Monday, September 8, 2008

Hundreds of Arrests at GOP Convention

Nearly 400 Arrested on Last Day of RNC, Including Over a Dozen Media Workers
Democarcy Now
September 5, 2008

As John McCain accepted the Republican presidential nomination inside the Xcel Center last night, nearly 400 people were being arrested on the streets of St. Paul, including more than a dozen media workers. Among them were Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films and Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who had been arrested on Monday while covering another protest. They were handcuffed and detained for about an hour and a half before being released and issued a citation for unlawful assembly.

AMY GOODMAN: As Senator John McCain accepted the Republican presidential nomination inside the Xcel Center last night, nearly 400 people were being arrested on the streets of St. Paul, bringing the total number of convention-related arrests to more than 800.

On Thursday, afternoon several hundred antiwar protesters had rallied at the State Capitol. About 5:00 p.m., when their protest permit expired, they tried to march to the convention center. But in one of the largest shows of police force during the Republican convention, hundreds of riot police arrived on the scene, backed by snowplows, horses and dump trucks to seal off downtown from the demonstrators.

The protesters continued walking, tried to cross several bridges that span Interstate 94 into downtown St. Paul. As night fell, police turned to harsher tactics. They fired concussion grenades, smoke bombs, pepper spray into the crowd.

The march ended with more than 200 demonstrators trapped on the Marion Street bridge with hundreds of police in riot gear blocking either side. The protesters were forced to sit on the tarmac with their hands on their heads. The police then moved in and arrested everybody, including more than a dozen members of the media. Among them, Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films and Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who had been arrested on Monday, as well, while covering a separate protest. Rick and Sharif were cuffed, detained for about an hour and a half, before being released and issued a citation for unlawful assembly.

I arrived on the scene from the convention center as they were being released. I saw Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher nearby. I asked him about their arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: Sheriff Fletcher, are these misdemeanors?

SHERIFF BOB FLETCHER: Well, yes, they are.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I just ask, how is the press expected to function in St. Paul?

SHERIFF BOB FLETCHER: Well, you’ll have to ask Chief Harrington. The arrests were made by the St. Paul Police Department, and this is the way that they chose to resolve the issue of the press being there. The city attorney’s office will have to make the decision as to whether people are charged or not. But as you can see, we’ve released the press as quickly as possible. And most everyone else will be going down, down to the jail.

AMY GOODMAN: But they were released and charged with misdemeanors. They get a record for trying to cover a protest.

SHERIFF BOB FLETCHER: But do understand how the system works. The St. Paul Police Department made the arrest, and we’re the detention facility. And we have a choice as to how we want to detain and process, but we do not have a choice regarding the citation. The citation will be—has Commander Steve Frazer’s name. He was the incident commander at the time, and the arrest is pursuant to his decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Were any other reporters released?

SHERIFF BOB FLETCHER: Well, you know, you find that out, you call me. And if that’s the case, you know, we’ll certainly talk to Chief Harrington and say if someone was treated in a different way, they should receive a citation. It won’t be difficult to issue a citation under those circumstances. But nobody got hurt.

AMY GOODMAN: But as a law—well, I think the Constitution got hurt. When reporters are cited with misdemeanors, when they’re peacefully there covering protests.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ve come in from out of town to cover a major national event, which is the convention.

SHERIFF BOB FLETCHER: And you realize that I’m talking to you, because I’ve always believed that every elected official should be accessible and answer questions. You should never avoid them. But I can’t answer all your questions, because the St. Paul Police Department made the arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, speaking last night, as our own reporters were released: producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous of Democracy Now! and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films, among other reporters.

Sharif joins us now after a sleepless night. Sharif, once again, I mean, on Monday, as we were—as you were covering the protest with Nicole Salazar, another protest, you were arrested, and you still face felony riot charges for covering that protest. Now, you went off to this next protest. Explain exactly what happened.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I was with Rick Rowley. He had the camera. We were at the protest for several hours. It kept moving along. They wanted to march to the Xcel Center, but they were banned from doing that. They had a permit to—until 5:00. But, you know, that’s before any of the delegates show up at the Xcel Center, so it’s kind of a meaningless protest. So they continued after their permit had expired.

