Salon Radio: Jeff Guntzel on the St. Paul protests

A reporter for the Minnesota Independent discusses the indiscriminate use of force and mass arrests at the GOP Convention.

Published September 8, 2008 9:09PM (EDT)

(updated below)

There are still numerous unanswered questions in the wake of the mass arrests and indiscriminate use of force against protesters, reporters, lawyers and others in St. Paul last week for the GOP Convention. An Associated Press article this weekend reported that "more than 800 arrests were reported" and that "at least 19 journalists, including two reporters from The Associated Press, were among those held by police." The fact that numerous reporters covering the Convention -- along with hundreds of peaceful and law-abiding protesters and others -- were arrested by police, had their hands bound behind their backs with plastic cuffs, and were then put in a cage for hours is truly reprehensible, but it has received very little attention.

The vast bulk of the reporting on these matters has been done by independent and local journalists. My guest today on Salon Radio is Jeff Severns Guntzel, who covered the protests and various police actions for The Minnesota Independent. Guntzel has a piece today on the numerous, highly dangerous weapons used by the Police indiscriminately to subdue crowds, and another article recounting some of his first-hand observations, accompanied by photographs.

We discuss the instances of excessive and provocative police actions during the course of the week and the role which the Federal Government played in these arrests. The discussion is roughly 20 minutes in length. A transcript is here. The interview can be heard by clicking PLAY on the player at the bottom of the post.

UPDATE: Here is video of Democracy Now producer Nicole Salazar being pushed around and arrested by the police as she was trying to cover the St. Paul protests. The footage was taken by Salazar as she was pushed onto the ground; you can hear her screaming "Press! Press!" to no avail whatsoever:

I was interviewed by AntiWar Radio's Scott Horton regarding the St. Paul protests yesterday. That can be heard here. My interview with Guntzel is here:

This interview can be heard here.

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today is Jeff Severns Guntzel, who covered the Republican Convention for the Minnesota Independent, which is an outlet for independent journalism in Minnesota, and Jeff joins me today from Minneapolis. Thanks very much for taking the time.

Jeff Severns Guntzel: Thank you.

GG: So I wanted to talk to you about your general impressions of last week, actually wrote a fair amount about it although being there as I was enables you to see certain vignettes and it's hard to get a bird's eye view, which I think is more possible now with some time having elapsed. And you actually have a piece today in the Minnesota Independent where you discuss an overview of some of the tactics that the police engaged in against the protestors outside of the convention, and some of the force that was used and the weapons that they deployed against crowds and the like. So, if we could just talk about, begin by talking about that topic, namely what kind of weapons the police used against crowds and the type of force and tactics that they used that you either observed first-hand or were able to report on, that'd be a great start.

JG: Sure, yeah, actually, I'll even go, I'll take it back to Saturday, which was the weekend before the convention started. I was alerted early in the morning to a raid happening on a house of organizers who were working with Food Not Bombs, in south Minneapolis. And, when I got to that house, it was just in time to see a five year old boy being pulled from the house, escorted out by police, about I would say an hour after the raid had begun at eight in the morning. And, it was kind of the first, the first time I had an opportunity to think, okay, how are we, how are the law enforcement, how are local law enforcement posturing against whatever they perceive to be the threat of protestors. In this case it was police going into a home at eight in the morning in full riot gear with rifles drawn according to witnesses, one of those witnesses being a five year old. And so, from the start, there was a very strong, very armored posture that the law enforcement were taking, and by law enforcement in this case of course we're talking a coalition of people, county officials, Minneapolis and St. Paul police, the FBI, the National Guard. So that carried over into the protests. And the first time I witnessed anything, any kind of weapons used, crowd control weapons used in the protest was Monday, the first day of protest, September 1st. That day had begun, or I began that day on the State Capitol lawn where the people who were taking part in the sanctioned march were gathering, and just as that gathering had begun, I started getting, everyone was communicating using Twitter, so I started getting these cell phone messages saying that this intersection there are riot police squaring off with protestors, at this intersection riot police have used tear gas, and so I quickly shifted to following either the riot police, or this kind of roving band of protestors, and covering this cat and mouse game for the day.

