Trickle-Down Preemption: Baghdad on the Mississippi

Ten days ago, as the nation focused attention on the hurricane nearing the Mississippi delta, another storm was brewing far upstream in St. Paul, Minnesota -- a storm far more dangerous, it turned out, but one by and large overlooked by the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM).

Ten days ago, as the nation focused attention on the hurricane nearing the Mississippi delta, another storm was brewing far upstream in St. Paul, Minnesota -- a storm far more dangerous, it turned out, but one by and large overlooked by the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM).

When I flew into St. Paul on Saturday evening, August 30, I encountered a din in local media about "preemptive strikes" on those already congregating there to demonstrate against the Iraq war and injustice against the poor in our country. St. Paul's Pioneer Press expressed surprise that "despite preemptive police searches" and arrests, a group calling itself "the RNC Welcoming Committee" was still intent on "disrupting the convention."

A headline screamed, "Preemptive Arrests of Protesters in Twin Cities." But it was the article's lead that hit home: "Borrowing from the Bush administration's 'preemptive war' playbook, police agencies in the Twin Cities have made 'preemptive strikes' against organizations planning to protest at the Republican National Convention."

In the following days I was to see, up close and personal, a massive and totally unnecessary display of ruthlessness.

What struck a bell was that this domestic application of the dubious doctrine of "preemption" was totally predictable-indeed, predicted by those courageous enough to speak out before the U.S. "preemptive" attack on Iraq. Ironically, it was FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, living in the St. Paul area, who warned of precisely that in her hard-hitting letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller three weeks before the attack on Iraq. [Text of Feb. 26, 2003 Letter, published March 6, 2003 in NY Times]

Confronting Mueller on a number of key issues (like "What is the FBI's evidence with respect to the claimed connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq?"), Rowley warned of the trickle-down effect of "the administration's new policy of 'preemptive strikes'":

"I believe it would be prudent to be on guard against the possibility that the looser 'preemptive strike' rationale being applied to situations abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude on the part of law enforcement officers in this country."

Rowley called Mueller's attention to the abuses of civil rights that had already occurred since 9/11, and pointedly warned "particular vigilance may be required to head off undue pressure (including subtle encouragement) to detain or 'round up' suspects."

Transforming the Police

While in St. Paul, I got in touch with Rowley, who has been politically active in the Twin City area, and asked for her reaction to St. Paul's version of preemption. This was hardly her first chance to say I-told-you-so, but she called no attention to her right-on prophesy five and a half years ago.

Shaking her head, Rowley simply bemoaned how easily the artificial stoking of fear had succeeded in causing the "otherwise wonderful community police officers of St. Paul to turn on their own peaceful citizens (the surreal insanity we witnessed during the RNC)." She added that, once the Feds, the fusion centers, the contractors get into the act, "all the rules go up in smoke."

The "preemption" began on Friday, August 29, well before the RNC began on Sept. 1.

An academic doing research on social movement organizations, who for several months has been observing the main protesters -- the RNC Welcoming Committee, the Coalition to March on the RNC and End the War, and the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign -- provided this account:

"On Friday evening the space in St. Paul that was being rented by the Welcoming Committee was raided by riot police, who knocked in the door with automatic weapons drawn, forced the 60-70 activists inside onto the floor, handcuffed them, then proceeded to confiscate all the banner-making supplies and movement literature.

"Over the course of several hours the cops interrogated, photographed, ran warrant checks, and eventually, released everyone one by one. Then they closed down the space for a code violation. The next morning a city code inspector arrived and found no basis for closing the space.

"Saturday morning was one of escalation and terror. The Ramsey County Sheriff Department, together with the St. Paul police, Homeland Security, and the FBI raided four private houses. At 8:00 AM, dozens of cops in SWAT gear broke down the door of one house where about a dozen activists were staying. They were awakened with rifle barrels in their faces and forced to lie face down for more than an hour.

"The cops stole all the computers and other electronic devices in the house, and core members of the Welcoming Committee sleeping there were arrested. It being a holiday weekend, those arrested for alleged crimes could not arrive in court until Wednesday, at the earliest. Thus, those trying to organize demonstrations will be in jail for the entire time the RNC is going on. Four other houses were raided and dozens of activists were detained."

The academic who wrote the report appealed to those concerned over "this enormous police over-kill" to contact the Twin Cities' mayors and demand an end to the "witch hunt." He added, "The people who were arrested were some of the gentlest, most dedicated activists I've ever met." A far cry from the "criminal enterprise" described by notorious Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

Nanette Echols, a resident of St. Paul who had been extending hospitality to the visiting protesters, insisted they had done nothing wrong. "In the place they raided on Friday night they were showing documentary movies to twenty-somethings in a clean, alcohol-free zone after dinner," she said.

