to that."
Said St. Paul police commander Doug Holtz: "We're telling the citizens of St. Paul: 'You look at the footage, you look at the actions of these criminals, and you tell me as a citizen that these actions were lawful and that the police didn't act appropriately.'"
Asked about concerns that people might take away the wrong image of St. Paul, St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington acknowledged that numerous residents have told him "this is a different side of St. Paul than they would have liked to have seen."
Five St. Paul City Council members issued a statement Wednesday: "We urge everyone to keep in mind that most of us have only heard fragments of stories about the events of the past few days. Sometimes these fragments, taken out of their context, make it seem that law enforcement has overstepped or overreacted. We regret that some peaceful demonstrators got caught in the middle of criminal actions and law enforcement trying to stop this activity."
Shamako Noble, president of the Hip Hop Congress in San Jose and a member of the group that organized the peaceful Poor People's March on Tuesday that included about 2,000 people, noted that hundreds of officers in riot gear lined the streets as they marched.
He said their demeanor, with tear-gas guns at the ready, seemed to escalate the situation rather than calm it. He noted that marshals from his own group successfully policed their march, getting protesters who shouted at police to keep moving.
While not approving lawlessness, Teresa Nelson, ACLU's counsel, said there was a "good possibility" her group will file a civil rights lawsuit for wrongful arrests "similar to what happened in New York" in 2004, where people were swept up and arrested without proper cause. New York has paid out $2 million in damages. She decried the arrest of what she said were at least eight journalists "swept up" by police while they covered street confrontations.
The reaction of police may be tested again today when the Anti-War Committee, a local group, will march to the Xcel Energy Center where U.S. Sen. John McCain will speak tonight, accepting the Republican nomination. The committee, which has a history of civil disobedience, may be planning more of the same.
By far the most dramatic arrests involve eight people connected with the anarchist RNC Welcoming Committee, seven of whom were arrested in raids before the convention began and are now charged with conspiracy to riot.
A litany of accusations from undercover police and informants is detailed in an 18-page search warrant. The group allegedly planned to build bleach and gasoline bombs, disable vehicles, lob feces and urine at police, and blockade streets, bridges and freeways to keep delegates from the convention, among other things.
Bruce Nestor of the National Lawyers Guild, one of the attorneys representing the eight in the initial phase, called it, "overcharging what at most was an expressed intention to block traffic. My concern is they are going to convict people for their political beliefs."
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382 Anthony Lonetree • 651-298-1545