That, basically, initially, just kind of looked like a lot of, what would happen is you would come to an intersection and a lot of protestors would run around the corner, they'd square off with riot police, who would not deploy tear gas or their impact rounds that they could fire from these rifles, or anything. They would just kind of stand in formation and the protestors would scatter. The game changed at around three o'clock on that first day when some protestors called for something called the reconvergence.

GG: Let me interrupt you for a second, because there was, as you say, there was an authorized march, and a permit that had been issued by the city authorizing a certain parade or march that was negotiated with the ACLU and lawyers from the city and others; and that march or that permit ended at some point in the afternoon, I think it was 1:00pm or 3:00pm, and there was a sense that day that the police would really start getting aggressive, meaning using violence and force, essentially when the permit expired at around three o'clock. So, that really coincided, didn't it, with the escalation of conflict, namely the...

JG: Yeah, it coincided with that, it also coincided with, as I went to cover this reconvergence I past a Minneapolis police squad car that had all its windows smashed in, and of course somebody had smashed the window of Macy's, and so, from various different ends, the game had changed. And it was in that three o'clock stand-off that I witnessed, that I first saw police warn that they were going to use chemical agents if people did not disperse, and then of course watch them use those.

And what I saw used the most over the course of those days - there was three key weapons. One was something called a "triple chaser" grenade, and that's a tear gas grenade, it's a kind of canister that, once the pin is pulled, and it's tossed out, explodes into three pieces that shoot off at about roughly twenty feet from one another, and it's actually a pyrotechnic device, and tear gas comes streaming out of it. They started using those that day. They were using smoke bombs. A few of the police were armed with these rifles that shoot these 40 mm, they're called impact rounds - they kind of look like a clown nose, and they can either be just the impact round plain, or you can put some sort of irritant inside of it, and then of course there was pepper spray from the cans, and that was, once they had unleashed that, it seemed like that became to some extent the MO for every stand off after that for the next few days.

GG: Right. One of the things that was most striking to me, and that continues to be most disturbing, is the indiscriminate nature of the force that was used, and that really began that weekend prior to the protests, with these mass raids that swept up all kinds of people who were not even remotely involved in any wrong-doing or criminality - you know, houses of 30 people who were forced on the floor and handcuffed, and searched, and essentially detained for hours.

But then, once the protest began as well, obviously you had a tiny portion of the protestor who were engaged in illegality and violence, throwing bricks through windows or police cars, who ought to have been arrested and subdued. And yet what you had instead were, was the use of force against mass crowds indiscriminately, so if there were a hundred people near one person throwing a brick, those hundred people would be forced into a circle, detained, forced to put their hands up in the air, threatened with arrest, often arrested - that's how journalists from AP and Democracy Now and others got swept up.

Talk about the use of force, the indiscriminate use of force against crowds using those weapons that you just described. I mean, was the force, did this force end up affecting people who were just peacefully protesting as well as the handful of people engaged in violence, or was it directed specifically at people who were breaking the law?

JG: Well, I mean, yeah, what I felt like I was witnessing, and I saw at least one major stand off and clash a day for the RNC, was police using riot control tactics and weapons against situations that were not in fact riots. And that was a concern to me. And I certainly witnessed the police using, especially pepper spray, but really their whole arsenal, against people who were clearly not protestors, people who were clearly not provoking or posing a threat to law enforcement.

I mean, on that first day, I was right behind the National Lawyers' Guild legal observer wearing a very clear neon green hat that said legal observer. He was actually on the sidewalk, and one of the police in the line just kind of pointed his pepper spray, and this not the kind of stuff you have on your key chain, I mean, these were thick, thick, long streams, and pointed at right at his face from about three feet and just sprayed. And you know, of course there's video footage of this kind of thing now. I myself was sprayed, I had one of these explosive canisters land at my feet at one point, and I jumped in time for it to explode and send its three pieces in every direction.

