As Unlawful Arrests Continue, St. Paul Feels Like a City Under Siege for Some Residents
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Sitting outside the Black Dog cafe in lower St. Paul late Tuesday morning, a lanky kid in dreadlocks and a black Bob Marley T-shirt stopped, asked me for a light, and sat down next to me. It was drizzly and gray, and eerily quiet. The night before, nearly 300 people had been arrested by Minnesota police in a sweeping display of brute force. Among them were journalist Amy Goodman and two Democracy Now! producers, both of whom were physically assaulted. With helicopters overheard and the National Guard out, it felt like a city under siege.
I asked the guy if he lived in St. Paul. "Yeah." It turned out he lives next door, in the building where I've been staying, an artist's co-op on Broadway Street. I was about to ask him what he thought about the scene here when he sort of laughed and said, "Yeah, you know -- I was just arrested."
At around 9:45 that morning, John, 20, was walking home from the bank a few blocks away when he spotted what he thought was a police riot club -- a ubiquitous weapon on the streets here. "It was right off of West 7th Street in, like, a planter; I checked it out but it ended up being a broomstick." He put it down and kept walking, when suddenly he was surrounded by police officers -- "three squad for sure, maybe four" -- one of whom was a woman. "She was like, 'Get on your stomach or I'm gonna tase you!'" He asked them what he had done, but they wouldn't say. Instead, they asked him leading questions about other people they'd just arrested. "They said, 'so, who was in the white van you were associated with?" "I was like, white van? I don't know what you're talking about."
John said he hasn't done any anti-war organizing -- "I'd like to" -- but since the arrival of the RNC and the protesters against it, he has been checking out the scene around town. "Yesterday I was just cruising around. I was in the Funk the War march -- they had this huge Gandhi statue and a globe â€¦" But despite the mostly peaceful protests, when it comes to security, "it's been crazy." He showed me videos he'd taken on his phone while he skated around, lines of cops in riot gear -- "There was a bunch of people getting maced over there" -- and shots of the buses and unmarked minivans the police have used to detain people and take them away.
I asked him if he had been read his rights. "No, they didn't read me my Miranda rights at all. ... They cuffed me, and when I complained to one one guy about the cuffs being too tight, he was like, 'Oh yeah? Well, let me tighten that up for you.'"
While he kept asking why they were arresting him, John did not resist -- "I was really cooperative; I didn't want to be held" -- but he did remember something he had been given at one of the marches. "Finally I pulled this out," he said, showing me a slip of paper that read, "ACLU Important Contact Information." "Yeah, you should hold onto that," one of the cops told him.
"They held me right down over there," he said, pointing north. "It's, like, the St. Paul police station." They confiscated and searched his belongings but forgot his cell phone in his pocket. "They put me in a cell that had snot and blood all over the wall," he told me, pulling out his phone and showing me footage of the stained white walls. He was given no phone call.
John was held there for about 15 minutes before they had him talk to anyone; two plainclothes investigators interrogated him, asking him what he knew about the demonstrations against the RNC, some of which have led to rioting and destruction of property. "They tried to get me to admit to some involvement ... but I told them that I've just met people and been to peaceful marches." Before leading him back to his cell, they gave him a 612 number to call. "They asked me to report anything I knew."
Googling the number later led me to a FBI homepage, Minneapolis division.
After he was questioned, John was put back in his cell. He was never told how long they might hold him. "They didn't even tell me what I was being detained for until they opened the door." I asked him what. "Like, suspicion of planting something ... anything that could be used as a weapon, I guess." There was no documentation.
As we were talking, we saw a caravan of unmarked vans led by a police car pull a U-turn in the middle of the intersection at the corner. One of the cars turned on its siren and they sped off.
By then, a group of neighbors were hanging out near us. John greeted them and said, "I was just arrested." How was it? "Awesome," he laughed. "Best day of my life."
"So, you were picking up sticks?" one guy joked, "What were you thinking?"
"I thought I was free!" John laughed.
I asked him what he was up to now. He said he wanted to go to a concert taking place at the Capitol. Dead Prez was scheduled to perform. At the station, he said, "They told me if I got picked up again that I would probably be locked up for the remainder of the RNC. ... They were like, 'You probably shouldn't go outside, because if the same cops see you they're not gonna be happy.'"
He was dropped off across the street by one of the officers. ("He was nice enough to give me a ride back, so that was cool.")
I asked him if he would be relieved when the RNC was over. "Yeah, most definitely. I wasn't looking forward to it coming. â€¦ I feel like I've been profiled since day one." Plus, it's been slow at the Italian restaurant where he works. "At first, at my work, they were like, yeah, this is a good opportunity to get some good business, but instead we're closing early â€¦ because most of (the RNC delegates) have rented out places and they get free drinks; they don't really care about supporting local businesses since they don't live here. They don't give a shit."
A woman who also lives in the building next door sat down next to us. "I have to say," she said, "this city I live in has so much egg on its face. I'm embarrassed to say I live here. It's just tragic."
"The vibe's like they came in and took over our whole city," John said. "It's like we don't have rights. Like we don't even live here."