September 1, 2008.
"St. Paul is a free country!" cried a resident of Iglehart Avenue, a neighborhood street in St. Paul, Minn., as she watched her next-door neighbor’s house being overtaken by police officers on Saturday afternoon. Just one in a series of house raids over a 24-hour period the weekend before the Republican National Convention, St. Paul police surrounded the private home with weapons drawn, detaining people in the backyard, while journalists, activists and neighbors — including several children — looked on.
Their crime? None whatsoever. No one was trespassing or engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Instead, members of I-Witness Video, a New York-based media watchdog group that records police activity in order to protect civil liberties, were holding an organizing meeting at 949 Iglehart, the home of St. Paul resident Mike Whalen, when armed police officers arrived in the early afternoon and ordered their surrender.
Among them was Eileen Clancy, founder of I-Witness Video, as well as a producer with Democracy Now! DN! host Amy Goodman and her staff had just arrived at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport when they received word that producer Elizabeth Press was in the house and being threatened with arrest.
An urgent alert had been sent by Clancy:
This is Eileen Clancy. … The house where I-Witness Video is staying in St. Paul has been surrounded by police. We have locked all the doors. We have been told that if we leave we will be detained. One of our people who was caught outside is being detained in handcuffs in front of the house. The police say that they are waiting to get a search warrant. More than a dozen police are wielding firearms …
… We are asking the public to contact the office of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman at 651-266-8510 to stop this house arrest, this gross intimidation by police officers, and the detention of media activists and reporters.
By the time we arrived at the 900 block at Iglehart Ave a short while later, the people in the house had been handcuffed and taken out back. Police officers could be seen sitting in unmarked cars, blocking off the residential street, where a growing crowd of observers gathered in front and across the street from the blue house with green columns, straining to get a glimpse of what was happening.
With two officers flanking the entrance of the house, it was hard to see anything — but moments later, a woman emerged from the house next door. "You guys go in my backyard," she called out. "They’re handcuffed back here!" With that, the crowd rushed around to the back, where over a short chain-link fence they spotted the handcuffed group, seated and surrounded by stoic police in sunglasses.
"These are nice people," the neighbor admonished the cops. "These are good people."
Sitting with her hands behind her back, Clancy spoke calmly and deliberately as she described what had happened and answered questions from people on the other side of the fence. Someone asked whether they had been read their Miranda rights. "NO!" yelled one of the detainees.
As Press would later explain, a pair of police officers had actually shown up at the house earlier that day, at 11 in the morning, asking about the owner of the house. One of them identified himself as being with the FBI. "I think that was them just checking out the scene at the house," said Press, who videotaped the officers coming to the door. They claimed to want to question a former resident about an action that had occurred a few months earlier. "We’re not here from the convention," one officer said. Nervous I-Witness members didn’t know what to make of it — "We were like, this is f-d up let’s get out of here," recalled Press — but they chose to finish their meeting anyway. It was only when they were getting ready to leave that the police showed up, some 20 officers this time, with guns drawn.
Sara Coffey of the National Lawyers Guild had just left the house and was immediately handcuffed. But, as described in Clancy’s alert, Press and the rest of the people in the duplex refused to let the police in because they did not have a warrant. However, at around 3:00 p.m., a warrant materialized for the adjacent space, apartment 951. "They entered through 951, detained everyone in that apartment, including the owner," recalled Press, "… and then broke into 949 through the attic." The police entered with their guns drawn, ordered everyone’s hands up and handcuffed them.
Their belongings were confiscated and searched, and the group was assembled in the backyard. But soon after the crowd gathered with video cameras and legal observers, including an attorney for Mike Whalen — and after Amy Goodman jumped the fence to interview people and ask the cops why they were holding nonviolent people who had done nothing wrong — they were released.
Unlike the preceding raids, including one targeting the convergence space of the RNC Welcoming Committee — an anarchist group dubiously described by Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher as "a criminal enterprise … intent on committing criminal acts" — the raid on the I-Witness house was specifically designed to target media activists whose mission is to hold police officers responsible for abusing their authority. I-Witness Video was instrumental in documenting police abuse during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, during which some 1,800 people were arrested. Working in cooperation with the National Lawyers Guild, I-Witness Video led to the dismissal of charges or the acquittal of some 400 protesters. This summer, New York City authorities subpoenaed I-Witness Video for tapes from the protests. In an interview with Democracy Now! on Aug. 1, Clancy discussed the group’s plans for the political conventions.
