Sonia Silbert, Co-coordinator of the Washington Peace Center, wrote last week with updates on the mass arrests and detentions by police of activists during the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities. Here are some more reports from her from later in the week. You can also listen to her interview with us during the RNC on The Marc Steiner Show – click here.
In The Jail – treatment and abuse.
Tuesday morning we called the jail and learned that Jonathan and Kari were being held on felony charges, which blew us all away. There was no way they could have the evidence to back that up, so we were sure the charge would be reduced when they finally saw a judge, but it meant that they would be held another night in jail.
As of Tuesday evening, our friends had been in jail over 24 hours. Kari, the 20-year old, had managed to call her mom in Pennsylvania, who called the legal line in a panic. I got her phone number and called her back to reassure her regarding why she got arrested (photographers are scary, I guess), how she would be treated (kept with the protesters, not the general prison population, and I didn’t tell her about the rumors of prisoner abuse that were seeping out of the jail), and what would be the repercussions of this (she’ll be freaked out, but there’s no way she’ll be convicted of a felony…Inshallah).
Wednesday afternoon, I went down to the jail where people had been doing a vigil all day. Everyone who had been arrested on Monday had to be charged and released by today since it had been 36 hours – it turned into many more hours than that, but they started the process at least at the 36 hr mark. Our friend Tobin, the minor, had gotten out that morning and his dad had flown him back home. His police report basically just said that he was recognized at an earlier action and that was all the evidence provided – we were all pissed that the public defender didn’t ask for the charges to be dismissed. He has a court date back in Minnesota in October.
There were about 100 activists sitting in the grass outside the jail talking, playing guitar, eating, etc. Needless to say, we were surrounded by riot cops, some on horseback, on all four corners. They continued to group and regroup throughout the afternoon and evening, letting everyone know we could be raided, detained and arrested at any time. Our crimes? Some kind of felony I would guess. Talking too loud or something.
One by one, arrestees were meeting with public defenders, standing in front of a judge, getting (most of) their possessions back and then being released. We went into the court building which was surrounded by wire fencing and guarded by National Guard.
Our friend Aaron, who is an Iraq vet from Chicago, pointed out that even here you could see a huge difference between city cops and the National Guard. The RNC had $50 million to spend on policing the Twin Cities and every cop had brand-new full-body riot gear – padding from shoulder to toe, helmets, gas masks, tools and toys bulging out of every pocket so they had a hard time walking too fast. The Guard, on the other hand, were wearing their camo (so they couldn’t be seen in the city?) and a flak vest without any protection in it. Even in a case like this, the funding doesn’t go to the members of the military. Funny, because it sure feels like a military state out here.
Kari finally went in front of a judge and got her charge reduced to a misdemeanor, just like Jonathan. However, for some reason her judge gave her $300 bail, while Jonathan had none. Some of the main organizers who had been locked up all week were being held on $70,000 bail, which they negotiated down to $1000 bail. Apparently bail bondsmen usually only charge 10% (this is information I now know), but for the RNC protesters they were raising their charges a lot. We were told we’d have to pay $200 to get a bondsman to pay her $300, so the 5 of us from our affinity group went to an ATM and split the amont and pay her bail.
Hours later, I got a collect call from Ramsey Co. Jail on my cell phone from Kari. I knew that I’ll only have 45 seconds before they’d cut me off and demand money, so I quickly told her that we had paid her bail and were all waiting outside for her. She said that the money hadn’t shown up in the system yet and they were transferring her back upstairs to another cell.
She sounded so scared and sad, as if she was never going to get out. I felt the same – if they had lost the bail money (which had to be cash and we had been given no receipt) or were just going to take forever to process it, she’d have to spend another night in jail, this time without many of the activists she had been in with all week.
About half an hour later – about midnight – a group of arrestees are released all at the same time and everyone rushed over to applaud them and see who it is. We are all kinda glum, knowing it wouldn’t be our friends, when through the crowd I see Lily, Ryan and David grinning the most honest and joyful smiles I’ve ever seen, and I peak over the heads and I see Kari! She’s been released and has no idea why and is so happy to be out of there.
