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Organizations Ready Lawsuits Against Police In Convention Cities

Jordy Yager

Police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters outside the Republican convention last week. Political activists and legal groups are preparing to file multiple lawsuits against the cities and police departments of Denver and St. Paul because of their treatment of convention protesters. (Times Online/UK)

Political activists and legal groups are preparing to file multiple lawsuits against the cities and police departments of Denver and St. Paul because of their treatment of convention protesters.

The groups say protesters demonstrating against the war in Iraq and other issues in both cities were mistreated and their civil rights were violated.

The National Lawyers Guild of Minnesota is preparing multiple suits against authorities in St. Paul on behalf of protesters, according to the group. They say protesters were illegally detained and their First Amendment rights were violated.

"Over the course of the week people here in the Twin Cities saw a level of police repression that was unheard of for us," said Jess Sundin, a spokesman for the Coalition to March on the RNC [Republican National Convention] and Stop the War. "But I was very impressed that people came out anyway and demonstrated tremendous strength and conviction."

She said she believed the thousands of delegates, politicians and members of the media who descended on the city last week heard their messages clearly.

More than 800 were arrested at the GOP convention in St. Paul - many fewer than the 1,800 arrested at the 2004 GOP convention in New York City.

Re-Create 68, a protest group in Denver, plans to file similar suits against Denver authorities. They also complain that detained protesters were held in extremely cold cells.

Far more people were arrested at this year's Democratic National Convention in Denver than in the previous convention in Boston. More than 150 people were arrested in Denver, compared to six in Boston.

Protest groups charged Denver authorities with using excessive force against protesters in several instances.

They cite the case of Alicia Forrest, who was arrested during a Denver protest. Video of Forrest being shoved to the ground by a policeman wielding a baton has been viewed over 328,000 times in a YouTube video taken by the Rocky Mountain News.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is planning to represent her in a lawsuit against the city and the police department.

Also in Denver, an ABC News reporter was arrested and charged with trespassing and interfering with official business as he and a camera crew attempted to take pictures of Democratic senators and donors leaving a private meeting at a hotel. He was released on $500 bond later that day and has continued to garner support from civil rights groups.

"Arresting a reporter for simply doing his job is both unconstitutional and un-American," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, in a statement. "That free speech is curtailed during the Democratic convention underscores the need for continued protection of civil liberties, regardless of the party in power."


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Tear gas, pepper spray and police in riot gear were a common sight at both conventions, but several instances of vandalism and property destruction added to the mayhem of the St. Paul protests. Anarchists and demonstrators broke from permitted marches and smashed store windows, lit fires in the street and damaged a police cruiser.

St. Paul police said while they hoped the week would have resulted in fewer arrests, they also had worried that more of the estimated 8,000 demonstrators would be violent.

"It's unfortunate, but on balance I think it's fewer than some people expected," said Tom Walsh, a spokesman for St. Paul police. "We had planned for much more violent activity [than occurred], but we were able to intervene."

One reason might be the aggressive actions police took in advance of the convention.

The weekend before the RNC began, police raided local houses and arrested at least five members of protest groups, such as the RNC Welcoming Committee. Police obtained items they said were to be used against police, including roofing nails, ropes, computers and cell phones. They also charged those arrested with conspiracy to riot.

Walsh said these arrests helped keep anyone from being seriously injured throughout the week. However, some groups, including the lawyers' guild, condemned the arrests, saying police seized everyday household items and claimed they were to be employed for mayhem.

No life-threatening injuries were reported in Denver, but the city's authorities did have a high-profile scare.

Days into the Democratic National Convention, police arrested three men whom they said made threats against Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama's (Ill.) life. Though arrested with guns and drugs, authorities have since dismissed the severity of the threats, saying that they were not "credible."

Charges against many protesters in Denver have been dropped, while most of those still faced with fines or court actions have posted bail. Charges included obstructing police, remaining in an unlawful assembly and throwing stones.

The ACLU of Colorado has written letters to the Denver City Attorney and the Denver Sheriff's department complaining about the conditions in which those detained were kept. They say police did not provide all of the arrested protesters with access to legal representation and kept them in uncomfortable physical conditions, including extremely cold holding cells.

"I'm thinking we should watch what we ask for, because in our early letters to the city we were emphasizing that they needed to think about air conditioning, and now we're complaining that there's too much air conditioning," said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, pointing to the irony of the situation.


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