Party conventions have historically been terrible places for the rights of protesters. At both party’s conventions, protesters are restricted to “free speech zones,” where they cannot influence delegate. If they leave that area, they are likely to be arrested, even if they are demonstrating peacefully and not resisting arrest. The events of this year’s Republican National Convention were way out of line.
Before the convention, Minnesota police conducted preemptive raids on peaceful protesters in their homes, handcuffing them and seizing their property as evidence. At the convention, police sprayed mace at protesters and reporters who found themselves in the wrong place. Protesters were arrested in huge numbers, on charges of nothing more than “fire code violations,” and people who had no affiliation with the protesters were arrested regardless. People attending concerts at different venues were arrested on the same charges as protesters.
That is not to say there were not any protesters doing illegal things like destroying property, but the vast majority of protesters were acting peaceably. After this news flooded the Internet, another news item – a much scarier one -arrived on the blogosphere. Amy Goodman, host and producer of Democracy Now!, someone with press credentials and the right to be at the convention, was arrested along with two of her producers. Other reports of journalists being arrested and detained along with over 300 protesters trickled onto the Internet, which were later confirmed by the journalists themselves.
The implications of the actions of the police are far reaching. If journalists can be arrested for asking questions of the police at political events, then journalists are not free to do their jobs. The journalists who don’t cover this breach of conduct and allow it to happen without public knowledge are letting their institution be corrupted and letting the object of their story control where the story goes. The vast majority of stories written about the RNC had no mention of the protests, arrests or egregious violations of the First Amendment at all. Investigative journalism is now in danger; few people would be willing to risk arrest to get the story.
Personally, I haven’t trusted the major news networks for a long time. The mainstream media always makes the effort to balance a story, to make both sides seem equivalent, even if that is not the case. The dearth of reports about arrests at the Republican National Convention only reassured me of how right I was. It also told me how desperate the Republicans are, that they would resort to police state tactics to keep people from voicing concerns about their flawed perspective.
The Republicans had already been flustered by rescheduling their convention around Hurricane Gustav; they had to make sure everything else about the convention went as planned. They couldn’t tolerate any miscalculations or errors and thus had to prepare for any eventuality. The great proof of their plan to use the police to crush protesters was the fact that they had a $10 million insurance plan to cover lawsuits negotiated with St. Paul.
As Americans, we have the right to assemble. I fear that none of the arrested protesters or reporters will press charges against the city, state or convention for violating this right because it would be too expensive over what seems like not a big deal. As long as we tolerate this kind of abuse, the police will continue using these kinds of aggressive tactics to quell protests and ultimately silence the voice of reason. The people of St. Paul were the first victims this presidential cycle. I worry they won’t be the last.
Chelsea Ketchum is a sophomore political science major.