They kept trying to cross, but it really was a big show of force by the police. You saw these snow plows for the first time, a lot of horses, a lot of policemen on bicycles. And they kept blocking each bridge. And the march would move on. They’d block the bridge. And there would be a lot of coordination among the police.

Eventually, the march ended up on a back street, and it started getting darker. And that’s when the police resorted to harsher tactics. They threw a lot of concussion grenades, a lot of smoke bombs, pepper spray, some teargas. And the crowd was kind of dispersing. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And you were where in all of this?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We were everywhere. I was basically buddying up with Rick to help him film. In these situations, you need someone to come to watch the camera person’s back. And so, I was helping him. And sometimes we were at the police line when the concussion grenades were being thrown. We were actually next to where the police were. At other times, we would be with the protesters. So we’re just filming the entire scene to get a sense of what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: When did they arrest you?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, after the concussion grenades were thrown, the police basically corralled everyone onto the Marion Street bridge, about 200 people. As soon as we were on the bridge, we realized that we were trapped. Everyone—they had a line of riot cops on one side, a line of riot cops on the other, and the marchers had nowhere to go.

Mind you, a lot of these marchers were, at that point of the night, saying, “I want to get out of here. I want to go home.” While the smoke bombs were being thrown. But at that point, there was no opportunity to leave. And once everyone was on the bridge, I stood up on the railing with Rick, who was filming. They told everyone to sit down, to put their hands on their heads. Everyone complied.

Let me just say from the start, this was a very non-confrontational group of people who were doing this march. Every time the riot police would form a line, they would simply turn and try and go to another bridge. They never pushed the cops. They never did anything like that. It was a very compliant group of protesters, if you will. And so, once they were told to sit down, everyone did. They sat down with their hands on their heads. I tried to stay up with Rick to try and discern ourselves, that we’re filming the scene.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have all of your press credentials on.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. I had my Democracy Now! press pass and my RNC pass, which actually is the one that got me off easier than I would have if I didn’t have that one, because when we—we were told to sit down over a megaphone. We did. And slowly, the cops walked up. I held out my pass. I said we’re journalists. And we’re sitting amongst a group of about maybe six or eight other camera people, sound people, clearly all press.

AMY GOODMAN: And the local networks, what, NBC?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There was Channel 4 there. I forgot the call letters. But there was a bunch of clearly—they were all journalists there. The first row walked up, of cops. You know, I said, “I’m a journalist. I’m press. I’m here filming.” He goes, “Well, you shouldn’t be here. You should have dispersed.” He arrested me. So, once we were sitting down, Rick and I were sitting with our—cuffed behind our back for about an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: With your hands cuffed behind your back?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes, not tightly. Not like the first day. But still cuffed. And I was speaking to the police. And he goes, you know, “Why didn’t you guys just disperse when we tell you to disperse, and this is not going to happen?” I told him, “You’ve been telling me to disperse since 5:00 p.m. And so, you know, there would be no press for four hours of this march. You know, we can’t—we’re just doing our job. We’re not going to disperse whenever you tell us to. We’re going to continue to do this.”

Eventually, I told him to keep checking with his superiors, to keep calling it in that he had media. And he did. And he let us not board the bus to the prison, but we eventually were driven off to a parking lot, where I called you in a van, and they dropped us off, and I got a citation for unlawful assembly.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll see what that means exactly, whether you now will be charged with this misdemeanor of unlawful assembly, leaving you with a record. We will continue to ask. And I understand there’s going to be a gathering of people at City Hall to hand in tens of thousands of names on a petition today, calling for freedom of the press in St. Paul.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Let me just say, on a funny note, I was just sitting there, and, you know, you have to fill out all these forms when they arrest you. And so, he said, “Just, this may seem like a curious question, but what ethnicity do you consider yourself?” So I said, “I’m Arab American.” And he looked at his sheet, and he’s like, “I don’t have a box for that.” So he said, “Would you consider yourself African?” So I said, “Well, Egypt’s in Africa.” And then he just got all confused. I said, “Just check ‘other,’ man. Don’t worry about it.” It was a funny moment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here you have Sharif Abdel Kouddous, just another reporter getting arrested in St. Paul, trying to cover this, what they call a national security event, the Republican National Convention.

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