On September 19, St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman announced that the city would decline to prosecute journalists detained over the course of the RNC for most minor offenses, including unlawful assembly. Asserting that “the police did their duty in protecting public safety,” he still failed to account for the several days of lost reportage on account of the detentions — or to reassure the public that no journalists would face charges.
Also underlying his announcement was a disturbing presumption that corporate media remained legitimate, while citizen journalism, advocacy journalism, or independent journalism — people not, in his words, “identified as journalists” — might still be prosecuted. And when, as I’ve documented elsewhere, economic censorship has caused many independent outlets to shut down anyway (particularly those, such as my own Punk Planet — an independent publication devoted to music, art, and politics that ran for 13 years — that would have devoted entire issues to covering the police torture at the conventions), we’re confronted with a situation in which we can receive stunningly little information about this unparalleled attack not just on democracy, and not just on civil rights, but on our lives. As one journalist put it, nothing about the aggressive display of force made sense — unless you viewed it as an act of war.
It’s a war that’s still being waged. As this story goes to press, residents of St. Paul are being harassed by police over alleged involvement in protests. Court dates are coming up. And groups such as I-Witness Video will continue to collect documentary evidence as to what exactly transpired.
“What we do is long-term investigative reporting,” Eileen Clancy of I-Witness explains. “We’re going to be doing a lot more work looking into this. We saw in both convention cities what I would call an excessive and disproportionate use of force on crowds of people who were behaving in a low-key manner.”
The legal implications take time to sort — who was given orders to disperse, when, etc. — but the concept of “disproportionate use of force” is key.
“The emptying of pepper-spray canisters into the eyes of protesters,” for example, as Clancy explains, “rose to the level of torture. And this is what was plainly visible on the street. Many of these people who had been drenched in these toxic chemicals were then denied medical treatment and were not able to wash off any of the effects. . . . These are people [police] who were using pepper spray in a way that it’s likely the manufacturers never imagined.
“Police officers were using aggressive and violent tactics on peaceful demonstrators in the middle of the day in full daylight. Those are the kind of things that generally happen when it’s dark. They seem very comfortable and confident, and acted as if they had impunity [while performing acts] that, to an observer, didn’t seem defensible.”
Though it took place in the evening, Clancy refers specifically to a young single woman caught by several independent journalists (and a local Fox affiliate) singing and chanting “I love you” to a group of perhaps eight officers who surround her, drench her face with tear gas, knock her down with a bike, and continue to spray her directly in the eyes. (We again direct your attention to this YouTube video as nauseating proof.)