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Police and protesters at RNC: Minneapolis struggles with plan

With the Republican National Convention coming to St. Paul in September, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution dealing with police practices and protesters.

It seems like a distant memory, but eight years ago Minneapolis city leaders and the Minneapolis Police Department were grappling with an influx of young protesters — some local and some from far-flung places — who were in town to march against the International Society for Animal Genetics conference. The prevailing winds that summer said it was wise to avoid the violence and spectacle of the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle the previous fall.

That sentiment didn’t carry over onto the streets, however, as protesters and cops alike engaged in some rather sketchy and brutish behavior; even some police officers at the time weren’t sure the MPD performed the best policing practices. Undercover officers joined protests and made arrests, some protest groups were arrested and detained with little reason, pepper spray was used liberally. And some activists felt that their cause was undermined by the dreadlocked anarchy set. Goading of the police was all too frequent.

Recalling those quaint times, it’s hard to remember exactly what all the fuss was about, given all that’s happened since the summer of 2000, but in the moment folks were vexed enough that the Minneapolis City Council detailed a number of new policing practices in November 2000 that set out to curb the destruction on both sides of the protest line.

A Nov. 22, 2000, document details recommendations from the council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, including “no restricting access to public space without constitutional, reasonable cause,” “no use of pepper spray, tear gas or similar substances except in situations justifying use of force,” “no use of plastic bullets” and “no confiscation of videotapes, film and other recording materials.”

But on June 6 of this year, the committee came up with a new list of recommendations to give direction to the MPD while the Republican Nation Convention is in town come Sept. 1. On June 20, the full council passed a resolution that on its face seems to further limit what the police can do with anticipated protesters, with one exception: Tagged to the end of the resolution, item 24 says: “This Resolution shall supersede the action of the City council on November 22, 2000, adopting a Policy Regarding Police Conduct at Political Demonstrations.”

This has some activist groups up in arms, like the group Communities United Against Police Brutality, who point to two key omissions in the current resolution: No talk of restricting use of plastic or rubber bullets, and nothing restricting confiscation of video cameras.

Council member Cam Gordon (Second Ward) proposed an amendment at the June 20 meeting that sought to restore some of the items from the 2000 directive that were left out of the resolution passed last month. Today at 1 p.m., the public safety committee will discuss Gordon’s amendment.

“I think were’ going to get something done, though not as much as people hope,” Gordon said Tuesday. “We’ll get something.”

Original directive unclear
To hear Gordon tell it, many of his colleagues on the council thought the 2000 directive was unclear; in fact the proposal never officially became a city resolution or ordinance.

“It was messy,” Gordon said of the 2000 proposal, adding that it wasn’t certain whether the directive carried any authoritative or legal parameters. “There were some good things in it, but it just wasn’t very good work.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by council President Barb Johnson, who added the item about the current proposal superseding the old directive. “We needed significant clarifications about how police should act,” Johnson said Monday. “We needed to clear up what we have.”

For months the council and community activists have been struggling with what police should do if large numbers of protestrrs come to Minneapolis during the RNC — a big “if” given that most of the action will be in St. Paul. The resolution passed on June 20 was the outgrowth of several council meetings and something called the Free Speech Working Group, which was intended to have activists and city leaders hash out an agreement over presumed protests.

And the June 20 resolution does have some points that appear to favor protesters, seeking to curb when the MPD can “disperse” any “participants in a public assembly,” suggesting that the MPD make a video of when people are told to disperse, and directing that police “implement a method for enhancing the visibility to the public of the name or badge number of officers policing a planned public assembly.”

All good ideas, according to Gordon, but with mixed results. “I wasn’t necessarily opposed to this superseding the old directive,” he said. “But some of it is about taking the wrong protections and sending the wrong message. I think we sent the wrong message.”

The plastic bullets debate
The main part of the wrong message is that the current resolution allows for the MPD to confiscate recording devices, something that Johnson said, on the advice of the city attorney’s office, would inhibit routine police work because sometimes cameras are needed to investigate a crime. More importantly, the current resolution allows for the use of plastic or rubber bullets, even though the MPD doesn’t use them.

Still, Johnson said, Minneapolis police officers do have non-lethal weapons in their arsenal that could be considered as such, and the city attorney advised avoiding using that language in any kind of council directive to the MPD.

“I think that was of concern,” Johnson said, regarding the city’s liability on the issue. “Police do have, and I’m not using the right terms, some form of projectiles in their basket. There should be policies in place, but the council is giving direction to the police here. It can’t be overkill.”

Both Johnson and Gordon are like everyone else in one regard: No one seems to know how many, if any, large groups of protesters will make it to the City of Lakes. But no one wants to take any chances either.

Gordon, the council’s lone Green Party member, considers himself a peace and justice guy, but even he knows the sentiment on the council is “a tendency to not have things clearly defined.” (The council passed the resolution, written by council members Paul Ostrow, Gary Schiff and Ralph Remington, by a 10 to 2 vote. Gordon and Sandra Colvin Roy were the two dissenters.)

