On a day when police raids rolled like thunder across Minneapolis and St. Paul, the best place to watch it all was Twitter.
The online short-message service — no more than 140 characters per “tweet” — has become a nonstop bull session for the Twin Cities’ more digitally inclined journalists. But on Saturday, Twitter was the news nexus for the Republican National Convention’s first big local breaking story.
Local protest-rights groups figured out Twitter was ideal for letting folks know where the action was — and wasn’t. Two nimble local news operations — the video site Uptake and Minnesota Independent — spat out piecemeal onsite reports and links to longer-form video and dispatches. MPR’s Bob Collins contributed his own peripatetic reporting and well-honed mainstream-media skepticism. The Pioneer Press dumped its breaking news links into the mix.
By late afternoon — as a half-dozen raids were over or winding down — a well-fed Twitter “follower” would’ve seen far more of the landscape than anyone not at a surveillance camera: live raid video (via iPhone!), on-site detainee interviews, search warrants, press conferences, post-bust interiors, maps, and more.
For a news junkie, it was a feast — but for democracy, it was vital.
Democracy’s raw materials
On some level, it didn’t matter if you thought the raid’s intended target — the “RNC Welcoming Committee” — was a bunch of proto-terrorists who had it coming, or just trash talkers who’d committed no crime. This was police power wielded unapologetically and sweepingly — which any free society must monitor, if it truly gives a damn about civil liberties.
Did the Twitter-connected accounts add up to a full picture? No. With an exception Collins expertly tweaked, activists and their spokesfolk were more willing than police to talk throughout the day — at least until Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher staged a press conference at day’s end, artfully laying out his team’s evidentiary haul.
Local TV was all over Fletcher’s bravura performance, giving lavish air time to the made-for-the-screen event. For any lefty media outlet you might ding for pro-protester sympathies, WCCO’s John Lauritsen treated police at least as credulously in this one-sided report. (Anchor Teri Gruca more or less convicted the group in cringe-worthy post-story chatter.)
A Twitter-user who watched the report knew what Lauritsen left out: that the pro-protester National Lawyers Guild contended buckets of urine and feces were really brown water used for flushing toilets and the temporary urinal of a longtime garage tenant.
Even if you laughed that explanation off as b.s. (the lawyer had no good explanation for the spikey “caltrops” that seemed useful only for puncturing tires), you were a much better-informed judge.
Twitter wasn’t the only game in town; the Star Tribune kicked in solid dispatches, as did MinnPost’s G.R. Anderson. But the dynamism and urgency was found in the collective Twitterfest, which member Albert Maruggi likened to “the police scanner of the 21st Century newsroom.” Some day, perhaps, the police will get the hang of using Twitter, and city pols will use it for more than p.r.
The day’s stars
A couple of specific shoutouts are in order:
First, to The Uptake, which is proving an absolute jewel in the local new-media crown.
The old alt-weekly reporter in me marveled as Noah Kunin and Chuck Olsen bombed around the Twin Cities from raid site to raid site, adrenaline pumping. What was truly fascinating was that I was “watching” their work from my computer, fed directly from their iPhones via a site called qik.com. (Kunin left in a rather funny defense of his “unprofessional” technology.)
The video quality was crummy but just enough, and you were left with the sense that whatever bad guys may have been caught, a whole lot of people who had done nothing spent hours in zip-tie handcuffs. A video of a zip-tied legal observer holding an impromptu press conference in the middle of the street with an officer watching was mesmerizing.
Also, to Minnesota Independent, which flooded the zone with reporters and earned some of big web hits doing it. It was savvy planning by editors Steve Perry and Paul Schmelzer, well executed by reporters such as Molly Priesmeyer, Andy Birkey and Jeff Severns Guntzel.
One of Priesmeyer’s dispatches — on how police can bust down your door in the morning, then threaten to board your home if you don’t fix their damage by 6 p.m. — sent chills down my spine. At this point, the homeowner had been arrested, but not charged, and effectively had her home taken away.
I know the stakes here: this may have prevented horrific violence, or obnoxious inconvenience. But if we’ve learned anything in these days of wartime, it’s that authority can be abused and a free society can’t just accept the praetor’s word.
How to get Twitter
If you’re not familiar with Twitter and want to give it a go, you can sign up here — it’s pretty easy and pretty painless. (Except, as happens too often, the blazingly popular site gets overwhelmed and you see the “fail whale.” Trust me, you’ll see it, and it usually leaves as quickly as it comes.)
The application lives on the web, but you can forward tweets to your phone or email as you see fit.
Since we have several more days of the convention, if you want to stay on top of the raid coverage, you should at least follow these Twitterers — once you’re signed up, just click on these links and hit the “follow” button: