The city police department offered a sketch Wednesday of how it anticipates handling the tens of thousands of people expected to protest the event, which will be Sept. 1-4 at the Xcel Energy Center. Marchers will be restricted to one route, with masses of protesters generally confined to a set area.
"There will be a distance," Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom said. "You won't be able to be right up on (the Xcel Center), standing there, interacting with people as they go in the front doors. But you will be close enough that people, if they were at those doors, can hear you."
Neither the route nor the location of the stationary area has been set, Bostrom said. The city is studying four possible march routes for the convention's first day and expects to choose one by May 31.
While demonstrations throughout the city would be subject to normal permit requirements, those in immediate proximity to the Xcel Center would be confined to the protest area.
Known as "free speech zones," those areas have become the norm at national nominating conventions. But they remain controversial. During the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, protesters were kept behind high fences, prompting comparisons to Guantanamo Bay.
However, courts have upheld them. Judges have ruled the government can make reasonable restrictions on the
time, place and manner of such demonstrations - just not the content. They also have ruled those restrictions must be narrowly tailored to accommodate the free speech rights of protesters.
Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said waiting until May 31 - three months before the convention opens - to finalize a plan for demonstrators is "cutting it close" for any potential court challenges.
"The frustrating thing is not having that information yet, not knowing what the plan is going to be," Nelson said.
Bostrom said he sees no need for the kind of fences used in Boston. He also said not to expect police officers in riot gear lining the streets.
"Just because this is an international event, we're not making the assumption that we're going to deploy as if we're going to have to fight with people," he said. St. Paul, he added, has handled large events before.
The 2004 Republican National Convention in New York drew larger crowds than Boston - hundreds of thousands of people - mainly to protest the war in Iraq, which will pass its five-year anniversary in March. Citing St. Paul's smaller size, local officials don't expect that many people.
But out-of-town anti-war groups are planning to descend on the city. One of those is Code Pink, an activist group that wants to end the war and also will demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Founder Medea Benjamin called convention free-speech zones ridiculous.
"As far as we're concerned, the U.S. is a free-speech zone," said Benjamin, reached by phone while demonstrating outside a Marine Corps recruiting station in Berkeley, Calif.
Local groups also are preparing for the convention, including the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War. The group has held demonstrations outside City Hall and complained city officials are dragging their feet in granting protest permits.
Monday is the first day the group can receive a marching permit. The National Lawyers Guild's Bruce Nestor, one of the lawyers representing the group, said his client is eager to know what will be allowed.
"The issues are the time of the day and the route. I can't say anyone's happy, but no one's filed a lawsuit yet," Nestor said.
© 2008 The Pioneer Press