Caving In to the Feds

The St. Paul City Council? Only one member had the courage to speak out -- Councilman Dave Thune, who was particularly enraged that Sheriff Fletcher took action within St. Paul city limits:

"This is not the way to start things off...I'm really ticked off...the city is perfectly capable of taking care of such things...This is all about free speech. It's what my father fought for in the war. To me this smacks of preemptive strike against free speech."

Thune objected in particular to Fletcher's deputies using battering rams to knock down doors, then entering with guns drawn, and forcing people to the ground, as they did on Friday night.

This was the unsettling backdrop as I flew into St. Paul on Saturday evening, to speak at the Masses at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on Sunday morning.

On Monday, I joined some 10,000 on a peaceful march from the Capitol to the Berlin wall of fences and the "organs of public safety" arrayed before the RNC convention hall. On the fringes there was some property damage and further arrests. What violence there was bore the earmarks of provocation by the likes of Sheriff Fletcher and his Homeland Security, FBI, and, according to one well-sourced report, Blackwater buddies.

That's right. Agent provocateurs.

Primary targets of the repression were the alternative media, including any and all those who might have a camera to record the brutality -- as was successfully done at the RNC in New York four years ago. The manner in which Amy Goodman and the two producers of "Democracy Now!" were deliberately mistreated was clearly aimed to serve as a warning that the rules had indeed gone up in smoke -- the First Amendment be damned.

Tuesday evening, after speaking at the "Free Speech Zone," a fenced-off area surrounded by the organs of public safety, I joined the Poor People's march up to the fences before the RNC. I observed no violence at all; yet, the police/FBI/national guard/and who-knows-who-else decided they needed to clear the streets. My friends and I narrowly escaped being tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, or worse. It was an overwhelming show of force -- not to protect, but to intimidate.

Palin Significance

After speaking at a conference at Concordia University in St. Paul on Wednesday, I was more eager to watch the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, deliver her acceptance speech than to risk the tear gas and pepper spray.

The way she dissed community organizers was hard to take. But that would pale in significance, so to speak, compared to the way the governor of Alaska proceeded to ridicule the notion of reading people their rights. I had thought that despite the distance between Alaska and Washington, the reach of the U.S. Constitution and statutes extended that far.

Friends tell me I should not have been surprised. But, really! After the widespread kidnapping, torture, indefinite imprisonment, and our cowardly Congress' empowerment of the president to imprison sine die anyone he might designate an "enemy combatant" -- after all that...well, it seems to me that reading a person his/her rights takes on more, not less, importance.

Not to mention the massive repression then under way right outside the convention hall.

It was, it is, a scary juxtaposition. The following day Col. Ann Wright, other members of Code Pink, and I went to the jail to offer support to the young people who had been brutalized and then released. They had not been read their rights. Many were camped out on the sidewalk, refusing to leave until their friends still inside were also released.

Out of the jail came Jason, a well-built young man of about twenty years, who needed help in walking. We talked to Jason a while, and he showed us the seven, yes seven, taser wounds on his body. One, on his left buttock, had released considerable blood, creating a large stain on the seat of his pants.


The young protesters had some success in exposing infiltrators in their ranks. During confrontations, members of the Welcoming Committee, in particular, took copious photos of law enforcement officers and then memorized the faces. This tactic worked like a charm in one of the St. Paul parks, when a man who looked like a protester -- dark clothes, backpack, a bit disheveled-walked by.

One of the protesters recognized the man's face and searched through her camera until she found a photo of the man actually performing the raid on the Welcoming Committee's headquarters on Friday night. The young protesters asked the man, and two associates, to leave the park, at which point the three hustled into a nearby unmarked sedan.

The license plate, observed by a Pioneer Press reporter, traced back to the detective unit of the Hennepin County sheriff's office, according to the county's Central Mobile Equipment Division.

Protesters later drove two other men out of the day's planned march -- one because he was wearing brand-new tennis shoes. The two left without indicating whether they were with the organs of public safety.

So there is hope. Young people are smarter than old ones. It is a safe bet that in the coming weeks lots of unwelcome photos will be exposing various agents provocateurs, including over-the-hill flat-feet in unmarked cars, as well as young Republicans with unmarked tennis shoes. If those are the kind of "sources" upon which the police, FBI, etc. have been relying...well, that would be like having Shia reporting on Sunni, or vice versa.

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