Within minutes Jonathan and a group of guys are walking down the fenced walkway and there is a beautiful Hollywood moment when Kari and Jonathan run towards each other and he picks her up and spins her around with one arm while flipping off the jail with the other hand. It was pretty great.
The riot cops have backed off – perhaps we’re not as scary when everyone is so happy. At one point, 2 cops weave their way through the celebration and folks start chanting “You’re sexy, you’re cute – take off that riot suit!”
ABUSE IN THE JAIL
As more people get out, we hear more stories from inside the jail that are pretty awful. There are two guys who have been beaten up pretty badly by the guards inside – one has been released, one they couldn’t find in the system. The one they couldn’t find was James, Lisa’s friend and a member of the Pagan Cluster. Jonathan said the 5 or 6 cops went into his cell with batons and beat him up and then moved him elsewhere.
The one who was released was a 19-yr-old named Elliot. He later spoke at a press conference detailing what had happened. He and others had been chanting for medical attention and 5 or 6 cops came into his cell, punched him unconsceiounce, then banged his head against the floor, waking him up. They took him to a separate cell where they put a hood over his head with a gag and used pain compliance holds on him for about an hour and a half – this included disconnecting his jaw and bending his ankles all the way backwards. He had bruises and scrapes on his face and was obviously still traumatized.
A friend of mine who I was watching the press conference with broke down while listening to Elliot’s testimony – he had had similar pain compliance holds used on him by the cops 4 years ago. I had felt traumatized enough being detained at gunpoint and feeling vulnerable on the streets – this intense torture by government officials is something that I don’t know if you ever recover from.
On The Streets: harrassment and more mass arrests
Police harassment and arrests continued throughout the week even though the main protests that were designed to block the conventioneers were only planned on Monday. The police presence and abuse throughout the week is hard to overstate. Veteran activists said they hadn’t been so scared or seen such police activity since Miami in 2003 – the FTAA protests notorious for its brutality. That mobilization sent many activists I know into support roles because they couldn’t be on the street anymore.
This kind of police aggression is not the norm for mobilizations – even when “those scary anarchists” are involved. It’s amazing how quickly it becomes normalized though – just don’t walk alone, take off that black hat, oh, there’s another row of 40 riot cops, let’s cross the street. People get used to everything, but this was a rapid normalization of an extreme police state. “Minnesota nice” was out the window.
Tuesday afternoon, there was an all day peace concert at the state capital – Rage Against the Machine was going to make a surprise appearance at the end of it, but the cops wouldn’t let them play for some reason. So the band stood in front of the stage and passed one bull-horn back and forth and sang some of the crowd’s favorites… they then led the crowd down to join the Rally for the Poor Peoples’ Economic Human Rights Campaign that was started out further down the hill. The riot cops were out in force and seemed to be looking for a fight I guess. In any case, they tear gassed and pepper sprayed the crowd again – the Poor People’s March organizers got out of there as the cops started escalating their tactics.
I was at an action in downtown Minneapolis at a party thrown by the American Petroleum Institute for Republican delegates and lobbyists. We were doing a parady, dressed up as oil execs and thanking the Republicans for supporting more and more drilling. Billionaires for Bush have now become Lobbyists for McCain and they came to the celebration. A lone polar bear also made an appearance and got in a death match with Sarah Palin who, as all have been hearing, is pretty tough in situations such as this. The bear didn’t fare too well. While we were greeting party attendees, we also were getting text messages that our friends were getting beat up and tear-gassed in St Paul… our crew got out okay. Funnily enough, our cynical chants of “Drill! Drill! Drill!” were echoed inside the RNC later in the week, but I guess those folks were serious.
Later that night we found out that the Bedlam Theater, a local music venue in Minneapolis that had a punk show on that night, was also surrounded by riot cops. I think about 100 people were arrested at that show. It seemed like the cops were using this week to harass local activists or venues they’d had their eyes on for awhile.
