Issue 108, Fall 2008

Political conventions are about political speech. Or at least about political speeches: night after night of them. That speech is protected — by layers of security at the conventions, including police, the Secret Service, the FBI, and even the U.S. Northern Command. But the forces arrayed to protect those inside the highly fortified convention centers routinely restrict the free speech of those outside.

Coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions was full of the intimidating scenes greeting protesters: police and the National Guard massed in full riot gear, officers equipped with assault rifles and machine guns, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, mace, water cannons, and concussion grenades. There were pre-emptive raids on suspected rabble-rousers, children held at gunpoint during police searches, and “moles” infiltrating vegan potluck dinners. Mass arrests swept up peaceful protesters, bystanders and concert-goers. The “free speech zones” set up away from the convention sites stood largely empty while detention centers featuring chain-link fences and barbed wire filled with arrested protesters.

“Protesters have a mission — they want to be heard,” said St. Paul’s Police Chief. “We want to facilitate that.” His statement, however, doesn’t square well with the facts. In St. Paul more than 800 were arrested and scores, if not hundreds more, detained or searched. Denver, with only about 100 reported arrests, fared well by comparison.

The press, especially independent reporters, had a rough time, particularly in St. Paul. Two student journalists from Kentucky and their advisor were arrested and jailed for several days. Several dozen reporters and photographers were arrested, some struck with clubs and maced. A video crew that set out to record police activity was detained and their equipment, cell phones, hard drive and notes confiscated. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, was arrested for “obstruction of a legal process and interference with a peace officer” for inquiring about two of her producers, arrested on “suspicion of felony riot” — one of them dragged, face down, in the street. In what seems like a symbolic act, her press credentials were ripped off before she was arrested.

The local courts will eventually determine whether those arrested committed any crimes. But there will inevitably be other, more significant legal proceedings — constitutional challenges claiming violations of the First Amendment rights of protesters and the press, and potentially other legal claims brought by those who were detained, searched, or injured.

In anticipation, the city of St. Paul demanded that the RNC indemnify it against legal claims, and the RNC bought an insurance policy to pay for up to $10 million in damages and unlimited legal costs stemming from actions by law enforcement officers. The experience at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, which has already cost the city millions of dollars defending against civil-rights lawsuits, might have persuaded officials to exercise restraint and display respect for the right to engage in peaceful political protest. Instead, St. Paul and the RNC
took out insurance.

Police preparedness at public events like political conventions is essential. Few would
disagree with reasonable actions to prevent actual crimes and arrest those suspected of committing them. Serious questions arise, however, when officials act on speculation about potential but unproven threats, and indiscriminately target peaceful protesters. Is the unstated goal of such aggressive police activity, undertaken with the implicit blessing of the political parties, to marginalize political speech outside the mainstream of conventional political commentary? The unprecedented targeting of the reporters and photographers providing independent coverage of the events lends credence to such suspicions.

The conventions may have served the politicians, but it’s not clear whether they served the public’s interest in free speech and participatory democracy.