Yesterday's meeting of the St. Paul City Council saw the Council Chamber filled with over 150 people, including all of the Council Members, Mayor Chris Coleman, Police Chief John Harrington--and a sizable contingent of dissenting voices. Former United States Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and former Assistant United States Attorney Andy Luger were there with a Powerpoint presentation in hand to outline the conclusions of their review of public safety planning and implementation during the Republican National Convention.
The last time we had sat in this room had been September 24th, 2008, at Council Member Dave Thune's "Community Conversation about the RNC". The friendly face of Minnesota took a heavy beating in my mind during RNC week. If I had turned up to an empty room to see some bored council members and few ranting protesters, I think I'd have got on the next bus that night and headed somewhere less body-snatched.
But the reality of the "Community Conversation" was an incredible release of frustrated steam from across the spectrum. We heard over 30 local residents, business owners, journalists, lawyers, and protesters tell their stories. It was a relief to see the anger of so many people. The atmosphere in the Council Chambers was electric and there were so many people present that there was only a limited amount of standing room left.
We got to see the footage (above) shot by NY-based cop watch group i-Witness video as Minneapolis police officers kicked down the door of the home where they were staying with no legal search warrant and guns drawn.
We saw the already iconic CNN footage (above) of Leah Lane, an 18-year old peaceful protester here from Wisconsin for her first large demonstration against the war, being repeatedly and offensively attacked with pepper spray and struck with bike tires by a gang of policemen.
And you could have heard a pin drop as Elliot Hughes (above) recounted his beating by officers of the Ramsey County jail. Several of Hughes' fellow prisoners witnessed the start of the incident, recounting that over a dozen officers fell on Hughes to beat him in a mob:
The next night at the Ramsey County detention center, Kennedy says he witnessed a brutal beating of a young man named Elliot Hughes after Hughes and others chanted for food all day.
"The guards tackled him, threw him to the ground. I saw him specifically hit his head against the concrete," said Kennedy. "That's when a bunch of guards swarmed him. I didn't see the rest because there were about 13 guards that swarmed him."
Source: Man says police beat, tortured him in jail, Heron Marquez Estrada, Minneapolis Star Tribune (September 4th, 2008)
Yes, the State of Minnesota even managed to bring Abu Ghraib levels of abuse to St. Paul that week. Torture in the capitol of Minnesota under the watch of Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher. When I lived in the Palestinian West Bank and worked at Birzeit University, my work often required that I listen to the torture testimonies of faculty, staff and students. Elliot Hughes, from his body language to the way he haltingly spoke of what was said and done to him in that dark cell, reeked of torture. There was no question in my mind that he was lying or even exaggerating. This was the real deal.
Of course the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department has not handed over any footage to Hughes' lawyer. And this pattern is reflected in Mayor Coleman's own communications. In a January 7th letter sent from his office to a lawyer enquiring about the city's refusal to release 6,000+ hours of CCTV footage from cameras on the streets of St. Paul, Mayor Coleman wrote, "In fact, all of the video in the prosecutors possession, involving arrests from September 1, 2008, has been turned over to defense counsel, as required by the rules of the criminal procedure and court orders." The reality, unanimously-stated by lawyers working on RNC cases, is that not a single minute of footage has been handed over.
The multiple witnesses to the "force" that Bob Fletcher says was used to "control" Elliot Hughes and Hughes' visibly battered face following his experience seem to clearly suggest that it was excessive and unjustified. Jails in which mobs of corrections officers feel free to beat prisoners in front of other prisoners are always the product of a pervasive culture of lawlessness within the institution. There were too many people involved in the incident for it to be an aberation and, sadly, Elliot's was not the only RNC story of brutal mistreatment of youngsters by law enforcement officials.
A week after the Community Conversation, by a unanimous vote, the St. Paul City Council approved the creation of the review body proposed by Mayor Chris Coleman, and titled it the "Republican National Convention Public Safety Planning and Implementation Commission."
People were rightly angry. Was the Commission a step in the right direction? While it was a government commission surely, hoped many, the Commission could not ignore what was plainly wrong to so many people during the week of the Convention, could they? A whitewash of police behavior would lay a shroud of depression over the already-traumatized progressive and activist communities, and a whitewash would alienate a considerable segment of the population from the City's public officials and public servants.
Sitting next to me, Dave Thune's aide, Pat Lindgren snorted with laughter.
"This room seats 250 people", she said, invoking memories of the packed standing-room-only audience at the Community Conversation, "there's a plaque that says so right over there."
Our invisibility would become a theme of the night.
After Dave Thune's "Community Conversation", the RNC Commission organized three other events: an October 31st "business forum" with 12 members of St. Paul's apparently suddenly tiny business community, a November 6th public forum which gave 31 speakers 3 minutes each, and a November 19th "media forum" with just 7 participants. To realize how pathetic this figure was, consider that there were around 60 members of the media arrested during the RNC.
Despite reading and archiving every local media article published since the RNC, I never saw any mention of either the business or media forums. The media forum was actually held after the November 14th deadline for submissions.
Even the "public forum" received only a couple of brief mentions in the press exactly one week before the forum. The Commission's reported $130,000 budget apparently didn't cover any advertising. The forum and deadline for written submissions was only announced on October 31st, one week before the "public meeting" and two weeks before the submissions deadline. There was nothing on the official site of the City of St. Paul even saying that a commission was going on.
Commission Budget: $130,000
Commission Advertising Budget: $0
What can be loosely described as "the progressive and activist community" was the biggest target of alleged police misconduct during the RNC. Any commission that wanted genuine input from this segment would probably not hold a public forum two evenings after a historic presidential election.
This lack of encouragement of public participation was in direct opposition to the list of law enforcement and city official interviews offered in Appendix A of the RNC Commission Report (pp 81-82 of the Main Report). The complete list of individual interviewees tallies as follows:
Rowley also reported that she had spent an hour on the phone talking with him. She doesn't recall Luger telling her that he was recording the conversation and saw no evidence of her input anywhere in the report. She seemed less than pleased that her name was being used.
So, on one hand we have 46 sources from the government and security sector interviewed individually--all of whom bear direct responsibility for what happened during the RNC--and, on the other hand, four lawyers and a citizen activist.
When you look at the Commission's make-up, it's not much better. There's a former assistant Hennepin County Attorney, a former Golden Valley police chief with 30 years in the force, a private investigator with a long law enforcement career history including including intelligence coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, a former mayor of St. Paul, and someone who worked at the Planning and Economic Development Department for the city of St. Paul.
It sure looks a lot like a case of some foxes investigating some other foxes "on behalf of" the chickens.
There will of course be much to say about the narrative of the Commission's report, but the process leading up to its release is important to note and remember.
In the coming days, the RNC '08 Report will offer analysis of the documents submitted by the Republican National Convention Public Safety Planning and Implementation Review Commission. In the meantime, we're still reading and weeping.
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