<i>Variety</i> writer talks about his time behind bars

Surrounded by police in riot gear on the Marion Street bridge in St. Paul on Thursday night, along with about 300 protesters and members of the media, I thought they surely can’t arrest all of these people.

When it became clear that they intended to take reporters away as well, my reaction was a bit more dumbfounded. They have got to be kidding.

But no: I got arrested. Even handcuffed.

And my computer and my camera got confiscated. By the time we were freed, we’d spent about four hours in custody, and I was stuck with a misdemeanor charge of being present at an unlawful assembly. The experience was a combination of mild amusement, bewilderment and anger.

The arrest of journalists last week at the Republican National Convention got a great deal of coverage in local media, yet little play elsewhere, as has been the case when similar incidents occurred at past conventions. (Strangely, it seems the media harps on these kinds of arrests in foreign lands more intensely than they do when they occur in their own backyard.)

Two weeks of covering the political conventions meant for me, along with 15,000 other members of the credentialed media, an endless array of security checkpoints, pat-downs, magnetic scanners, car searches, ID checks and the sight of marching National Guard troops. So by the time I saw the inside of a paddy wagon, the environment had become too normal to call surreal.

Thursday was the last night of the RNC, and the way we worked it, my colleague William Triplett would cover John McCain’s acceptance speech and I would go and cover a standoff brewing between antiwar protesters and police in riot gear. Authorities were blocking demonstrators from crossing the John Ireland Bridge over I-94 and thus getting closer to the Xcel Energy Center.

Earlier in the day, the Writers Guild of America East had issued a statement condemning the arrest of journalists at both conventions, something that I had heard about all week in St. Paul, as each night usually ended in a spray of tear gas, the arrest of protesters and suspected anarchists and some brief play on the national news.

By the time I got to the John Ireland bridge, the crowd had thinned and what was left was something akin to street theater. A couple of demonstrators stood face to face with police, and others chanted to the Robocop-esque officers, “You’re sexy. You’re cute. Take off the riot suits.” 

Then things got just plain bizarre. An apparent counterprotester, a mohawked man, practically growled at the crowd and even chased after one man. Then he stood face to face with a masked protester, with the two staring each other down as if they were going to trade blows. The man in the mohawk would raise his arms up in a “V,” the man in the mask would do the same.

Suddenly, a small ring of police lunged forward, grabbed the man in the mohawk and arrested him. The crowd of demonstrators cheered.After that, the crowd thinned, and it looked as if everything would break up.

But a new group of more than 200 demonstrators emerged. They didn’t stop at the bridge but kept going on St. Anthony Avenue with the intent of circling the block. I grabbed my Sanyo video camera and started shooting. The group seemed to be well organized, with a team of medics and guides in yellow fluorescent vests. One demonstrator, holding an American flag, struggled to get in the lead. At one point a protester threw a plastic bottle at a police car, and several in the group shouted, “No violence.” I stayed on the fringes, to get a better camera vantage point.But things grew more tense as the protesters turned a corner, where a flank of officers blocked the street. Soon smoke bombs and flash grenades were going off around me, sirens everywhere. Protesters were swearing at the cops; several officers started shooting rubber bullets.

One flash grenade — mild explosive devices designed to disperse crowds — exploded at my feet. My ears were ringing, and because of that or the confusion, I didn’t recall hearing an officer announce on a bullhorn, “This is the police department. The main method of leaving is southbound. Those who do not leave are subject to arrest.”

It didn’t matter, because most of us were headed southbound anyway. Once on the overpass, however, instead of being allowed to leave, we were corralled and told that we were all under arrest and to put our hands over our heads. For at least 90 minutes, we sat.

The officers were generally friendly; once they saw our media credentials hanging from our necks, they allowed us to use cell phones and Blackberrys for a brief time. One officer took pictures of all the arrestees for posterity. Another told us that as members of the media, we would probably be ticketed and released on the spot.

But we weren’t. I was put in plastic cuffs, photographed and led to a waiting bus. They drove us about a mile to a warehouse on the outskirts of downtown, apparently set up specially for the convention. My cuffs were snapped off and we were placed briefly in a chain-linked cell and each given a brown paper bag meal of apple, banana and two slices of white bread with a packet of peanut butter spread. 

Then I was processed, and processed again, and processed again. We were out of the cell and put in a waiting area until finally an officer called a group of us and put us in a paddy wagon.

I was particularly miffed that my laptop and camera were seized, and I was told that I would not get them back until today. So on Friday, I contacted a criminal attorney. Only after pressuring the St. Paul city attorney, who then pressured the chief of police, did I get my stuff back later in the day. Others were not so lucky.

There were acts of violence earlier in the week. A small group of protesters smashed windows at a Macy’s department store at the start of the week. Others were arrested in raids for alleged plots. But there are genuine questions as to why 30 members of the media were arrested throughout the week and why the city of St. Paul didn’t seem to have procedures in place to deal with news personnel covering protests. Second to the Olympics, this was the biggest cluster of journalists this year. 

What’s more, it is nothing new. Convention after convention seems to end in reporters having to argue their First Amendment right to do their job. I don’t have to go too far to find colleagues who have been arrested before. A friend from the Chicago Tribune was arrested in a protest on bikes at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 that ended in the media suing the city of Los Angeles and reaching a settlement. On Friday, one of the local news reporters interviewed a delegate leaving the Minneapolis-St. Paul Intl. Airport. She told the reporter that she was impressed by the level of restraint shown throughout the week by authorities. I was exhausted, but thinking about the media, all I could do was chuckle.

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