In 2004, New York City police officers stopped me from doing my job covering a protest at the Republican National Convention.
I can’t wait to see how the cops in Denver and St. Paul handle the rowdy and raucous business of asserting First Amendment rights on the streets of a national convention city.
Back then, the Star Tribune had assigned me to cover Minnesotans who marched against the RNC in New York City. The Minneapolis-based Anti-War Committee had sent a busload of demonstrators to New York, and assorted freelance protesters from the state went on their own.
I connected with my targets milling among hundreds of thousands of marchers, police and journalists on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. They paraded for hours under blazing August sun. It was hot. It was great political street theater. Young radical chic met gray-haired hippies.
Name your cause, and it was represented: keeping the world safe for poetry, saving the planet from pollution, touting Ralph Nader for president. The Iraq war, of course, was a big one; marchers carried 1,000 cardboard coffins to symbolize the U.S. war dead (unfortunately, the toll was to climb much higher).
The central theme was opposition to President Bush.
New York City had denied the protesters’ requests for permits to rally in Central Park. So we snaked up Seventh Avenue, through Greenwich Village and Manhattan neighborhoods.
In front of Madison Square Garden, the GOP convention site, protesters just ahead of me stopped and set fire to their giant papier-mache dragon. Then a smoke bomb went off.
Police pounced — in riot gear, on horseback, in impressive force.
A parade divided
They cut the parade in half, pushing some of us forward two blocks while the rear guard of the marchers was blocked from moving at all.
I lost contact with the Minnesotans I was supposed to shadow. It wasn’t a big deal because I had a notebook full of material for the story. I’m just grateful it didn’t happen early in the parade while my first page was blank.
In all, New York police arrested 1,806 people during that convention, the New York Times reported. One criticism of the NYPD was that arrestees were held for up to two days on what proved to be unfounded allegations of lawbreaking.
Seven months after the convention, criminal charges had fallen against all but a handful of the people arrested, the Times said. “Of the 1,670 cases that have run their full course, 91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or with a verdict of not guilty after trial,” it said.
Protest groups in Denver and the Twin Cities already have battled with authorities over the terms of their permits. And the groups are objecting to special lockups the cities plan to use in the case of mass arrests. The holding facilities have been dubbed Gitmo on the Platte and Gitmo on the Mississippi.
With Bush leaving office, though, the protests may be quieter this year.