Art Hughes: Forceful -- and indiscriminate

  • Article by: ART HUGHES
  • Updated: September 9, 2008 - 6:10 PM

Whatcha gonna do when they come for you? Well, you don't have a lot of options.

"Get on the bridge!"

The officer in black riot gear was screaming at me through a gas mask and pointing what I assume was pepper spray at my head. I have covered and read enough about police-citizen interactions to know you should do what police say.

But as I looked toward the Marion Street bridge over Interstate 94 in St. Paul, I saw a thick, blood-red cloud of smoke, and concussion grenades started exploding with head-splitting force in that direction. I decided the officer's command was more like a helpful suggestion, and charted my own course into the open parking lot to the south.

KARE-11 reporter Boyd Huppert emerged from a cloud of blue smoke with a camera tripod over his shoulder and a very worried look on his face. I wanted to tell him he was heading the wrong direction, but with the smoke, the explosions and the swarm of cops, I was only confident that I didn't know which was the right direction.

The confrontation at the Marion Street bridge Thursday night was the climax of an hourslong, moving standoff between protesters and police. The group, smaller than the previous day's demonstrations but still boisterous, stayed past the approved protest permit time and so collectively decided to improvise the schedule. The police, using steel barricades and snowplows, and hundreds of hometown and imported officers wearing those impressively sinister armored suits, were determined to keep the mob on the Capitol side of the highway. By the time I left the convention floor and went to find the protest, it was on the move and determined to make a splash.

After narrowly preventing the protesters from moving out into the westbound lanes of I-94, police finally drew the line when the crowd spilled into the busy traffic of University Avenue. A volley of nonlethal ordnance put the march in retreat down Marion and toward the bridge. But the same bridge that minutes before had been protected by a line of police was now wide open. A few astute marchers deduced, as I did, that the bridge was beckoning to them as a corral calls to a herd of cattle.

I distanced myself further from the main group and was content to do my job -- observe a confrontation between police and hotheaded citizens -- from a reasonable distance. I double-checked that my RNC credentials were prominently displayed around my neck.

That's when the officer ordered me onto the bridge.

It seemed safer to me to put as much open parking lot as possible between me and the protest nucleus. I stopped by a light pole to look back. After a couple of sighs of relief, I heard muffled yelling behind me. The masked, black-suited police were pressing the entire human contents of the parking lot toward the bridge.

A young couple tried to outmaneuver one officer, telling him they were just watching, not participating in the protest. They were met with a blast of pepper spray. A tall, thin man with a sport jacket ran past me at full speed toward the riot police line. He got a full dose of pepper spray to his head. He reversed direction, but kept his speed, leaving a wake of toxic juice. Next I heard the cackle of a Taser gun and saw the electrodes connected to the man's back. He was still running.

I had no choice but to walk toward the corral, sit down and put my hands on my head, as some two dozen masked police were screaming at me to do.

Next to me, a young woman who'd just moved to St. Paul from Roseau was sobbing. She kept asking, "What's going to happen to us?" The police were silent, unless someone unwittingly put his hands down or shifted his weight too abruptly. Then they would start screaming again.

Over the next hour, each of us was frisked, cuffed and perched on a street curb. Next to me was a cabbie who got out of his cab on University to see what the commotion was, only to get caught in the police dragnet. On the other side was a University of Minnesota design instructor still wearing his bike helmet. He was biking on the far side of the parking lot when he was nabbed. Also nearby were a City Pages writer and two student journalists. A cop took a film can from one man and dumped a small amount of marijuana on the street, saying he wouldn't pursue a drug charge. None of us had chanted so much as a single "Peace Now." My attempt to impress upon my captors that I was a journalist was not going to change the course of the night one tiny bit.

After the initial intimidation phase, the officers became exceedingly polite, and, without their black helmets, much more human. They joked with some of the suspects and addressed us all as "sir" and "ma'am" through the painfully slow field-booking process. We all sat on the curb, with hands cuffed behind us, for two hours. Then we each got our pictures taken and were placed on a city bus. Each arrestee had a personal uniformed escort each step of the way.

Along the way to the Ramsey County detention facility, I figured out the game that I had just lost. It doesn't matter if I am guilty of a crime or not. If history was a guide, most of those charged Thursday night would walk away with a clean slate. But by then the sentence was already served. We endured the terror of a police invasion, the humiliation of forced subservience, the frustration of sluggish bureaucracy, and a lost day's wages to set the legal record straight. And in my case, it's all to keep the world safe from a journalist determined just to document what he sees.

Art Hughes is a freelance journalist living in Minneapolis. He is a board member of the Society of Professional Journalists Minnesota Chapter.

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