More than 200 citizens gathered to speak their minds in St. Paul Wednesday night, and I didn't see anyone get gassed, handcuffed or arrested. There was even a hockey game at the Xcel Energy Center. So, great news, everybody: St. Paul is back!
Three weeks after the Republican National Convention packed up and the country's best hockey arena has ice in it again, the city of St. Paul is still wondering what happened. How did a city that loves its police force -- a city where many residents are on a first-name basis with their cops -- wake up on Sept. 1 in a militarized zone where the cops were deployed in military formations, using military tactics, in ways that did not discriminate between the small band of creeps that came to cause trouble and the throngs of peaceful citizens exercising their rights?
There is no answer yet to that question. But last night's unofficial hearing on the issue -- no mayor, no police chief, no city council president -- showed that the issue has not gone away, and isn't likely to. People packed the City Council chamber, most bringing complaints about the way citizens were treated by public servants.
The focus was on the police, but it wasn't the police who were the target of the anger. It was the policymakers, and the policies that led to mass arrests, the use of pepper gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets (an inventory of the ordnance used should be provided, by the way) against peaceful protesters and the tactics of intimidation that went along for the ride.
Mike Whalen, a waiter and activist who has given free Irish dancing lessons for 35 years (he's probably had his arms around every woman in St. Paul), found his house surrounded by heavily armed police the day before the convention started.
Guns drawn, they said they were looking for bombs, but what they really seemed interested in was rousting the documentary photographers from New York who were staying in Whalen's house, and who made themselves unpopular with New York police for documenting abuses during the 2004 GOP convention in New York City.
Whalen and his guests were detained for three hours, and he spent an hour in handcuffs, in his own back yard, wondering how this could happen in the United States. He was not charged or arrested. Nor has he received an apology.
"People have told me for years that this kind of thing happened in Northern Ireland and South Africa, but I never expected it in St. Paul," he said before Wednesday's hearing. "I've always tried to persuade people to move to St. Paul, because the police are nicer. This was totally absurd, for this to happen here."
He is suing the city.
Most people in St. Paul hate criticizing the cops. My friends in blue are not above criticism. But neither were they the real problem. They did what they were told, and as they were told. The problem was not them. It was the policies.
A lot of ink has been shed
More than 800 people were arrested, including dozens of journalists. A lot of ink has been shed about the arrests of journalists, but if you want good pictures of the bang-bang, you might get banged yourself. The trouble isn't that the journalists were treated like citizens. The problem is how citizens -- for whom the press serves as proxy -- were treated.
That was a disgrace, especially when hundreds were arrested the last day of the convention for the crime of over-staying their permit. Which ranks right up with letting your parking meter expire. Write 'em a ticket, Clancy. Case closed.
Instead, they were pushed and chased, with gas, concussion grenades, surrounded and arrested.
"I was shocked," another familiar St. Paulite, Chuck Lentz, told the hearing. "Our city got hijacked, our city leaders, too."
Lentz, a lawyer, plays accordion in a band called the Eddies that shows up all over town at civic events. I bumped into him during the convention at the Coney Island. He was mad then, and still is mad: "The scope of the militarization was staggeringly over the top."
St. Paul cops every day have to sort out the bad guys from the citizenry. They do a good job of it, usually. But during the GOP convention, with everyone from Homeland Security to the RNC organizers pulling the strings and calling some of the shots, the police forgot what city they were in. Either that, or St. Paul was not St. Paul for several days in September.
"St. Paul loves its cops and the people love their city," said Dave Thune, the feisty councilman who called Wednesday's hearing on his own. "That's what made it disturbing. All of a sudden, they came to their city and it was completely different. I don't think it's the cops' fault at all. This whole thing has really been hard on the cops."
Thune, like many people, was stunned by the militarization of the city. He knew that cadres of police in riot gear would be in position, if needed. But he did not expect the overwhelming show of force that seemed intended to make people think twice about opening their yaps in their own town.
Patty Guerrero, a 70-year-old grandmother and well-known peace activist, was given a ride by a friendly St. Paul cop when she fell far behind one convention protest march. But when she gathered with her friends later, she discovered that the faster walkers got a different view of events, and they were angry over what they saw as intimidation of peaceful protesters.
"They were scared that our country is becoming a 'fear' country instead of a free country," Guerrero said. "We can't let the city forget."
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