I went to Peace Island, a local peace conference, that was perhaps the stereotype of a peace conference – lots of lovely grey-haired aging hippies. One of them raised her hand and said that she was outraged at the police brutality and harassment throughout the week and how they were targeting protesters based on their appearance. She suggested that all the grey-haired folks in the audience put on bandanas and black hoodies and go out in the street and protect the activists! Everyone applauded, but no one rushed outside.
I still felt uncomfortable walking around in my own black hoodie, even though the temperature had dipped into the 60’s and it was needed. The targeting based on appearance was scary and continued all week. I suppose it’s cliché to say, but it’s an amazing reminder of what I think it’s like to walk around as an African-American young man…
RAIDING THE LEGAL OFFICE
As I was leaving the conference, I got a text that the legal office was being raided and was calling for observers. By the time I got there, the cops were gone and media cameras were everywhere. The legal office’s location had been kept pretty secret from the general public – you had to be escorted there by someone who was working there – because the consequences of its being raided would be really awful. They were in the same building as I Witness Video, which was filming the convention. At the RNC in NY 4 years ago, I Witness’s footage had proven the innocence of a lot of protesters arrested by NYPD.
The cops showed up at that building because they claimed they had received a phone call from someone in the building being “held hostage by an anarchist”. They didn’t have a warrant and weren’t let in, but the building almost evicted the legal office and they were restricted to having only 8 people in there at a time after that. Given that the phone was ringing off the hook from calls from the street and the jail, there were piles of info from those calls that needed to be entered into the database, and lawyers were operating out of that office to collect statements, challenge the use of force by the cops and work to get folks released, this was a big hinderance.
On Thursday, most of my affinity group left town, including Jonathan and Kari. The cops hadn’t returned most of their property, including Kari’s camera, but they had to leave that place. I agreed and avoided downtown St Paul. It was the last day of the convention and there was a student anti-war protest. Apparently they were a little slow on their march and had reached the end of the time on their permit around 5:00 or so and the cops trapped them on a bridge. My friend who was there said he had never seen so many cops – not this week, not at other protests. There were lines of riot cops, cops on horses, bicycle cops, and then a row or two of National Guard, plus snow plows and dump trucks to block streets. The students sat down on the bridge and the cops used tear gas and concussion grenades and arrested about 400 of them. 400! This included about a dozen journalists, including a Democracy Now! producer who who had been arrested at Monday’s protests as well.
That night, IVAW member Adam Kokesh and two CODEPINKers got into McCain’s speech and interrupted him. The CODEPINKers said it was incredibly easy to get into the convention. There was no way they could’ve gotten into the DNC because the security was so tight, but the RNC was a piece of cake. All three interrupted McCain’s speech and none were arrested.
As of Friday, I believe everyone has been bailed out, many though generous donations from allies.
Overall, about 800 people were arrested this week – after seeing the judge, only about 30 of the 130 felony charges are still standing. There are many civil suits being discussed; I think Amy Goodman and the 30 or 40 or so journalists who were arrested are doing their own suit, and the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild are both planning suits as well. It’s funny to think back on Friday night and how shocking that original raid of the convergence space was. It seemed so outrageous and worthy of its own civil suit all by itself. And then the week began and we realized that was just the beginning.
HOW TO HELP
Donate to the legal support fund for general arrestees and for the lead organizers who are being charged with pretty serious charges. Also donate to the Welcoming Committee for organizing all logistics for the weekend. Links to donate are at www.nornc.org.
Get some media attention! The police brutality was barely covered in the mainstream media, even more liberal outlets such as NPR or the NY Times. Call your local station, write a short letter to the editor, and demand coverage of such extremism.
Also, hug an independent journalist! Check out Democracy Now! and your local Indymedia site for the news the other guys don’t want you to hear, then forward all this info on to any other caring folks you know.
Read Sonia Silbert’s blog here.