Students arrested during RNC protests recount confrontation with police

By Alex Park

As many as nine current Macalester students and at least one alumna were arrested at the Republican National Convention last week, some of the 800 total arrests made on protesters during the four-day event. The exact number of Macalester students and alumni arrested during the convention remains unknown, but at press time the Dean of Students Office understood it to be less than ten. Though most were only detained for a few hours, many of those arrested say that the experience was traumatic, and the exact reasons for their detention remain unclear.

“The one thing I want to get across is that we were being 100 percent peaceful,” Claire Hipkens ’09 said. “No one was shoving, no one was pushing.

“Until they started tear gassing us, no one was even shouting at the police.”

Hipkens and Francisco Guzman ’09 were both arrested on the fourth day of the convention after police broke up what they described as a peaceful demonstration involving marching and chanting, entirely free of violent activity on the north side of Interstate 94 near the Marion Street Bridge in downtown St. Paul. All entrances into the downtown sector were closed off, Guzman said, and the protesters were walking along University Avenue among a very supportive crowd.

Hipkens and Guzman both said that, amid a cacophony of smoke, teargas and “flash bang” concussion grenades meant to confuse and disorient demonstrators, the crowd of several hundred people was told to “disperse or face arrest” by state patrol officers dressed in riot gear. But surrounded by police, they faced few exits and hundreds moved south onto the previously blocked off bridge.

Hipkens said that some even asked police for directions amid the chaos.

“We asked where we should go, and they said to go onto the bridge,” she said.

Guzman agreed. “I don’t think a police officer ever told us to go a specific direction,” he said. “They really just said, ‘Get on the fucking bridge!'”

But once on the bridge, protesters found that the south end was still blocked by police, effectively locking them onto the bridge. Within a few minutes of following explicit instructions to “disperse or face arrest” via the Marion Street Bridge, they found themselves blocked on either side by police. The group-some of whom had been pepper sprayed-was kept there for up to four hours before being arrested and processed.

Hipkens and Guzman both say they were confounded by what Hipkens saw as a bait and switch by the state patrol. But a representative for the St. Paul Police, speaking on the state agency’s behalf, disagrees.

“That account doesn’t make sense to me,” said Tom Walch of the St. Paul Police Department. Walch said that protesters were given a fair warning prior to being arrested and adequate time to leave the premises. “Even on the bridge they were given fifteen minutes to leave,” he said.

He added that some journalists and others asked if they could leave the bridge, and police let them go. While arrests were made en masse, police only arrested those who they believed had acted illegally.

As for the protesters who had been hit with pepper spray a few minutes prior and left on the bridge without medical care, Walch said there was nothing more the police could have done for them.

“Even if someone had been directed to a medical facility, they would have just been directed to a fan,” he said, explaining that exposing the eyes to a stream of air is considered the proper treatment for a pepper spray attack. Walch added that despite the interchangeable use of the terms ‘mace’ and ‘pepper spray,’ the two are different, and neither the St. Paul Police nor the Minnesota State Patrol uses mace because it has been shown to cause permanent damage if left untreated.

After a period of waiting, the crowd-about 400 people, Walch said-was arrested and taken to the police department where they were charged with “unlawful assembly”-a misdemeanor. Most were released by the end of the evening.

But while Hipkens, Guzman and others were released after a matter of hours, it was a much different story for some on the first day of the event, including an alumna from the class of 2007 who has chosen to remain anonymous until the legal proceedings involving her case are resolved in court.

The alumna, who asked to go by the name “Jane Doe” for this story, declined to state the exact location of her arrest or the extent of her participation in the demonstrations, except to say that she was not blocking traffic and was “not in any way participating in any violent activity.”

In fact, she said, she was participating in a demonstration sanctioned by the City of St. Paul prior to the convention. Her demonstration was given a permit that authorized her assembly provided she followed certain rules-rules that she said she and the members of her party were careful to follow.

Doe said that she was arrested and taken to jail with more than 20 others at 3 p.m. on Sept. 1 on the charge of “conspiracy to commit a riot”-a felony. She said she was kept in a 60 square-foot holding cell for the first 12 hours with 21 other people. After that time, she said, the holding cell was emptied for everyone except for herself and “a few other people,” and at 4:30 a.m.-13 hours after being put in jail-she was processed and fingerprinted for the first time since her arrival.

At 10 a.m., Doe said, she was put in a jail cell with another inmate.

As an expression of solidarity for the people of color being held with them, Doe said, she and the others in her group decided not to give their names to the authorities. She said one person in the group-an Asian American with U.S. citizenship-gave her name to the police and was taken for a lengthy investigation by the INS. The investigation was later dropped.

After 26 hours, Doe said, she was allowed her first phone call. After 60 hours, she and the group were allowed to see a lawyer, who informed them that without giving their names, they could continue to be held. Following this advice, they agreed to give their names to the police, and within two hours of doing so, they were allowed to go home, four days after their arrest at the convention.

Now, Doe says she is still in the middle of court proceedings and has not yet had her charges cleared, despite there being no evidence against her except for her presence in a political rally and her association with other, non-violent protestors. But, she said, the fact that she was put in jail after participating in a non-violent, permitted demonstration still shocks her.

At press time, the St. Paul Police Department was unavailable to comment on Doe’s story. But a Star Tribune article from Aug. 31 about a police raid on an anarchist group who had intended to protest the convention highlights some early criticisms against Minnesota law enforcement’s approach to handling RNC protesters, particularly its use of the “conspiracy to commit a riot” charge.

“This is a charge that police use for preventive detention,” Bruce Nestor, an attorney representing some of the demonstrators, told the Star Tribune. “It requires that no actual criminal act be committed and borders on criminalizing political advocacy.”

In other words, in corroboration with Doe’s story, protesters can be arrested and held merely on the charge that police think they may be prone to starting a riot, or because they are found associating with people who police consider prone to starting a riot.

Doe admits that had she given her name earlier on, she probably would have been released earlier. Even so, just having gone to jail and being processed for a felony charge means that she now has a criminal record, and having those charges cleared, she said, has already proven to be an arduous process.

St. Paul Police stand by their record of service, and say they are willing to take complaints.

“We are a very transparent department, ” Walch said, “and we take pride in that.”

Regardi
ng any protesters who believe they were unlawfully arrested or held during the RNC, he saids “there is a process for them to follow, and I encourage them to follow it.”

For their part, Doe, Hipkens and Guzman say they’re doing just that.