Baghdad on the Mississippi
By Ray McGovern
Ten days ago, as the nation focused attention on the
hurricane nearing the Mississippi delta, another storm was brewing far upstream
in St. Paul, Minnesota—a storm far more dangerous, it turned out, but one by
and large overlooked by the Fawning Corporate Media
When I flew into St. Paul on Saturday evening, August 30, I
encountered a din in local media about “preemptive strikes” on those already
congregating there to demonstrate against the Iraq war and injustice against
the poor in our country. St. Paul’s Pioneer Press expressed surprise that
“despite preemptive police searches” and arrests, a group calling itself “the
RNC Welcoming Committee” was still intent on “disrupting the convention.”
A headline screamed, “Preemptive Arrests of Protesters in
Twin Cities.” But it was the article’s
lead that hit home: “Borrowing from the
Bush administration’s ‘preemptive war’ playbook, police agencies in the Twin
Cities have made ‘preemptive strikes’ against organizations planning to protest
at the Republican National Convention.”
In the following days I was to see, up close and personal, a
massive and totally unnecessary display of ruthlessness.
What struck a bell was that this domestic application of the
dubious doctrine of “preemption” was totally predictable—indeed, predicted by
those courageous enough to speak out before the U.S. “preemptive” attack on
Iraq. Ironically, it was FBI Special
Agent Coleen Rowley, living in the St. Paul area, who warned of precisely that
in her hard-hitting letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller three weeks before
the attack on Iraq. [[[ http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0306-07.htm
Text of Feb. 26, 2003 Letter, published March 6, 2003 in NY Times
Confronting Mueller on a number of key issues (like “What is
the FBI’s evidence with respect to the claimed connection between al-Qaeda and
Iraq?”), Rowley warned of the trickle-down effect of “the administration’s new
policy of ‘preemptive strikes’”:
“I believe it would be prudent to be on guard against the possibility
that the looser ‘preemptive strike’ rationale being applied to situations
abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude on the
part of law enforcement officers in this country.”
Rowley called Mueller’s attention to the abuses of civil
rights that had already occurred since 9/11, and pointedly warned “particular
vigilance may be required to head off undue pressure (including subtle
encouragement) to detain or ‘round up’ suspects.”
Transforming the Police
While in St. Paul, I got in touch with Rowley, who has been
politically active in the Twin City area, and asked for her reaction to St.
Paul’s version of preemption. This was
hardly her first chance to say I-told-you-so, but she called no attention to
her right-on prophesy five and a half years ago.
Shaking her head, Rowley simply bemoaned how easily the
artificial stoking of fear had succeeded in causing the “otherwise wonderful
community police officers of St. Paul to turn on their own peaceful citizens
(the surreal insanity we witnessed during the RNC).” She added that, once the Feds, the fusion
centers, the contractors get into the act, “all the rules go up in smoke.”
The “preemption” began on Friday, August 29, well before the
RNC began on Sept. 1.
An academic doing research on social movement organizations,
who for several months has been observing the main protesters—the RNC Welcoming
Committee, the Coalition to March on the RNC and End the War, and the Poor
People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign—provided this account:
“On Friday evening the space in St. Paul that was being rented by the
Welcoming Committee was raided by riot police, who knocked in the door with
automatic weapons drawn, forced the 60-70 activists inside onto the floor,
handcuffed them, then proceeded to confiscate all the banner-making supplies
and movement literature.
“Over the course of several hours the cops interrogated, photographed,
ran warrant checks, and eventually, released everyone one by one. Then they closed down the space for a code
violation. The next morning a city code
inspector arrived and found no basis for closing the space.
“Saturday morning was one of escalation and terror. The Ramsey County Sheriff Department,
together with the St. Paul police, Homeland Security, and the FBI raided four
private houses. At 8:00 AM, dozens of
cops in SWAT gear broke down the door of one house where about a dozen activists
were staying. They were awakened with
rifle barrels in their faces and forced to lie face down for more than an hour.
“The cops stole all the computers and other electronic devices in the
house, and core members of the Welcoming Committee sleeping there were
arrested. It being a holiday weekend,
those arrested for alleged crimes could not arrive in court until Wednesday, at
the earliest. Thus, those trying to
organize demonstrations will be in jail for the entire time the RNC is going
on. Four other houses were raided and
dozens of activists were detained.”
The academic who wrote the report appealed to those
concerned over “this enormous police over-kill” to contact the Twin Cities’
mayors and demand an end to the “witch hunt.”
He added, “The people who were arrested were some of the gentlest, most
dedicated activists I’ve ever met.” A
far cry from the “criminal enterprise” described by notorious Ramsey County
Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
Nanette Echols, a resident of St. Paul who had been
extending hospitality to the visiting protesters, insisted they had done
nothing wrong. “In the place they raided
on Friday night they were showing documentary movies to twenty-somethings in a
clean, alcohol-free zone after dinner,” she said.
