Monday, September 15, 2008

[Video] Violent Police Deny Free Speech at the RNC

The following describes my experience as a protester being mistreated by the St. Paul police during the RNC. My name is Jodin Morey, and I'm a Cofounder of Impeach for Peace.The police abuse I'll describe includes the use of concussion grenades, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and batons.

I joined the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign in a march from Mears Park On September 2, 2008 at 4 p.m. Having heard that some peaceful protesters had been arrested the day before, I was concerned about joining this march. I had been the one to reserve a one-hour slot on the protest stage at 1 p.m. on the following day. National speakers had come from around the country (Ray McGovern, John Nichols and Debra Sweet from the World Can't Wait). The St. Paul Park and Rec. had made it clear the stage would only be available if I were physically present with my driver’s license at the time reserved. I therefore had decided to join the march with the idea of being extremely cautious to avoid any interactions with the police that could result in my arrest.

I was dressed as a Guantanamo Bay detainee to protest the denial of habeas corpus as a human right. There were speeches that went on for a very long time. The organizers spoke about human rights and the need for housing, education, and health care. There was a scuffle between the police and some of the protesters during these speeches, but I was not in a location to see what occurred.

Before we began the march, the main organizer had each of us raise our right hands and repeat after her that we would behave peacefully and non-violently. She also stressed that this was important because there were children in the march, and some of them were hers. I saw the organizers intercept some people wearing black bandanas over their faces and black clothing and told them they were welcome to join the march but only if they promised to be peaceful and non-violent. They told the leaders of the march that they were going to be peaceful.

The march then began, and it was extremely long. It felt as if it were about a five-mile march. All along the march we were shouting slogans like, “Stop the war on the poor,” “If they say cut back, we say fight back,” and others. We went by the St. Paul Capitol where we stopped and invited people who were rallying there to join us. (I found out later that these people were gathered to listen to the band Rage against the Machine). We then continued to the Xcel Energy Center. The march came to a halt in free speech zone just outside the Xcel Energy Center. For those of you unaware, the free speech zone consists of a tall fence separating the public from the Xcel Energy Center in front of which is a buffer zone populated by riot police in front of which is another high fence.

Next, the lead organizer got on the shoulders of another marcher and through a bullhorn announced to the protesters that she was going to deliver a citizen’s arrest to the doors of the Xcel Energy Center for crimes against humanity. She made us raise our right hands again and promise that we would stay right where we were and to be peaceful. Everyone I could see raised their hands and repeated the promise back to her. Then she went to the free speech gate that separated us from the front doors of the Xcel Energy Center. She spoke through her bullhorn to the nearest police officer, who was dressed in riot gear.

She told that officer that she wanted to deliver a message to the people at the RNC. She told the officer she was not violent. She expressed that she did not want him to shoot or taze her. She expressed that she wanted to deliver her message to the delegates and was looking for his help in doing that. She suggested to the officer that he could deliver the citizen’s arrest, or that he could escort her to the RNC, or that he could bring someone from the RNC to receive the arrest warrant from her. But, of course, the police officer on the other side of the gate refused to respond at all, and she settled on just placing her message through the gate and asking the officer to have someone come and get it. She informed the officer that it was only a piece of paper and an American Flag so that the officer wouldn’t confuse her actions as anything but peaceful. Prior to sliding the citizen’s arrest through the gate, she asked the police officer if it was ok that she slide the message through the fence, but he did not respond. She delivered the citizen’s arrest and then she left the gate and the march was apparently over at that point.

People started to disperse. As the march had been long, many people were tired. At least 100 people remained in the free speech zone to rest and hang out. Nearly everyone sat down and quietly chatted amongst themselves. I sat down with them, took out my cell phone, and made a couple of calls. I removed my Guantanamo Bay hood at this point and left it off for the rest of the evening. I was sitting with my back against the free speech zone fence along west 5th Street. Then the person next to me borrowed my cell phone and made a call. We were not protesting or being rowdy, nor were we waving any signs or banging on the fence.

About 15 minutes after we sat down, we saw police gathering outside one end of the free speech zone (near the corner of west 6th Street and Main). The riot police opened the gates, came in, and started marching towards us in a line. Some protesters who had been closer to the police officers when they entered the free speech zone called back to the rest of us. They informed us of the officers’ message that we were engaged in an unlawful assembly. However, I only learned this through word of mouth. The officers did not announce it over a bullhorn. I found their accusation odd because we were in a free speech zone that the city had specifically set up so that we could gather to protest the RNC.

I took a picture of the police line-up. As the police came toward us I asked the officers closest to me why they were pushing us out of the free speech zone. While I was asking them this, they were shoving their batons forward in unison and shouting, “Move, move, move!” I was backing up as they were asking us to do. I told them I was moving but was curious how this could be an unlawful assembly since this cage was set up specifically for protesting the RNC. I also made the point that we had been behaving peacefully. They refused to answer me except to say, “It’s an unlawful assembly.” I kept questioning them, “By what criteria did you determine this to be an unlawful assembly?” They would not answer me. I kept moving.

I took a picture of an interaction between the riot police and some people (I believe they were with Code Pink.) They had a bicycle that was chained to a tree, and they were attempting to free it. The police were attempting to stop them by shoving at them with their batons. The bicyclists did eventually free their bikes and rode away. A protester next to me suddenly was pepper sprayed. I did not see them do anything aggressive. They were close to a police officer, but I wasn’t watching at the moment just prior to the spraying. I took a picture of him being helped by the other protesters to decontaminate his eyes.