And so, yes, I witnessed this. My experience every day was that the police were extremely restrained until they weren't. They would stand in position for as much as an hour sometimes, while holding the lines that the protestors couldn't move forward. And then, every time that, what looked to be restraint, you thought they might just hold until things dissipated, became smoke bombs and tear gas and pepper spray, and there were times when it was indiscriminate, there were times when people who had wandered into this scene were caught up in it. I certainly witnessed that several times. And even at one point I was watching what was happening down by the river, one of the, actually the incident that led to eighteen felony riot charges, which was down on Shepherd's Road, on the very first day, police cornered a lot of protestors, after chasing them firing these tear gas canisters, and I was up on a bridge probably 200, 300 yards away, with elderly people with kids, people that were just watching what was going on and all of a sudden all of that tear gas just blew up with a strong wind, and we were all scattering and choking and - so it was quite a scene.

GG: Now, you mentioned the types of charges, felony charges that have been filed against several of the protestors. There have been reports as well that there's a kind of analogous statute in Minnesota that was modeled after the PATRIOT ACT on the federal level, and enacted in the weeks after September 11th, that has been used to charge some of those who have been arrested with terrorism-related crimes as well that carry very substantial jail times. What can you tell us about the numbers of people who have been arrested or charged with felonies, the kind of charges that have been filed, what the status of the charges are against some of the journalists who have been detained?

JG: There were 800 arrests, all told. And what I have in front of me, which I picked up have a press conference on the third day, were 18 individuals booked on felony riot charges from the incident I just spoke of at Shepherd's Road, at the end of the first day of protest. And then there's a separate document I have here which is a complaint, and it's eight individuals from the house raids, who were charged actually in this case with conspiracy to commit riot in the second degree in furtherance of terrorism. And that maximum sentence in that case is five years, maximum fine of 10,000, could be both. There is a statute in Minnesota law, it's kind of the Minnesota version of the federal PATRIOT ACT, and that could up the sentence to seven years apparently, from what I understand. It's an enhancement, this terrorism, mentioning terrorism in the charge.

And so, while I think this is very serious, there are so many unanswered questions 'cause things moved so fast from the time we were starting to report house raids, or raids generally, Friday night and then especially Saturday, you had all of these accusations flying, you had the Ramsey County Sheriff which is the county St. Paul is part of, showing bricks that he confiscated and talking about buckets of urine, and so already you had this sense of, wait, wait, what's going on, and how true is this, how serious is this, and then you go right into the convention, when it's just day after day of arrests, and all of a sudden there are felony charges coming out, and so - personally as a reporter I'm still in the middle of sorting all of this out. What happened, what should be taken seriously, what will become of these felony charges, advocates for the people charged have said early on that this would be an intimidation tactic, but there is the possibility they'll go through with these felony charges, and what will happen to them?

Honestly, I'm full of many more questions than I am answers, and those questions apply also, just on a very base level, to the weapons that were used against protestors. When I saw these weapons used to an instance; they were being used against people who were being peaceful, I have no problem acknowledging that there was violence and I have heard detailed accounts of this, but I witnessed these things being used, it was against peaceful protestors, whose only, I guess you could say 'crime', was blocking a road and refusing to move.

And so...

GG: You mean, like, peaceful civil disobedience, in essence.

JG: Yes. Civil disobedience. Basic civil disobedience. I mean, it raises - here's the kind of overarching question it raises, all of this raises, and I'll speak to a couple of specific questions I have, which is that, as we, ever since I would say, I guess you could go back to Seattle. Every time there's a major meeting like this with protests called, if a city or a county decides to go the route of outfitting their law enforcement with riot gear, it's always that they're a little bit more armed than in the last time. And we've got to kind of look down that road, and wonder where does that end. Then to get into some specific questions, in having watched these crowd control weapons used, my questions are what was the training? what were these officers told as they went into each day? Were they told things that reflected what the sheriff was saying in his press conferences, that these were effectively terrorists that were planning to commit terroristic acts, or so the charges say, and if so, what kind of climate did that create among the law enforcement officers who are disconnected from reality behind these massive riot gear suits. A lot of these questions I think have to be sorted out over the next couple weeks to really be able to look back and understand what happened.

