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2008-09-02

As the RNC Opens in St. Paul, Twin Cities Police Arrest Nearly 300; Journalists Targeted

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Guests

Gena Berglund, Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild

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Gena Berglund of Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild discusses the police tactics, including the targeting of journalists and use of excessive force on the street. On Monday, officers in riot gear fired rubber bullets, teargas, pepper spray and concussion grenades at protesters and journalists. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, police in the Twin Cities arrested nearly 300 protesters, as well as several journalists covering the protest Monday. I was arrested along with two producers from Democracy Now!: Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar. Also arrested, Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke and two filmmakers from Pepperspray Productions, Lambert Rochfort and Joseph La Sac.

Most of the arrests took place within hours of a 10,000-strong peace march organized by the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War. After the rally ended, several splinter groups broke off for spontaneous breakaway actions in the streets of St. Paul. Some were seen breaking windows at the First National Bank, Macy’s and other buildings. Others also set up makeshift barricades in the streets and tried to block delegate buses from reaching the convention. Officers in riot gear fired rubber bullets, teargas, pepper spray and concussion grenades at the protesters, as well as some journalists.

Gena Berglund is from the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. She coordinates the legal observer program, joining us here in St. Paul. Welcome to Democracy Now!

GENA BERGLUND:

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you talk about what’s happening now, the police actions in response to the protests? And then we’ll talk about the reporters.

GENA BERGLUND:

You know, I’m just taking it all in myself, and I’ve been reading some of the things my friends and people in the community have been writing about what they saw. Our sense of it, in the National Lawyers Guild, is that there were large displays of force that were out of proportion to the things that were happening on the streets. Granted, people who break windows should probably be held; charges should be brought against them. But folks who are simply blockading streets and trespassing, they’re simply — it’s another form of political expression, and this was very repressive on the part of the police.

AMY GOODMAN:

The rest of the reporters — I mean, what gets attention is reporters often have video cameras, like our reporter, Nicole Salazar. So, when she filmed her own violent arrest, it is not only about her own violent arrest, but it is just captured on videotape, and it shows how out of control the situation is. I mean, she was screaming at them, and maybe we could hear a little of the sound in the background.

    NICOLE SALAZAR: Watch out! Watch out! Press!

    POLICE OFFICER: Get out of here!

AMY GOODMAN:

She was screaming “Press!”

    POLICE OFFICER: Move!

    NICOLE SALAZAR: Where are we supposed to go? Where are we supposed to go?

    POLICE OFFICER: Get out of here!

    NICOLE SALAZAR: Dude, I can’t see! Ow! Press! Press! Press!

    POLICE OFFICER: Get down! Get down on your face! On your face!

    NICOLE SALAZAR: I’m on my face!

    POLICE OFFICER: Get down on your face!

    NICOLE SALAZAR: Ow! Press! Press!

AMY GOODMAN:

They violently pushed her down onto the ground. You hear him saying put your face in the ground. And as one of them pushed her down, they put his knee in her back, and another is pulling on her leg, and they’re telling her to keep her face on the ground, which means her face will be dragged along the road. She was bleeding. She had a bloody nose. Our other producer, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, was slammed up against the wall. His arm was bleeding. Clearly marked “Press,” we have several press IDs around our neck.

And then I came running from the convention center, where I was interviewing delegates from Minnesota and from Alaska when I got the call from Mike Burke, another producer, saying they’d been arrested. And I had the top security clearance from the convention floor also on my neck. And when I got there, I just demanded to speak to a commanding officer so I could see Nicole and Sharif and that they would be released. And that’s when they grabbed me, as well, immediately, and forced me down. And when I said, “You clearly see I am press. I have every ID we can possibly have,” Secret Service came over. I was arrested by Minneapolis police — by the way, we were in St. Paul — and they ripped it off my neck. And that was the end of it.

GENA BERGLUND:

We sought to enjoin the Minneapolis police from preemptively arresting journalists and people with cameras, basically. We tried to get this before Judge Wernick over the weekend, and he refused to listen to it. So, we weren’t able to really get the courts to intervene on the behalf of you and other people with cameras. We’d still like to be able to do that. We think it’s very important that we do act.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, let me ask you. When I was put in the police wagon, when I was there, there were a number of young women protesters. You know, they separate the women from the men. And one woman said to me, “Why should you be treated any differently from us?” What is the difference with reporters? I mean, of course, it is true: nobody should be dealt with violently. But what is the position in the Constitution of US — of journalists?

