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Preparing for the worst: The coming Heffelfinger/Luger report on RNC policing

In the lead-up to the release of the report, the contents of which most observers assume will be very frustrating to anyone who has been watching the effects and aftermath of the RNC on the local community, I am posting my submission to the Commission. I have had the opportunity to read one other lengthy submission by a local independent journalist. Whatever the Heffelfinger/Luger report looks like, know at least that many of the submissions to the Commission pulled no punches. One of the requests that we should make is that the submissions themselves are made public, so residents of the Twin Cities have full access to the opinions of their fellow residents as opposed to a filtered report by a Commission with an inadequate mandate.
Just a few days after the RNC dust settled, it was announced that the City of St. Paul hired former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and former assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger to review police plans and how they were carried out during the Republican National Convention.

What became immediately clear was that the independent review would not be a fact-finding mission to explore allegations of police wrongdoing or violations of people's rights but a look at the City's security plan, how it was implemented, and whether it reflected what Heffelfinger described as "best practices" (Star Tribune, September 9th, 2008)

At a "Community Conversation about the RNC" held later in the month on September 24th, and organized by St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune, the depth of frustration of local residents and business people was obvious. Heffelfinger and Luger were present.

The two later held a public hearing on November 6th, where people were given 3 minutes to tell their RNC stories. E-mail submissions were also possible, although neither channel was widely advertised. The deadline for the RNC Public Review Safety Commission's report to be made public is December 15th.

In the lead-up to the release of the report, the contents of which most observers assume will be very frustrating to anyone who has been watching the effects and aftermath of the RNC on the local community, I am posting my submission to the Commission. I have had the opportunity to read one other lengthy submission by a local independent journalist.

Whatever the Heffelfinger/Luger report looks like, know at least that many of the submissions to the Commission pulled no punches. One of the requests that we should make is that the submissions themselves are made public, so residents of the Twin Cities have full access to the opinions of their fellow residents as opposed to a filtered report by a Commission with an inadequate mandate.

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17 November 2008

Attn. The RNC Public Review Safety Commission


While the deadline for submissions to the RNC Commission has passed [November 14th], the very way the Commission has gone about engaging the public has made it very difficult for the deadline to be met or the Commission to gather the testimony it needs to come to an informed conclusion.

1. No Commercial Publicity for Commission

Despite a declared $100,000 budget, there were no advertisements in the local media concerning the existence, mandate, nor any submission information for the Commission. If encouraging people to testify to the Commission was important to the Commission this would not have been the case.


2. No Publicity on Official State Communications Media

Similarly, any search on the City's website, at www.stpaul.gov returns no results for the "RNC Commission" or related search terms. "heffelfinger", luger" and even the submission address "lucie.passus@stpaul.gov" are all conspicuously absent from the site.

The City Attorney's "RNC Update" page found at http://www.stpaul.gov/index.asp?NID=2757 says nothing about the Commission despite its latest update being as recent as November 12th. Of course, www.stpaul.gov also hosts the official website of Mayor Chris Coleman who called for the RNC Public Review Safety Commission.


3. Late Publicity for Commission Deadlines

Where there were brief press reports about the Commission in the two main local papers, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press, these both were published on October 31st. The public hearing was just one week later, and the final deadline for submissions was just two weeks later.


4. Mandate for Commission not Publicly Available

Is it even possible to receive a written copy of the Commission's mandate?


5. Suppressed Evidence

Has the RNC Public Review Safety Commission had the opportunity to view any of the 6,000 hours of footage from police CCTV cameras installed for the Convention? If so, how many hours has the Commission watched? None of this has been released to the public as promised.

St. Paul City Attorney John Choi was reported (St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 14th) as saying that "The reality is that someone needs to review the video prior to releasing it, and that is a monumental task requiring lots of staff time." There is no such requirement for footage shot in a public space, with public funds, that was always designated as public domain, and was even supposed to be available live on the Internet during the RNC.

The material must be copied and released immediately.


6. No Interim Sanctions Against Suspected Perpetrators of Inexcusable Violence

Grave allegations have been made that Ramsey County Jail corrections officers abused a 17-year-old minor, Elliot Hughes, including his physical assault and textbook actions fitting the universal definition of "torture" under international humanitarian law--including disturbing Abu Ghraib-esque hooding.

It is clear from interviews included in the documentary "Terrorizing Dissent" that there were multiple detainee witnesses to at least the initial part of the incident, in which a group of around a dozen corrections officers fell on Hughes in a mob to beat him up.

How, therefore, could it possibly be that not a single person from those on duty that day, nor Sheriff Bob Fletcher who bears command responsibility for the actions of his officers, have been suspended pending an investigation by a federal agency? This is nothing more than a blank check handed to child abusers employed by the state, for which all relevant state and federal oversight agencies now share responsibility.


7. Actions of Law Enforcement Officials to Interfere With Public Hearings and Freedom of Speech

Instead of even a hint of any official accountability, we have witnessed law enforcement officials, particularly Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, undertaking a concerted media campaign to repeatedly draw attention away from any events in which members of the public talk about their experiences during the RNC.