GG: Well, talk about what the reaction was within the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. One of the things that actually struck me was some of the houses that I went to over that weekend that had been raided in Minneapolis, were being raided by the Ramsey County Sheriff's office, which as you say, doesn't include Minneapolis as its jurisdiction. There were some police officers from Minneapolis who actually seemed perturbed by the fact that these raids were taking place, conducted by the Ramsey County Sheriff's office. There's some suggestion that you alluded to earlier that a lot of this is coordinated by the federal government with these terrorism task force and funded by the federal government. I think you alluded to in your piece today the fact that there's some Minneapolis City Council members who are extremely angry about what they perceive to be the excessive use of force by the police departments and the various law enforcement agencies and want investigations and the like. It got very little press coverage nationally, these protests, and this confrontation between police officers and the protestors, but what is the reaction in your community? Are people indifferent, are they in favor of it, do they have questions as well that they want answered, what would you say is the prevailing sentiment about all these things?

JG: Well, the best I can tell, there's confusion, there are questions. When I was at that raid on Saturday morning before the convention started, the neighbors were just confused. I talked to a few neighbors, and they just said, I don't know, we heard a loud bang, we heard yelling, and now they're in and out and they're taking property, and we don't know, we don't understand what's happening here, and it did seem, they're looking at Ramsey County squad cars in front of their houses, the FBI was there. Best I can tell - and I can't give a real clear answer to that, 'cause I haven't really canvassed but - people that I ran into who were either passers-by or who had seen things on the news were just wanting to know what in God's name happened that provoked this kind of response. And that of course is the question we all have.

And on a more micro level, I was told by a Minneapolis law enforcement official off the record that the chief of police, Chief Dolan of the Minneapolis Police had not even read the warrant that was used to justify the raids on Saturday, as of Saturday night. These raids had happened with the assistance of Minneapolis police who were on the scene, but they were led by St. Paul or Ramsey County law officials or the FBI, maybe it goes higher. And the chief of police who was offering his own police to participate in what were guaranteed to be controversial actions, had not apparently even search warrants. Again, we get into these questions: who knew what when, and who was calling the shots, and these are all important things to know.

GG: Right. Well, last question I have is, one of the things that makes such an impression on was, I had been in Denver the week before I was in Minneapolis, and there were certainly extreme measures there taken to engage in crowd control strategies, and to keep protestors very far away from people as much as possible, but at the same time it was a much more subdued police presence - there wasn't this overt show of force. And yet the minute I got to St. Paul, even before the protest began on that Monday, that weekend, I was really amazed by just how militarized the city was, how much of a police state environment, climate had been created. I saw troops of police officers marching in military formation, chanting, very flamboyant displays of quite aggressive weaponry. Was that your impression as well, have you ever seen an American city that militarized before, and what role did you think that played in creating this tense climate over the next week?

JG: Well, I think that's a really important question. I mean, no, I've not seen anything like that in the United States; I've seen something like that in Iraq. And do not mean to compare these two things at all, I'm very cautious about that. But I haven't seen - there was a point where I was following a group of protestors who were being corralled onto a street from a dead end where their protest had ended, and the street they were corralled onto was literally, for four blocks, was lined on either end with shoulder to shoulder riot police with gas masks. It was a very stunning scene.

I do think the way the police presented themselves had a role in provoking - even if they were to just stand there - because it was a very intimidating sight, and at times, even if they weren't acting, someone who had one of these direct impact round rifles would be pointing the rifle one direction or another, and that in itself of course is very intimidating and provocative act. Or just one officer would lift his pepper spray and spray at just one person who was perhaps too close by his judgment. So there were these kind of provocative acts.

And I also sensed among the police that there were people who were willing to take it a little further than others. I remember very clearly on the final night of protests, when the police had kind of circled some protestors, they were horse mounted police, and there was a man standing in front of two horses with a peace sign flag, and that flag was maybe three feet, two feet from the eyes of two of the horses. One officer said, you gotta move that flag, you gotta move that flag, and the man didn't move the flag, and he pulled out this kind of telescoping baton, and was starting to make very aggressive movement, and the person next to him grabbed his arm, and said, no, no, no, and kind of stopped him. It also raises questions of how people felt behind those masks. Because it was certainly a provocative - the mere presence of those outfits were very provocative, I think.

GG: Yeah, absolutely, just the entire climate that was created by them. Well, as I said, there wasn't very much national reporting, but there was definitely some excellent local reporting by independent journalists, and certainly lots of really great articles that are still online, and the Minnesota Independent, that covered these events contemporaneously and have raised really important questions about them this week as well, and I would highly recommend your article as a leading example of that, and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me today.

JG: Thanks a lot.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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