GENA BERGLUND:

Well, I don’t even know if it’s a — I mean, it is a constitutional issue. There is case law that would support you being treated differently. We teach our legal observers that they don’t have special rights, but that reporters and journalists do have special rights on the streets.

I think it’s more of a democracy issue. I mean, in order to preserve democracy, we have to be able to report on what really happens, and if that’s hidden from view — and cameras are the way we talk about things in our culture, film and stills — we can’t tell what’s really happening around us in the streets. So, here we have a situation where if the cameras are all quieted, the police can get away with doing what they want. They can lie in their police reports, and no one can hold them accountable. And we believe that happens regularly.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, what are you doing right now? And what about the levels of police that are here? I mean, we’re in St. Paul, arrested by Minneapolis Police. Who is in St. Paul now? What are the levels of military, of national security — it is called a “national security event” — and police?

GENA BERGLUND:

Right. We believe that the FBI is heavily involved. We believe that the Department of Justice is involved. Homeland Security is very much involved. People have spotted Homeland Security and FBI at some of the raids that happened over the weekend. People saw Homeland Security personnel in vehicles all day long yesterday. There were many reports of those.

And there is a unified command, because it’s a national security event. And there are joint powers agreements between Minneapolis and St. Paul that allow the Minneapolis police to operate under this unified command. Who’s in charge of that command? Could be the Secret Service, and that’s another entity we believe is very active here.

We think some of what’s going on is partly the messaging that was happening before the convention started from the city of St. Paul, and we think it was probably directed at the federal level, is to make some protesters good protesters and other ones bad protesters. And this whole crackdown yesterday and over the weekend played that same message out. It’s like, “We want to get rid of the bad protesters so the good protesters can have a peaceful march and rally and not be interfered with.”

AMY GOODMAN:

When I was in the jail, which was in the police garage, and there were pens there, I asked one of the St. Paul police officers what he thought about the preemptive raids. You know, it goes to that movie that Tom Cruise is in about pre-crimes, when you’re arrested before the crime is committed, called Minority Report. But I asked him what he thought about these raids.

You know, when we came in from the airport immediately on Saturday, we were texted that there was a preemptive raid, as they called it, going on in a house. And we raced to the house, and sure enough, the police had gone in. They didn’t have a warrant for that house. They had it for next door. They had raided the place, and they were looking for videotape, for computer — video cameras, computers, for cell phones. And it was the I-Witness Video collective, which is very important in covering the RNC in New York, 2004. Ask any New York police officer. They’ll tell you about how much videotape they gathered and how significant this has been. But there all the collective was, including our — another producer, Elizabeth Press, in the backyard in handcuffs.

GENA BERGLUND:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

And then they release them. In that case, they didn’t charge them, as with us, but they detained them for hours, which prevents them from doing their work.

GENA BERGLUND:

Right, and slows them down.

AMY GOODMAN:

And scares them.

GENA BERGLUND:

Yes. Intimidation, that is one of the tactics that they use.

AMY GOODMAN:

Preemptive raids.

GENA BERGLUND:

Yes. Yeah, they were completely unconstitutional, in our opinion. And then the charges — the people that they were seeking to arrest were charged with conspiracy to commit riot. And a riot, a felony riot, requires that it results in death or use of a dangerous weapon. And if you haven’t had a riot yet, a conspiracy to commit a riot that results in death or a dangerous — I mean, it’s a political charge, and it was used against the Chicago Eight, and they were acquitted.

AMY GOODMAN:

The group in 1968, forty years ago —

GENA BERGLUND:

Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN:

— the Chicago Democratic Convention.

GENA BERGLUND:

That’s right. It’s very much a political charge, and we see this very much as a political maneuver by the federal government via our local police.

AMY GOODMAN:

And this is just the second day of the convention.

GENA BERGLUND:

This is just the second day.

AMY GOODMAN:

What is National Lawyers Guild’s plans?

GENA BERGLUND:

Well, we’re sending legal observers out every single day this week.

AMY GOODMAN:

Are legal observers getting arrested?

GENA BERGLUND:

Not so far, not so far. They were penned in a couple of times, and we thought maybe they might be, but we believe all our legal observers returned last night safely.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Gena Berglund of the the National Lawyers Guild —-

GENA BERGLUND: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —- here in the Twin Cities.

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