“We should be ready for the police to be tested, and some protesters stirring things up,” Gordon said. “Hopefully we can keep it calm so no one gets hurt.”

Was the resolution designed to loosen restrictions on the MPD? “I don’t know,” Gordon said. “It’s hard to know where this is coming from. I know the 2000 resolution wasn’t popular; Barb wasn’t for it, so maybe this is an old dispute.”

But Gordon believes that some of his eight-point amendment will at least pass out of committee today. “I’m hopeful about some things in the final policy that are there for legitimate public safety concerns,” Gordon said. “But I’ll compromise rather than sticking in my heels and probably losing.”

Update from public safety committee meeting

Compromise is exactly what Gordon, by all accounts, offered shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your point of view.
Gordon circulated his proposed amendments to Resolution 2008R-248, “Adopting police policies regarding public assemblies,” which passed June 20.
“We added a bit of a preamble,” Gordon offered, and just three items down from the eight he originally sought as amendments. The preamble puffs up the “command structure” of the MPD, but “wishes to clearly enunciate police policies for such assemblies.”
Then the three items tacked onto the end read:
* That MPD presence at public assemblies will be based on legitimate public safety concerns and not be based upon intent to chill First Amendment rights.

* In concurrence with state law, and city ordinance, MPD officers will not use pepper spray, tear gas, or similar substances, or projectiles except in situations where use of force is reasonable.

* That MPD officers shall not confiscate, destroy or tamper with cameras or other recording devices being used to document public assembly activities or MPD enforcement actions. This shall not apply to situations in which a) cameras or recording devices are to be used as evidence, or b) MPD officers arrest an individual in possession of cameras of recording devices.
The amendments were so toothless that Paul Ostrow, who has largely been sympathetic to the police on all matters RNC, cooed his approval. Ostrow drew an audible snort from the 15 or so protesters assembled who held up photos of one woman who was injured by rubber bullets from a department in another city.
“Our police department should be proud of the way they’ve handled protests,” Ostrow said by way of supporting the amendments, apparently forgetting ISAG in 2000 or the incident involving Critical Mass bikers late last summer.
The five public safety committee members present for the voice vote all said “aye,” and the motion carried. It now goes before the full council July 25.
Outside the council chambers, not everyone was a thrilled as Ostrow. “I think it’s crap,” said Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality. “It specifically doesn’t ban rubber bullets. What this means is that they’re probably getting federal money and can’t wait to try them out.”
Gross, who considers Gordon an ally on police issues–at least she used to–dismissed Gordon’s efforts entirely, saying the only option left on the bullet controversy was to try to get people to come to the full council meeting.
“This is something fluffy to throw out to the community,” she said. “But [Gordon] has screwed this community. I don’t think I’ve been this mad at Cam. I’m pissed.”

And in other protest news…

News that U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen sided with the city of St. Paul Wednesday in regards to the Republican National Convention protest march didn’t sit well, naturally, with some of the poo-bahs of the movement.

Meredith Aby of the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War was at Minneapolis City Hall Wednesday afternoon the public safety committee pass amendments to an ordinance that could be viewed as anti-protester. The double-whammy had Aby somewhat stirred.

“The judge decided not to … use her authority,” Aby said outside the council chambers, adding that Ericksen is a Bush appointee. “She feels like it needs further discussion, but it’s been discussed.”

Aby’s group applied in October 2006 for a permit to march on Sept. 1, the first day of the four-day convention. On May 16, the city issued a permit for a march from the Capitol down Cedar Street to the back of the Xcel, site of the convention. Citing proximity to the Xcel, security for the president and vice president and other court precedents, Ericksen ruled that the city had been more than generous with the route granted. Aby and others, however, are angling for what she calls a “public” route that involves Seventh Street and Kellogg Blvd. and brings the marchers to the front of the Xcel.

“The route given has several choke points,” Aby said, citing part of Cedar and a “triangle” in front of the Dorothy Day Center. “There’s no way 50,000 people can cover that. It would take us more than four hours to do that.”

Time is also an issue for the protesters. The permit allows for the march to go from noon until 4 p.m., but marchers must be clear of an intersection near the arena by 3 p.m. According to Aby, the march probably won’t start early, and some protesters will want to linger with one limited view of the Xcel the route affords. “People won’t just turn on a dime” and go back, she said.

Lest one think that Aby is smelling a Bush conspiracy, she spared no harsh words for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “Mayor Coleman is doing everything in his power to limit our space,” she said, adding that a Democratic mayor is aligning himself with the other side.

Aby said the only recourse now is to meet with lawyers (again) and “continue our grassroots effort” to highlight the issue.

Even if it’s a lost cause, Aby and her cohort clearly intend to go down swinging. “These people have never been to a national demonstration,” she concluded. “Or if they have, then they want us to fail.”