More than 200 people packed City Council chambers in St. Paul Wednesday night to talk about the Republican National Convention and its effects on the community.
Council Member Dave Thune, who called the meeting, said at the outset of the three-hour session there would be no debate, just an opportunity to talk: "Let's all listen to each other," he said, as people crowded the halls outside, watching TVs, taking in the comments.
But as a vocal critic of the convention who also had raised questions about police tactics, Thune came under criticism beforehand during a news conference led by Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who described police conduct as "exemplary" and accused Thune of sympathizing with anarchist demonstrators.
"I think the sheriff is prone to hyperbole," Thune said Wednesday night. "I am no supporter of criminals."
During the forum, speakers ranging from business owners to demonstrators spoke out, with loud applause often punctuating comments decrying police presence and actions. Several people advocated the dropping of all charges against protesters.
Karolyn Kirchgesler, president and CEO of the St. Paul Convention and Visitors Authority, said the city should try to leverage the positives that came with hosting the convention.
Sara Remke, who owns the Black Dog Cafe, agreed with the business group that business was fine during the event. But as a St. Paul resident, she said, she found the police presence during the convention "very distressing."
The convention, held Sept. 1-4 at the Xcel Energy Center, was supposed to put St. Paul on a world stage and let everybody know that the second-largest city in Minnesota could hold its own among top-tier metropolises.
Mayor Chris Coleman said that the event was a success, both from the standpoints of publicity and security. But security has become a major point of contention and criticism. Residents weren't used to seeing cops clad in riot gear and tall black fencing surrounding parts of downtown.
Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland sat through the entire session and took notes. "It is critically important that we hear every single perspective," she said after it ended. The public comments will be included in assessments, she added. Coleman and Police Chief John Harrington were out of town, but Council Members Melvin Carter III, Lee Helgen and Russ Stark did join Thune at the session.
Police tactics decried
Some have criticized police and accused them of making unnecessary arrests, using excessive force and wantonly deploying crowd-control devices. More than 800 people, including dozens of working news media members, were arrested in St. Paul and Minneapolis during the four-day event.
The 818 arrests were less than half of the total made during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. But the Twin Cities arrests far outpaced the numbers recorded during the six other GOP and Democratic conventions held since 1996.
Pre-convention raids also outraged some.
Bruce Nestor, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said Wednesday night that police put on "a massive and overwhelming show of force," claiming that much of it was targeted to suppress political activity.
Many local officials, however, have said police acted appropriately, and the convention went off with few hitches. Another community conversation will be held, Thune said, but it might be part of broader reviews of police plans and actions that are in the works.
On Wednesday afternoon, Fletcher went on the offensive in a 70-minute news conference during which he accused Thune of sympathizing with anarchists and failing to recognize what the sheriff described as extraordinary police work at a time of chaos.
Using maps, photos and video recordings, he broke down the activities of anarchists between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the convention's first day, and he noted how police waited four hours before deploying mobile field force units to challenge them.
"Had they not been confronted at 3 o'clock, and had we gotten into a nighttime environment where they could've destroyed windows under the cover of darkness, much of this town would have been destroyed," Fletcher said.
Covering the walls in the room were the booking sheets of the hundreds of people who were arrested during that first day -- more than 80 percent of whom were from outside of Minnesota, Fletcher noted after the news conference.
Neither the sheriff's office nor the police department had received an Internal Affairs complaint of police misconduct, he added.
Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, who also spoke at the news conference, said that there was significant damage to property, "but in the big picture, it could have been much, much, much worse" and that "minimal force was used."
Neither Titus nor Fletcher spoke Wednesday night.
Thune indicated that he would schedule more listening sessions if there were enough interest, but Fletcher said: "We're not going to be part of any gathering that implies that we should be sympathetic to the anarchists that were bent on destroying St. Paul."
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