Volume 78 / Number 19 - October 8 - 14, 2008
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Villager photo by Nick Brooks

Indymedia-type reporters being arrested by police in a St. Paul parking lot during the Republican National Convention last month.

Guns drawn, doors knocked down, police hounded video group at R.N.C.

By Casey Samulski

On Sat., Aug. 30, at 11 a.m. a Wisconsin sheriff and an F.B.I. agent showed up at the door of a small townhouse on 949 Iglehart St., in Minneapolis, Minn. They claimed to be searching for someone who might have lived there some years ago. For Eileen Clancy, it was the first indication that she and her colleagues were being targeted by the F.B.I. and police.

Four years ago, during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, Clancy along with fellow members of I-Witness Video helped document protesters’ clashes with police. Their tapes were later used as video evidence in court helping to refute sworn testimony by officers, resulting in 400 convictions overturned.

A New Yorker, Clancy also regularly documents the monthly Critical Mass bicycle rides in Manhattan for the eight-year-old I-Witness Video. According to the group’s Web site: “I-Witness Video uses video to protect civil liberties. We probe police actions at First Amendment events.”

Four years after the 2004 R.N.C., I-Witness Video traveled to St. Paul, Minn., again to document the protests. What transpired, they say, is indicative of an alarming and growing trend affecting civil disobedience in this country, in which police are determined to have no one “watching the watchmen.”

The Saturday morning two days before the convention’s start was eventful not only for I-Witness Video. Simultaneous raids were carried out against leading members of the Welcoming Committee, a group that had taken responsibility for organizing the protests around St. Paul for the convention.

Sarah Coffey, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, described the police as being on the hunt for anarchists that morning, looking for plans and equipment for protests.

At 1 p.m., after the other raids had ended and the sheriff and F.B.I. agent had left 949 Iglehart St., Clancy, Coffey and another woman, Elizabeth Press, were sitting on the building’s front steps waiting for a cab when they spotted a line of police come running down the street toward them.

The three rushed into the house before Coffey realized she’d left her bag with legal materials on the street. When she exited and attempted to retrieve them, she was handcuffed by police who had taken up positions around the house. Thus began the standoff.

While keeping the house surrounded, police captured five other I-Witness members not on the scene, three on bikes and two in a car. According to Clancy, they were told their capture and detainment was in connection to the raid on the house. It is these facts that would lead Clancy to one conclusion: “We were targeted by the federal authorities.”

For the next two hours, police would claim they had a warrant giving them the right to enter and search the premises. For the next two hours, the warrant never appeared. When it did, it proved to be for 951 Iglehart St., the adjacent duplex but not the address of the I-Witness residence.

Police entered the adjacent unit, went into the attic, kicked down the door to the passageway between the houses, and entered guns drawn. Those in the house were handcuffed and taken out into the backyard garden. They were held there while police searched the house.

Later, after their release, Clancy went back into the house to find an inventory of the search stating, “Nothing of value taken.” No charges were ever filed by police. However, Ted Dooley, a lawyer for the N.L.G., said the guild is preparing to file a notice with Minneapolis on behalf of the homeowner for 949 Iglehart St. Dooley said the notice will include claims of false imprisonment and an invalid warrant that was improperly served and improperly obtained, noting that there was not “sufficient probable cause in the affidavit” for the warrant, as well as “straight falsehoods.”

The raid was not the end of the I-Witness members’ troubles. Only a few days later, on Wed., Sept. 3, police showed up at their offices in St. Paul, armed with a battering ram and looking to resolve an alleged “hostage situation” someone had called in. A record of this phone call, if such a call was ever made, had not been made available as of press time.

Dooley was called to the scene to help negotiate with the police. He spoke with the sergeant in charge, and it quickly became clear that there was no hostage or kidnaping situation occurring inside the building. Instead, N.L.G. lawyers were in meetings, quietly discussing their cases and I-Witness editors were working on their footage. The police sergeant, realizing his squad had been misinformed, appeared angry to Dooley.

