Wrong place, wrong time, wrong lessons from the RNC

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2008 - 11:44 PM
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Colin Dunn, right, a trained EMT and an Air Force veteran, was one of five medics arrested Sept. 1 in St. Paul. Also in his group: two legal observers and two protesters.

Photo: Olivier Douliery, Abaca Press

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In June 2006, referring to the intentions of Twin Cities boosters to lure either the Democratic or the Republican national convention here in 2008, I wrote:

"Why wait? Let's arrest thousands of people right now, hold them in barbed-wire cages, pay millions in overtime to cops, close off downtown, disrupt transportation (and) strew garbage around the streets."

I'm sorry I was right.

The country is up to its keister in problems. Of course, there was going to be trouble -- whichever party came to town. We survived, but it wasn't pretty.

So it is strange to hear Officialdom, including my brother, the mayor of St. Paul, proclaiming the convention an unqualified success. From many perspectives, yes, it WAS a success. Folks watching TV probably didn't know or care whether they were looking at St. Paul or Sao Paolo, but Minnesota looked good to Minnesotans, and we like that.

But it wasn't a cakewalk.

One thing that was hard to swallow was the militarized statelet in St. Paul, with tactics and security designed for worst-case scenarios that did not materialize. The bulk of the 800-plus arrests were made there.

But average citizens, including the 10,000 law-abiding ones who came out to peacefully protest against the war in Iraq, were not prepared to see St. Paul turned into a No Man's Land where roofs were lined with snipers, streets were lined with legions of cops, security fences channeled citizens like rats and you had to color within the lines or you'd kiss asphalt and visit Bob Fletcher's No Frills Motel.

There is a fine line between preparation and intimidation. The No Go Zone was provocative -- and menacing -- not just to bad actors who wanted trouble. But to citizens who wanted to feel heard -- not greeted with riot clubs, handcuffs and cops on cars with rifles at the ready. Yes, you can blame the out-of-control protesters. But everyone felt chilled.

One person who ended up face-down in his hometown was Colin Dunn, an Air Force vet who served in Afghanistan and a trained EMT who was trying to help preserve the peace.

Dunn, 24, is a 2002 grad of St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall High School. A long time ago, his mother, Jane, ran a cash register in the old Hove's food store in Roseville, while I bagged groceries, courteously and efficiently. Jane called to tell me her son, Colin, was in a photo of arrested "protesters" that appeared on StarTribune.com. She was not happy about it: She had spent the night before sewing red crosses on Colin's shirt, so that it would be obvious that her trained medic son was there to help, not to hinder.

Colin had volunteered to help with the North Star Health Collective, a loose association of community activists (no, Sarah Palin does NOT approve) and health care providers providing medical assistance at the march. Including to the cops: Dunn bandaged up two cops whose bicycles had collided. A few hours later, he was arrested.

While he was helping treat two protesters who had been gassed, Dunn was hit in the back by a baton round -- a crowd-control projectile of a type that has killed demonstrators from Belfast to South Africa. Trying to get out of the way of the cops, Dunn and other medics dragged the injured protesters to a loading dock, where they continued their attempts to treat them. Police -- a SWAT team in military-style camouflage -- followed and arrested Dunn, four other medics, two legal observers and the protesters.

They remained, face down, on the street for hours and were charged with unlawful assembly by a mobile booking team. About 9 p.m., after they were brought to the jail, where they were told medics weren't supposed to be arrested and they were released. The observers were also released. Of the nine arrested, two -- the protesters -- were jailed.

"I can't believe they didn't know we were medics," says Dunn, whose urine was bloody for a few days after his kidney was bruised by the baton round. "I was trying to help keep the peace, and I got kicked in the teeth for it. I'm not a cop, but I had zero problems figuring out who people were. I had heard we were going to try to put on the convention 'the Minnesota way.' But they weren't doing anything 'the Minnesota way.'"

Congress allocated $50 million for security. When you do the math, each arrest cost $61,125. If you just count "good" arrests -- the ones likely to hold up in court -- you may be able to double that number. Did the cops overreact to the Siege on Seventh?

I don't know. But I know it will take more than a debriefing from Police Chief John Harrington -- the only after-action discussion planned by the St. Paul City Council -- to figure out what happened, why and whether it was as good as it should have been.

Medics, journalists, people just trying to get home: A lot of folks were arrested because they were in the wrong place, were trying to do their jobs or trying to help. The cops, too, were doing their jobs. I get that. They mostly did them well. And there is no question they had to be prepared for much worse than they confronted. But it is not much help to anybody to just say everything was great, nothing went wrong, it was all a big success.

No, it wasn't. Not all of it. Before the convention fades, its lessons should be learned.

ncoleman@startribune.com • 612-673-4400

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