We then heard loud explosions occurring behind us, which drew our attention. Many of us continued backing up down 7th Street towards St. Peter as directed by the police, which was where the explosions were taking place. As we approached St. Peter (near Mickey’s Diner), we were met by more riot police who had their guns trained on us. That caused me to stop in my tracks and raise my hands above my head. Those around me then saw what appeared to be the concussion grenades detonating at the northwest corner of 7th Street and St. Peter. Upon exploding, the grenades were ear piercing, released a lot of smoke, and produced light flashes. I was not sure why they were setting off the grenades. We were trapped at this point, between two rows of riot police. Protesters in the crowd were expressing concerns over which way we were supposed to go. After a short while, the police officers moved allowing a small space to open at the northwest corner of the intersection (near where the grenades had been detonated). One police officer approached us and pointed towards the opening and indicated that we could either leave in that direction or be arrested. I (and many others) very quickly obliged and walked through the opening, not wishing to get arrested.

Given how the police officer directed me, I was under the impression that I was in an appropriate place. I started to slowly wander away in the general direction that the police officer had originally directed me. At this point, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, Michael Cavlan passed by me, also heading north. He asked if I was ok, and we exchanged disbelief at how the police were behaving. I also got out my cell phone to let my friends, who might be worried about me, know that I was ok. I feared that if they’d heard about this incident in the news, they’d be worried.

I called one of my friends and was talking to them when all of the sudden I heard bullets firing from behind me where the police were lined up. I also heard ricocheting around me, letting me know that they were firing towards me. At this point instinct kicked in, and I started running out of fear. I informed my friend who still on the phone with me that I had to go because I was being shot at. I left the cell phone connected to my friend as I ran so that they could be a witness if necessary. A few seconds after I started running I felt an impact on the left side of my back. It felt like someone had punched me. I did not stop to check how I was because I was still trying to get away. Then I saw in front of me another line of riot police who ordered me to get on the ground.

I dove to the ground on the west sidewalk of St. Peter somewhere between West 7th and Exchange Street. Several police barked an order not to move, while pointing their weapons at me. I let go of my cell phone and Guantanamo hood so that they would not mistake them for weapons and placed my hands beside me on the sidewalk. I said, “I am not moving, I am not moving.” I lay there for a little while and then I heard someone walk up beside me. I then heard what sounded like a camera shutter going off a few times before that person wandered off again. I believe that it must have been a police officer taking my picture, as the reporters were not being treated any differently from the protesters. If there had been a reporter around me when the bullets were fired, I believe they would not have been able to freely move in the area with out the police addressing them.

A few moments later, an officer in riot gear approached me and told me I could get up. As I got to my feet, the officer asked me if I was ok. I replied, “I don’t know.” I obviously had not checked my back yet, as I was not able to move while on the ground. I also was not sure if shock had caused me to underestimate the possible damage to my back. But the officer must not have been terribly concerned about my well-being because he told me to continue north on St. Peter without checking out my back. I believe they must of known they shot me. The reason I say this is because they ordered me to the ground, took a picture of me, and asked me how I was. After asking me how I was, however, he showed in his response a clear lack of concern for my well-being. The only other motive I can ascribe to his having asked me how I was is a possible desire to relieve themselves of liability for having injured me with the hope that I would say I was okay When I did not say I was okay, he did not choose to continue the conversation, perhaps because he did not want to open up the conversation to my having been hurt.

I asked if I could pick up my cell phone, not realizing he had already picked it up. He held it out and said he didn’t know if it is was mine. I also asked if I could “get my hat” (Guantanamo hood) but he said he also did not know if that was mine so I did not pursue it further. The police were extremely intimidating with their guns pointed at me and barking out orders. I felt that if I engaged in any type of conversation with them, I was risking being maced or having them hit me with their batons. So, instead of getting badge numbers or inquiring into how I’d later obtain my stuff, I abandoned my things and walked north with my hands above my head. Reporters were videotaping my walk and had possibly been recording my interactions with the police.

I arrived at an intersection where the protesters and reporters were gathered at the location (around 10th Street) that seemed consistent with where the policed wanted us to be. Once there I checked my back by just touching it and seeing if it hurt. From what I could tell, I didn’t seem seriously hurt. I asked a reporter to borrow her cell phone so I could let my friend know that I was safe. I assumed that they were pretty worried about me after my previous phone call.

After I got of the phone, within a minute or two, once again I heard a ruckus and everyone started to run away from the spot closest to the police towards the north again. The police apparently again were trying to move us by the use of tear gas or pepper spray without first giving us an audible warning. I did not stick around in an attempt to find out exactly what was happening. Instead I tried to get out of the area once again by heading north. When I reached 11th Street, I turned the corner to the east and removed my Guantanamo Bay jumpsuit. I did this in case the police had any residual negative feelings about me and might associate it with the suit. Then, as I continued eastward, I saw another line of officers and therefore asked someone near me if it was safe to head in that direction. The person indicated that the police were rounding people up and that it as not safe to go that way. I backtracked to St. Peter and attempted to cross the bridge over 94 to the north. Once I was clearly away from all the activity, I checked my back more thoroughly and saw that I had a red spot where the bullet had hit. It was obvious at this point that the bullet had been some non-lethal version (rubber bullet). Luckily, I was then able to get to my car and drive home.

I’m still unsure how citizens were supposed to express their free speech during the RNC if not in the free speech zone set up by the city. I’m also not sure how someone in the U.S. is supposed to avoid police brutality if the police aren’t expected to give individuals who they are about to abuse, fair warning of how to avoid that abuse by following whatever directives they feel are necessary. I am in talks with the ACLU, however. They have preliminarily agreed to work with me on a lawsuit.

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