“I think the sergeant and the cops were being used as pawns in some nasty game,” the attorney said.

Unfortunately, Dooley’s defusing of the situation was too late for I-Witness. The landlord for the office complex evicted them that day, clearly wanting nothing more to do with the police. If this was someone’s grand strategy for inhibiting I-Witness from reporting on and stopping police mistreatment of protesters, it had succeeded.

Wiley Stecklow, a human-rights attorney in New York, called these sorts of heavy-handed maneuvers unprecedented. Pre-emptive arrests of activists, the arrests of journalists covering the protests, all these measures, he said, were designed to keep the protesters — as well as how they were treated — out of the public eye.

“What are they trying to hide?” Stecklow asked. Indeed, opposition to Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s staunch support of the Iraq War isn’t exactly a secret.

But Stecklow said the media’s increasing focus is a new twist to the protest scene. Without the video cameras there — the independent media to “watch the watchmen” — those hundreds of false arrests during the 2004 Republican convention would never have been overturned. Perhaps more important, the protesters would have had no one to record their actions and statements against the war.

“All these people wanted to do was be heard,” said Stecklow.

But as long as there are no cameras and mics to record the protesters and enough police to segregate them from the convention center, how can that ever happen? Stecklow said free speech can’t occur if one is denied the chance to be heard.

Now, with eight of the St. Paul protesters facing terrorism charges, it seems police have taken an even harder line against the right to speak out. Under the charge “conspiracy to commit riots in the second degree in the furtherance of terrorism,” this group, dubbed “The R.N.C. Eight,” face serious jail time if found guilty.

“This is the first time that I know of since the early 1900s that someone has been charged with terrorism for organizing,” said Coffey.

Dooley, who is representing at least one of the eight individuals, seemed skeptical of the charges.

“They make no sense under human reasoning,” he said, and called it “a weak case.”

Of the terrorism charges, Dooley suggested that when “the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail,” calling the whole idea symptomatic of a paranoid attitude. The charges are brought through a Minnesota State version of the Bush regime’s Patriot Act, what Dooley called the “Statriot Act.” He suggested even the presence of the word “terrorism” was a misnomer, indicative of a state bureaucracy’s eagerness to identify with the federal government.

“There’s a disconnect between reality and language and our fears — the three somehow slip around,” he said.

The charges, brought against organizers of the protests, actually highlight a more troubling issue, according to Dooley. In a democracy, he said, “We have a right to think and a right to explore.” Thus, he asked, does thinking about an illegal protest make it illegal? Is this then a case of a “thoughtcrime” — to use the Orwellian term — made manifest by clumsy legislation?

Even if these eight individuals are released, as long as groups like I-Witness Video are kept from their work, as long as individuals are too afraid to protest, the intended effect is the same with or without convictions — the chilling of dissent, advocates say.

“They harassed them to the point where they were no longer welcome. They had to stop, pack up, and find another location,” said Stecklow of I-Witness and other groups. “That is how the police successfully frustrate an independent media. Then, other citizens don’t want to be involved.”

At the same time, with the proliferation of handheld cameras and the pervasiveness of the Internet, the ability to report and disseminate news and photos is now, more than ever, in the hands of the public and the independent media.

Vlad Teichberg, a member of Glass Bead Collective, an independent, video-based media organization also from New York City, was at the protests as well. Despite their own harassment by police, including some questionable trespassing charges, Teichberg and Glass Bead Collective members managed to capture a mass arrest on film. He’s uploaded the clip along with protesters’ on-the-scene comments to his Web site.

Teichberg also filmed and documented the standoff at 949 Iglehart St. That he was able to do so shows the viral nature of the independent media to bring such issues to light. Even if one activist cameraperson is detained, there’s always another to catch authorities in the act.

In Teichberg’s video, which already has been viewed more than 22,000 times, footage of the tense standoff, the bungled warrant and a clearly frustrated Clancy are available for all to see. In the clip, as one cameraman is forced back from the house by officers, he casually responds, “You’re gonna be on YouTube tonight.”

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