The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

RNC Fallout: Police raid dorm room

By Peter Wright

The 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) is a half a year old memory for most Macalester students, but for one sophomore fallout from the event showed up at his doorstep when his room was searched in February. That search is now raising questions about ongoing RNC investigations and the college’s reaction.Bassam Khawaja ’11 was taking a test in his 10:50 class on February 13 when he was called from the room and told that the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) wanted to search his Wallace basement dorm room. He left the test to return to his room where the police had already gathered.

“I got back to Wallace and there was a squad car outside and inside there were two uniformed officers and two [in plain clothes],” Khawaja said.

The officers had subpoenaed Macalester for Khawaja’s room number and were waiting for a search warrant for the room itself when he got there. Khawaja said that the officers refused to tell him why they were there until the warrant arrived.

What they initially did not tell Khawaja is that he had been indicated as a person of interest in an investigation stemming from the first day of protests at the RNC, nearly five and a half months earlier.

According to the application for the warrant filed by the SPPD, the search was part of an effort to find a person who, along with two others, damaged a Minneapolis police car in a group that split off from the main group of protesters on September 1. The squad car, with its shattered glass and flattened tires, became one of the most well known images from the RNC protests.

Using photographs of protesters breaking the car’s windows, police drew a general description of the suspects. One of the vandals was dressed in blue jeans with a torn right pant leg, a black shirt and a black head wrap, a description fitting many members of the Macalester chapter of Students for a Democratic Society during the protest.

Using other photos and his appearance in a protest related Facebook group, officers identified Khawaja as appearing similar to the vandal, mostly based on his clothing, the standard SDS outfit.

On the day of the search, officers served a warrant allowing them to look for the shirt, jeans and head wrap, as well as black shoes, red shoe laces, a hammer and identifying documents. Most importantly, the warrant allowed them to take “photographs of tattoos on both arms” and “any documents related to Anarchist activity.”

Khawaja does not have tattoos on either of his arms. He said that when the officers arrived to search his room, he showed them his arms as proof he had been misidentified, but they began pressuring him to quit resisting.

After the search, the officers left with none of the items specifically listed in the warrant, taking instead a handful of printed items.

According to the property receipt, they seized a shipping label for a megaphone, a “Your Bombs, Your Tanks, Your Bullets Kill” sticker and a flyer promoting the SDS protest on September 1, along with copies of the “Seattle Logistics Zine,” “Dancing in the Streets” by Charles H. Kerr, “A Rebel Worker’s Handbook,” and Marx’s “Communist Manifesto.”

“[My concern] is that police can go onto campus and go after students for being students.for owning published material and for voicing their opinion,” Khawaja said.

That also concerns Religious Studies Instructor Erik Davis, who is helping Khawaja in his response to the search.

“If you came to my office and looked at my academic books, and cherry-picked through them, you’re going to get a very weird view of who I am,” he said.

Peter Crumb, a spokesperson for the SPPD, said that police may seize literature in situations where it helps establish a motive for a crime. He said documents that could connect a suspect with a larger organization, like gang literature from particular gangs, are fair game for officers conducting a search.

Although he was not familiar with the details of Khawaja’s case, he said that books like the “Communist Manifesto” would only be taken if officers thought they were connected to a larger picture of, for instance, an anarchist. Acknowledging that publications like that are common at colleges, he cautioned that students should not overreact to a disappearing Marx.

“If they’re just studying it,” Crumb said, “they have no reason to [think that] the police are going to make something of it.”

Davis, however, said that because printed materials were the only thing’s taken from Khawaja’s room, students and all citizens have a very strong reason to be concerned. He is helping Khawaja and other students draft two letters, one to the administration and another, with stronger wording, to the judge who signed the warrant.

Their concerns with the school lie mainly in its lack of a clear plan to handle police searches and their fallout. Davis said that the administration has to balance on a ledge between protecting students and honoring the law. In this case, the administration did not do anything in particular that was wrong, but they could improve their readiness for similar events.

“If this happened off campus, I don’t think the administration would have any role at all,” Davis said.

Khawaja said that the director of Campus Security did not seem to examine the warrant before he let the police into the room. If he had, Khawaja said, then he may have noticed that the warrant was dated for October 2007, a detail that might have challenged the warrant’s validity.

Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre said that one of the problems in handling Khawja’s search is simply that police searches are not common at Macalester. She said for every new dean of students, they may only have to deal with one or two police searches on campus.

“Certainly there are ways we can pay more attention,” Hamre said.

She did say that generally in situations like that, a staff member from the Student Affairs office will stay with the student whose room is being searched. In Khawaja’s case that was Dean of Students Jim Hoppe.

After the search, Khawaja contacted the Hoppe looking for legal help from the college, but he was told that the school did not have lawyers available to students.

That’s true, Hamre said, but in situations where students need help, her office can compile a list of outside lawyers who might be able to help. She said that the college has lawyers specialized in more institutional and financial issues, but none who act as civil attorneys.

“We may have maybe four or five Mac alums that we have given as names to Mac students who need legal counsel,” Hamre said.

Khawaja said that his primary concern now is for international students. A recent immigrant from Lebanon, he said that international students may lack the connections and rights to properly handle a police investigation without the college’s help.

“While I was well covered in those areas,” Khawaja said, “that is due to the good fortune of my citizenship and contacts, not school policy.”

Since the search, the police have released Khawaja’s items, but they are currently being stored in an investigator’s office. Khawaja said that his case officer told him that to retrieve his items he would need to go SPPD’s downtown headquarters and speak with the investigating officer, something his legal advisers have told him not to do.

Crumb said that an investigator storing evidence in his or her office is not particularly uncommon, depending on the item. He said that smaller items may be kept with the case file, which is controlled by the investigator. He added that Khawaja could make arrangements to pick up the evidence somewhere else if he was determined to not speak with the investigator.

“He could make arrangements to pick it up elsewhere,” Crumb said.

While RNC investigations are continuing, Crumb said that he was not aware of their current extent.

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