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“The Party Police”

ColumnSeptember 11, 2008

By Amy Goodman

The Democratic and Republican national conventions have passed, but controversy surrounds how they were funded and how they were run. Mass arrests of peaceful protesters, excessive police violence, wholesale disregard for the Bill of Rights and the targeting and arrest of journalists marred what should have been celebrations of democracy. The “host committees,” the legal entities that organize and pay for the conventions, act as large party slush funds, outside of campaign-finance restrictions. Scores of major corporations (and a couple of unions), barred from giving unlimited funds to political parties, could give whatever they wanted to the host committees of Denver and St. Paul, Minn.

According to a recent article in National Underwriter magazine, “Both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee refused to comment on their insurance purchasing decisions, or even reveal who was providing coverage for their respective conventions.” Bruce Nestor, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who organized scores of legal observers around the Twin Cities to protect citizens’ legal rights, told me: “St. Paul actually negotiated a special insurance provision with the Republican host committee so that the first $10 million in liability for lawsuits arising from the convention will be covered by the host committee. The city is very proud of this negotiation. It’s the first time it’s been negotiated between a city and the host committee. But it basically means we [the city] can commit wrongdoing, and we won’t have to pay for it.” According to the Minnesota Independent, more than 40 journalists were arrested or detained during the Republican National Convention.

Like what happened to “Democracy Now!” producer Nicole Salazar, videotaping protests in downtown St. Paul. She was violently forced to the ground, her nose bloodied, was held down with a man’s knee or boot on her back, with another person pulling on her leg. Fellow producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous was thrown against a wall and kicked in the chest and back. The police might normally intervene and arrest the perpetrators. Except here, it was the police who were the assailants. And they arrested their victims. Arriving on the scene, I tried to have my colleagues freed, as we were all accredited journalists, and the police arrested me. And we were not the only ones.

As the mayors and police of St. Paul and Minneapolis patted each other on the back for a job well done, the nonprofit group FreePress, the head of the local chapter of the Newspaper Guild and other media advocates and reporters delivered more than 50,000 signatures to the mayor’s office demanding that the charges against the journalists be dropped. We were met by St. Paul Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland. Free Speech TV CEO Denis Moynihan asked about the Republican host committee indemnification of the city, “Isn’t that just giving a $10 million ticket to the police to violate civil rights?” Mulholland countered, “We are very proud of that … the $10 million was critical for our city. We would not have been able to host the convention otherwise.”

The two major-party conventions have become protracted, expensive advertising spectacles for the presidential candidates. It makes sense that Democrats and Republicans would want to control the message. But democracy is not an advertisement, nor is it under the sole dominion of the two parties. People were engaged in Denver and St. Paul in a vast array of civic dialogue, public gatherings, marches, protests, concerts, art openings—in fact, there was more democracy happening outside the convention halls than inside them. The convention center names tell the story: It was the Pepsi Center in Denver, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Xcel, which pushes nuclear power, gave $1 million to each convention. Both top candidates support nuclear power as a viable option.

In Denver, but particularly in St. Paul, dissent was crushed with a massive array of paramilitarized police, operating under the U.S. Secret Service, granted jurisdiction over the “National Special Security Events” that the conventions have been dubbed. Corporations pay millions to the host committees, earning exclusive access to lawmakers and candidates. The host committees, in turn, unleash police on the public, all but guaranteeing injuries, unlawful arrests and expensive civil litigation for years to come. More than just a campaign-finance loophole that must be closed, this is a national disgrace.

Throughout the convention week, one of the 25 remaining typeset copies of the Declaration of Independence was on display at St. Paul City Hall—not far from where crowds were pepper-sprayed, clubbed, tear-gassed and attacked by police with concussion grenades. As the clouds clear, it is instructive to remember the words of one of the Declaration’s signers, Benjamin Franklin:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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