We’re going to bring a crew to both presidential conventions. It’s pretty exciting. I mean, one of the reasons we’re very interested in covering the conventions is (not) because we want … bad things to happen, but because the focus of the federal government, the law enforcement agencies and all that is very keenly directed at demonstrators. And when you cover these events completely, you’re able to see the patterns. The patterns emerge.
"I-Witness definitely does document things like police brutality and policing in general during situations of conflict," I-Witness member Emily Foreman, one of three members who managed to leave the house only to be followed by police and pulled over on their bikes, told a reporter with The Uptake after the raid, noting that that could make the group a target, "not because of anything illegal but because of our interest in upholding the law."
Nevertheless, the list of items police were looking for would suggest the activists were nothing short of terror suspects. "Packages and contents, firearms and ammunition, holsters, cleaning equipment for firearms, (and) weapons devices" were included in the warrant read by Whalen, who spoke to reporters shortly after his handcuffs were removed. Asked what connection he had to the I-Witness Video activists, he replied, "no connection," adding, "People needed a place to stay, and I support the work they do."
Series of Raids
All told, six raids took place in St. Paul in 24 hours, resulting in six arrests. (Read about the other raids here.) On Sunday, the Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild sent out a press release announcing that it is "seeking prompt judicial review" of the "preventative detentions" of the six people arrested, all of whom remain on "probable cause holds" in the Ramsey County Jail. According to the press release: "In Minnesota, a probable cause hold can be ordered by a police officer without a prosecutor or a judge reviewing a criminal complaint. Due to the arrest occurring on a weekend holiday, all six citizens can be held until Wednesday, September 3, 2008, without the filing of a formal charge."
The extent of the federal involvement in the raids is not entirely clear. Although they were reportedly spearheaded by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office, St. Paul Police coordinated them with the FBI. Furthermore, according to the Star Tribune, the raids were "aided by informants planted in protest groups." Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald reminded readers on Sunday, the Minneapolis Joint Terrorist Task Force spent months recruiting people to spy on activist groups planning to protest the RNC. On May 21, the Minneapolis City Pages ran a bizarre but chilling story titled "Moles Wanted," about the recruitment efforts by the task force — specifically, attempts to enlist people to "attend ‘vegan potlucks’ throughout the Twin Cities and rub shoulders with RNC protesters" in a mission to "investigate terrorist acts carried out by groups or organizations which fall within the definition of terrorist groups as set forth in the current United States Attorney General Guidelines."
"This is all part of a larger government effort to quell political dissent," attorney Jordan Kushner, told the City Pages at the time. "The Joint Terrorism Task Force is another example of using the buzzword ‘terrorism’ as a basis to clamp down on people’s freedoms and push forward a more authoritarian government."
With most of the subjects of the raids eventually released, the consensus among activists at the RNC in the wake of the raids is that the police actions are mainly meant to stop protests, lawful or not, before they start. "I think what they’re doing is trying to intimidate people," said Press. But even as the GOP plans to scale back its convention activities in the face of Hurricane Gustav, with multiple protests scheduled for the week, the actions of the police do not seem to be doing much to dissuade people from going forward with their plans.
The next day, a group of peaceful marchers organized by Veterans for Peace headed downtown. With armed police officers far outnumbering protesters, several marchers were discussing the raids. "It’s intimidation, absolutely," VFP member Leah Bolger said. "People are harassed to no end." Although veterans groups were not among the targeted organizations, word of the raids had spread quickly among the demonstrators. "I started this work as part of the peace movement," said Bolger, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy. "But more and more it’s about civil rights. … When I hear about the raids, it’s just really upsetting and frightening," she said. But not necessarily surprising. In this era of the supposed "war on terror," she said, Americans have become used to trading civil rights for a perceived safety. "They’re willing to throw away their civil liberties."
Sad but true.