Caving In to the Feds
The St. Paul
City Council? Only one member had the
courage to speak out—Councilman Dave Thune, who was particularly enraged that
Sheriff Fletcher took action within St. Paul city limits:
“This is not the way to start things off…I’m really ticked off…the city
is perfectly capable of taking care of such things…This is all about free
speech. It’s what my father fought for
in the war. To me this smacks of
preemptive strike against free speech.”
Thune objected in particular to Fletcher’s deputies using battering
rams to knock down doors, then entering with guns drawn, and forcing people to
the ground, as they did on Friday night.
This was the unsettling backdrop as I flew into St. Paul on
Saturday evening, to speak at the Masses at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on
On Monday, I joined some 10,000 on a peaceful march from the
Capitol to the Berlin wall of fences and the “organs of public safety” arrayed
before the RNC convention hall. On the
fringes there was some property damage and further arrests. What violence there was bore the earmarks of
provocation by the likes of Sheriff Fletcher and his Homeland Security, FBI,
and, according to one well-sourced report, Blackwater buddies.
That’s right. Agent
Primary targets of the repression were the alternative
media, including any and all those who might have a camera to record the
brutality—as was successfully done at the RNC in New York four years ago. The manner in which Amy Goodman and the two
producers of “Democracy Now!” were deliberately mistreated was clearly aimed to
serve as a warning that the rules had indeed gone up in smoke—the First
Amendment be damned.
Tuesday evening, after speaking at the “Free Speech Zone,” a
fenced-off area surrounded by the organs of public safety, I joined the Poor
People’s march up to the fences before the RNC.
I observed no violence at all; yet, the police/FBI/national guard/and
who-knows-who-else decided they needed to clear the streets. My friends and I narrowly escaped being
tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, or worse.
It was an overwhelming show of force—not to protect, but to intimidate.
After speaking at a conference at Concordia University in
St. Paul on Wednesday, I was more eager to watch the Republican
vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, deliver her acceptance speech than to
risk the tear gas and pepper spray.
The way she dissed community organizers was hard to
take. But that would pale in
significance, so to speak, compared to the way the governor of Alaska proceeded
to ridicule the notion of reading people their rights. I had thought that despite the distance
between Alaska and Washington, the reach of the U.S. Constitution and statutes
extended that far.
Friends tell me I should not have been surprised. But, really!
After the widespread kidnapping, torture, indefinite imprisonment, and
our cowardly Congress’ empowerment of the president to imprison sine die anyone he might designate an
“enemy combatant”—after all that...well, it seems to me that reading a person
his/her rights takes on more, not less, importance.
Not to mention the massive repression then under way right
outside the convention hall.
It was, it is, a scary juxtaposition. The following day Col. Ann Wright, other
members of Code Pink, and I went to the jail to offer support to the young
people who had been brutalized and then released. They had not been read their rights. Many were camped out on the sidewalk,
refusing to leave until their friends still inside were also released.
Out of the jail came Jason, a well-built young man of about
twenty years, who needed help in walking.
We talked to Jason a while, and he showed us the seven, yes seven, taser
wounds on his body. One, on his left
buttock, had released considerable blood, creating a large stain on the seat of
The young protesters had some success in exposing
infiltrators in their ranks. During
confrontations, members of the Welcoming Committee, in particular, took copious
photos of law enforcement officers and then memorized the faces. This tactic worked like a charm in one of the
St. Paul parks, when a man who looked like a protester—dark clothes, backpack,
a bit disheveled—walked by.
One of the protesters recognized the man’s face and searched
through her camera until she found a photo of the man actually performing the
raid on the Welcoming Committee’s headquarters on Friday night. The young protesters asked the man, and two
associates, to leave the park, at which point the three hustled into a nearby
The license plate, observed by a Pioneer Press reporter, traced back to the detective unit of the
Hennepin County sheriff’s office, according to the county’s Central Mobile Equipment
Protesters later drove two other men out of the day’s
planned march—one because he was wearing brand-new tennis shoes. The two left without indicating whether they
were with the organs of public safety.
So there is hope.
Young people are smarter than old ones.
It is a safe bet that in the coming weeks lots of unwelcome photos will
be exposing various agents provocateurs, including over-the-hill flat-feet in
unmarked cars, as well as young Republicans with unmarked tennis shoes. If those are the kind of “sources” upon which
the police, FBI, etc. have been relying…well, that would be like having Shia
reporting on Sunni, or vice versa.
The organs of public safety are probably not quite so dumb
as to be unaware that one cannot expect valid “intelligence” from such
amateurish antics. More likely, the
attitude is that any kind of “intelligence” will do for the purposes of local
law enforcement and timid public officials cowed by the Feds.
Ray McGovern works
with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour
in inner-city Washington. He is also with Veteran Intelligence Professionals
for Sanity (VIPS), as are Coleen Rowley and Ann Wright.
The original version
of this article appeared on Consortiumnews.com.