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When I flew into St. Paul on Saturday evening, August 30, I encountered a din in local media about "preemptive strikes" on those already congregating there to demonstrate against the Iraq war and injustice against the poor in our country. St. Paul’s Pioneer Press expressed surprise that "despite preemptive police searches" and arrests, a group calling itself "the RNC Welcoming Committee" was still intent on "disrupting the convention."
A headline screamed, "Preemptive Arrests of Protesters in Twin Cities." But it was the article’s lead that hit home: "Borrowing from the Bush administration’s ‘preemptive war’ playbook, police agencies in the Twin Cities have made ‘preemptive strikes’ against organizations planning to protest at the Republican National Convention."
In the following days I was to see, up close and personal, a massive and totally unnecessary display of ruthlessness.What struck a bell was that this domestic application of the dubious doctrine of "preemption" was totally predictable—indeed, predicted by those courageous enough to speak out before the U.S. "preemptive" attack on Iraq. Ironically, it was FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, living in the St. Paul area, who warned of precisely that in her hard-hitting letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller three weeks before the attack on Iraq. [Text of Feb. 26, 2003 Letter, published March 6, 2003 in NY Times]
Confronting Mueller on a number of key issues (like "What is the FBI’s evidence with respect to the claimed connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq?"), Rowley warned of the trickle-down effect of "the administration’s new policy of ‘preemptive strikes’":
"I believe it would be prudent to be on guard against the possibility that the looser ‘preemptive strike’ rationale being applied to situations abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude on the part of law enforcement officers in this country."
Rowley called Mueller’s attention to the abuses of civil rights that had already occurred since 9/11, and pointedly warned "particular vigilance may be required to head off undue pressure (including subtle encouragement) to detain or ‘round up’ suspects."
Transforming the Police
While in St. Paul, I got in touch with Rowley, who has been politically active in the Twin City area, and asked for her reaction to St. Paul’s version of preemption. This was hardly her first chance to say I-told-you-so, but she called no attention to her right-on prophesy five and a half years ago.
Shaking her head, Rowley simply bemoaned how easily the artificial stoking of fear had succeeded in causing the "otherwise wonderful community police officers of St. Paul to turn on their own peaceful citizens (the surreal insanity we witnessed during the RNC)." She added that, once the Feds, the fusion centers, the contractors get into the act, "all the rules go up in smoke."
The "preemption" began on Friday, August 29, well before the RNC began on Sept. 1.
An academic doing research on social movement organizations, who for several months has been observing the main protesters—the RNC Welcoming Committee, the Coalition to March on the RNC and End the War, and the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign—provided this account:
"On Friday evening the space in St. Paul that was being rented by the Welcoming Committee was raided by riot police, who knocked in the door with automatic weapons drawn, forced the 60-70 activists inside onto the floor, handcuffed them, then proceeded to confiscate all the banner-making supplies and movement literature.
"Over the course of several hours the cops interrogated, photographed, ran warrant checks, and eventually, released everyone one by one. Then they closed down the space for a code violation. The next morning a city code inspector arrived and found no basis for closing the space.- Advertisement -
"Saturday morning was one of escalation and terror. The Ramsey County Sheriff Department, together with the St. Paul police, Homeland Security, and the FBI raided four private houses. At 8:00 AM, dozens of cops in SWAT gear broke down the door of one house where about a dozen activists were staying. They were awakened with rifle barrels in their faces and forced to lie face down for more than an hour.
"The cops stole all the computers and other electronic devices in the house, and core members of the Welcoming Committee sleeping there were arrested. It being a holiday weekend, those arrested for alleged crimes could not arrive in court until Wednesday, at the earliest. Thus, those trying to organize demonstrations will be in jail for the entire time the RNC is going on. Four other houses were raided and dozens of activists were detained."
The academic who wrote the report appealed to those concerned over "this enormous police over-kill" to contact the Twin Cities’ mayors and demand an end to the "witch hunt." He added, "The people who were arrested were some of the gentlest, most dedicated activists I’ve ever met." A far cry from the "criminal enterprise" described by notorious Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.