September 4th, 2008 - On the same day as the first press conference of the RNC Welcoming Committee during the RNC, at which Elliot Hughes first offered his testimony of torture, the St. Paul High Bridge was blocked with snow plows, making it hard for journalists covering the Convention to get to the Convergence Center across the river from the Convention Center, at 627 Smith Ave.

September 24th, 2008 - On the same day as the "Community Conversation about the RNC" at the St. Paul City Council, Sheriff Bob Fletcher held a same-day press conference to talk about how the "city would have been destroyed" if it were not for police actions, additionally denigrating Council Member Dave Thune who had organized the community conversation.

November 6th, 2008 - On the same day as the RNC Public Review Safety Commission held its public meeting Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher again held a same-day press conference to distract from public testimony that same day. During this event, Fletcher enlisted St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington to join him in putting out a distracting, seemingly public-centric call for Minnesotans to step forward to identify "RNC Protest Victims" that are being identified from 6,000 hours of CCTV video tape.

Of the two examples given, one was an apparently Republican protester in a brief melee with "black bloc" protesters. According to media reports, St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington is looking for this "victim" not on the basis of probable cause by any law enforcement witnessing the event, but from a sole, contextless, still media photograph "found on the Internet" by police (St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 6th). According to some witness reports, this "victim" was attacking an individual breaking one of the windows, so he can hardly be considered to be some bystander randomly turned into the "victim" of an assault.

What else did Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher bring us from the 6,000 hours? A single demonstrator banging on the hood of a car on Shepard Road. Is this what we pay our public officials to do, to spend their time (and our public funds) cooking up flimsy examples of "protester violence" and making patently false claims on days when responsible officials need to be encouraging the population that was intimidated by police to tell their small stories?

Similarly, it is hardly a new discovery that members of the press, medics, legal observers, and citizens who are not engaged in illegal behavior should not be arrested. In all three RNC mass arrests--Shepard/Ontario on Day 1, the Target Center Concert on Day 3, and on the Marion Street Bridge on Day 4--even clearly credentialed journalists carrying cameras marked with TV network identifiers were swept up along with other functional attendees of the public gatherings such as medics, observers, and--frankly--normal citizen witnesses.

On this last point, a state cannot claim to be respecting First Amendment Rights if it violates the right of a nonviolent, non-law-breaking citizen to observe and film police actions with a video camera. Exercising a First Amendment right does not begin with speech or publication, it begins with the data collection that enables one to speak or publish.

Portraying the visibly lazily-paced mass arrests as "fog of war"-type events where it was hard to tell the difference between a journalist or protester has become standard by law enforcement. Giving a report back on policing before the St. Paul City Council on October 22nd, Police Chief John Harrington claimed that:
"One of the things media folks said is on Day One, when several of the reporters got assaulted and attacked by the rioters, one of the things that happened was they stopped wearing media identification, which really complicated because now how is a cop supposed to know who is a reporter, apart from the fact that you've got a $50,000 camera. That was probably a sign but aside from that it was really difficult to determine who was media and who was not in a lot of the mass arrests situations. It was very very problematic."
None of these statements are true. There were no widespread assaults and attacks of the media, neither was it a widespread phenomenon that media stopped wearing identification, nor did media that identified themselves with credentials in mass arrests get released. During the Marion Street Bridge mass arrest on Day 4, City Pages journalist Matt Snyders reported (City Pages, September 9th) that:
A female officer, noticing the press credentials around my neck, took them off and brought them to show a few of her colleagues. They stood in the middle of the blocked-off intersection and examined them. She returned and put them back around my neck.

"Those things are all bullshit, anyway," scoffed a young officer who was standing nearby.

"I just checked 'em," she replied. "They're valid."

"Well, I heard that press are going to jail tonight anyway, so it doesn't matter." He turned his head and spat.

Officers put us in white plastic cuffs. They herded us over to the curb. Of the 24 people perched on the curb, at least five were reporters of some stripe. We were charged with unlawful assembly. To my right sat a young videographer with MTV. Two spots down to my left sat Art Hughes, who, exactly one week earlier, had penned a guest opinion in the Pioneer Press condemning the detention of reporters and confiscation of equipment (it was titled "Free people in a free country are free to use their cameras"). The short, unassuming freelancer now sat on a curb, his hands bound, his backpack lying useless on the grass behind him.



8. Blatant Police Violence and Misuse of Anti-Riot Training and Technology

The overwhelming and pervasive violence visible on the streets of St. Paul, visible on every TV channel, was police violence aimed at nonviolent protesters.

Defense Technology/Federal Laboratories MK-9 pepper spray (the red, fire-extinguisher canisters) was being used at point blank range--in total defiance of the explicit manufacturer's warnings that are both printed on the canister and repeatedly emphasized in training.

It is widely known that these high pressure canisters can blind individuals due to the "hypodermic needle effect" that such high power sprays create. It is also widely known that pepper spray can cause serious medical consequences--including death--in asthmatics and others with respiratory disorders. Despite this, pepper spray was liberally used in public spaces as if it was as harmless as confetti during the entire RNC week.

