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Despite more than 800 arrests, St. Paul police and mayor call convention a big success

By Joe Kimball | Friday, Sept. 5, 2008
“Nothing burned. No one was badly injured,” Police Chief John Harrington said. And Mayor Chris Coleman declared victory: “Our goal was to have a safe and successful convention, and clearly we have done that.”

The numbers are in.

Total arrests: 818 — 716 in St. Paul for activities related to the Republican National Convention and another 102 in Minneapolis.

And yet, from a police perspective, it was a big success, St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said at a morning wrap-up briefing. “Nothing burned. No one was badly injured, and except for a few windows broken, there was no major damage to property.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman joined the chief, and he, too, declared victory.

“Our goal was to have a safe and successful convention, and clearly we have done that,” Coleman said.

All week, there were torrents of email and calls to City Hall expressing concern about the constant presence of riot-gear-wearing police officers and National Guard soldiers.

City officials, however, have said repeatedly that a strong police presence was needed to prepare for and respond to planned attacks on the convention by up to 500 anarchists who’d come to town to try to disrupt the convention.

“It wasn’t easy,” Coleman said. “There were threats to the city and people here to disrupt. They did not succeed.”

Final convention day brings nearly 400 arrests

Nearly 400 people were arrested Thursday, the final day of the convention. Police had prepared for a last-ditch attempt to raise havoc and subtly switched strategies.

“We found out that they liked, as a strategy, to have us chase them around downtown,” Harrington said. So police adjusted, putting pods of troops in strategic places where they might expect trouble.

And it appeared on Thursday night that the police strategy was to contain anti-war protesters and the anarchists amid them to the Capitol side of the freeway, barring the way to the convention area, where the delegates and media congregated.

Earlier, police uncovered information that the anarchist groups would use Molotov cocktails to start fires downtown, at the Xcel Energy Center, the convention site, and at a public viewing and speaking area, about a block away from the arena, officials said.

Using search warrants and traffic stops, Harrington said that some Molotov cocktails — and the makings for  others — were confiscated before they could be used.

Three small protest rallies went off peacefully Thursday, but a final anti-war rally on the Capitol grounds got out of hand. The group’s permit expired at 5 p.m., and police asked them to move along. But several hundred remained in the area, unmoving, and a face-off ensued.

Mounted officers, bike cops and teams of riot-police kept the group hemmed in near a Capitol area parking lot, near Cedar and 12th streets, across from the Armory.

For several hours, no one moved. About six to 12 people who provoked police were arrested from that group, as police blocked the major bridges across I-94 that lead from the Capitol into downtown. About 8 p.m. the group dispersed, heading toward the Capitol building and University Avenue. There, the crowd reassembled.

Police had also blocked the Marion Street bridge, so when protesters couldn’t proceed, and wouldn’t disperse, arrests were made. Several reporters and photographers were caught up in the mass arrests and processed.

In all, about 30 people who had media credentials or said they were members of the media were arrested over the four days, Harrington said.

The police chief told of one young woman with a video camera who told police she was part of the media. Later, however, when asked who she worked for, she said: “Walgreens, in Portland, Oregon.”

Of the 800-plus arrests, about 25 were for felony or gross misdemeanor charges; the bulk of the rest were misdemeanor arrests for unlawful assembly.

Mayor Coleman said the convention bottom line for him was seeing MSNBC broadcasting from Rice Park, CNN from the Eagle Street Grille and other national and international media mentioning St. Paul and its assets in their newscasts.

“Jon Stewart had the skyline of St. Paul over his shoulder as he told the most fictional news of the night.”

And Coleman said 320 delegates and their families took a cruise on the Mississippi River Thursday, and as they disembarked, many told him that St. Paul was beautiful and welcoming and they couldn’t wait to come back.

“That’s why we started this venture two years ago,” he said.

Police spokesman Tom Walsh, who had been working on RNC planning for months, summed things up when he said: “The city’s intact.”

Asked if he had worried that it wouldn’t be, he said: “No, but when things started happening Monday [the day windows were broken and an officer struck from behind] and we saw the level of violence, I started to wonder.”