Just so that the obvious is stated clearly at least once in the materials the Commission receives, pepper spray is intended to disable aggressive individuals posing an actual threat to law enforcement. It is not a nonverbal alternative to saying "please move" or an alternative to leading away and gently arresting nonviolent individuals.

On that same issue, it seems clear that not a single cent of the $14 million spent on riot equipment was used to purchase megaphones that could be heard in a large crowd beyond 15 feet. On September 4th, at one demonstration I attended, I witnessed some of the most heavily-armed individuals ever seen on the streets of Minnesota, bearing megaphones that functioned barely better than children's toys. Repeated media accounts from throughout the RNC confirm the inadequacy of these "dispersal order" tools.

Over and over, as a standard pattern we witnessed nonresistant and nonviolent individuals arrested by multiple police officers using the training they are given to restrain and handcuff extremely violent individuals, including dangerous kneeling on the neck/spine, and the pepper spraying of restrained individuals at point blank range. It should not need to be stated but these methods are supposed to be used in extreme cases, not as standard procedure.

There is no excuse for any of this law enforcement behavior not being reined in immediately when it was witnessed on Day One of the RNC. Yet it was ubiquitous, pervasive, and normalized through the entire RNC week. There is no justification for turning back the clock to allow thuggish, ubiquitous, actions by law enforcement. This is not something that "could have been done better" next time, as Police Chief John Harrington said before the St. Paul City Council on October 22nd. This behavior has been historically rejected by court case after court case in the United States as "illegal".


9. Blatant Intimidation of Peaceful Protest by Law Enforcement

I personally attended the beginning of the September 2nd Poor People's Rally/March in Mears Park. I have lived in the Twin Cities for most of the last decade, half of that time living just a couple of blocks away, in the Tilsner Artists' Cooperative.

I arrived one hour before the rally was due to begin. There were two hundred people there at that point, 100 demonstrators and around the same number of members of the press. The atmosphere was not dissimilar to the Music in Mears summer concert series, with people sitting and chatting in the park, the elderly, children and families visible.

At some point during this pastoral scene, a row of 30 riot police filed into the park to stand on the highest point, the hillock on the dog-walking side of the park, overlooking this scene. Nothing could possibly have justified that show of inappropriate display of force at a tiny, peaceful gathering held by an organization that has been holding peaceful protests in the Twin Cities for over a decade, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.

I took a look around shortly after that. I counted 2 helicopters, 40 riot police, 20 bike police, 6 horse police, the National Guard, Secret Service, SWAT, and no doubt numerous undercover police officers. Some of the police were armed with M-16 or M-4 assault rifles. Machine guns, in plain English. There was blatantly no public order imperative for any of this. I did what any normal person who turned up to the rally and march with the intent of expressing their democratic opinion would have done in the circumstances. I went home to avoid intimidation, harassment, and arrest.

It should be noted that the last large demonstration I remember in the Twin Cities prior to the Day 1 "March Against the RNC to Stop the War" was the global anti-war demonstration in 2003 before the Iraq war began. That attracted 30,000 people. It was no surprise to see, after the inexcusable pre-Convention raids on journalist and protester homes, that this Day 1 march only attracted 10,000 people. Are we expected to believe that after 5 more years of the same political administration's gross spending on fighting war instead of poverty that this low turnout was due to any lack of will among the general public? The City of St. Paul's own pre-march estimate was 30,000-50,000. Similarly, the Poor People's March attracted around 400 protesters. The City of St. Paul's own pre-march estimate was 1,000. This is what happens to democratic expression in a climate of intimidation.

Repeated accusations by law enforcement that many demonstrators were going to throw "urine and feces" at police, seem unsubstantiated in retrospect by the hundreds of hours of commercial and independent RNC media footage I have viewed, and no doubt helped to contribute to the mostly empty streets of St. Paul during the Convention. Despite this, law enforcement continues to beat this propagandistic and dehumanizing drum, even to ludicrous levels, cf. "Harrington says more than 100 officers had urine or feces thrown on them" (Fox 9 News, October 23rd).


10. Bare Minimum for any Civilized Society after these Events

If there is to be semblance of legal accountability left in this state, the Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and St Paul Police Chief John Harrington--responsible for what went on outside the Convention Center--need to be suspended until an outside federal agency investigates their command during the RNC.

Anything else represents a colossal failure of the state to protect its citizens against state brutality and has no place in any democracy that supposedly has these basic rights guaranteed in its founding documents.

To paraphrase the chant of protesters heard throughout RNC week, "Is this what our democracy looks like?"


Nigel Parry
RNC '08 Report
http://rnc08report.org

Nigel Parry is an independent journalist and Internet pioneer who created the Electronic Intifada, Electronic Iraq, and Electronic Lebanon websites. His latest project, the?RNC '08 Report, is?a citizen's archive of media reports, government documents, and other resources relating to the 2008 RNC. The source material posted on this website will ultimately be used to compile a truly independent, publicly available, citizen's report on what happened during the 2008 RNC.?

homepage: homepage: http://rnc08report.org
address: address: Minneapolis, MN