The St. Paul Police Department is arming itself with Tasers.
Local activists and media say that the department ordered 230 stun guns in late February – adding to the 140 already in its possession – in preparation for protests at the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC), which St. Paul will host from Sept. 1 to Sept. 4.
Police spokesman Tom Walsh denies any connection between the arrival of the Tasers and the upcoming RNC. “They are not related to the convention in any way,” says Walsh. “A patrol officer suggested months ago that we supply our force with Tasers.”
But some demonstrators are wary of such assurances.
“Our concern is that they’ll have them and that they’ll use them,” says Marie Braun, a member of Women Against Military Madness, which has received a permit to protest in a St. Paul park on Sept. 1. “These are dangerous weapons and people have died as a result of them being used.”
Four years ago at the RNC in New York, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested thousands of demonstrators, holding many of them in an asbestos-filled pier on the Hudson River until the convention’s conclusion.
And at an impromptu mass march toward Madison Square Ground where President Bush’s re-election fest was being held, an NYPD officer in civilian clothing reportedly provoked a fight by driving a scooter into the crowd.
St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom told the online newspaper MinnPost.com in December that no St. Paul police officers would infiltrate protest organizations, and the force will dress in regular uniforms – not riot gear – during the convention.
And spokesman Walsh insists that the department will patrol the streets of St. Paul without help from contract cops or the Secret Service, who will operate only inside the Xcel Energy Center where the convention will take place.
Nevertheless, an underground anarchist group that calls itself the “RNC Welcoming Committee” states on its website that “the RNC, local police and federal agents are likely to get violent.”
The group and other activists cite a Critical Mass bike ride last August in neighboring Minneapolis that led to police using Tasers and pepper spray to break up the event and arrest 19 protesters. The gathering coincided with what the Welcoming Committee calls the “pReNC, a weekend of radical organizing in preparation for the RNC.”
During the subsequent trial of one cyclist, Minneapolis police Sgt. David Stichter reportedly testified that the department had created a task force to monitor Critical Mass because it knew RNC protesters would participate in the ride.
“[They have been] taking every opportunity to try and intimidate the people who live here,” says an activist using the name “Diablo Bush,” referring to the local police.
On March 13, the Welcoming Committee’s website began requesting Taser donations. So far it has received none, according to an e-mail message to In These Times from Diablo Bush.
“Any Tasers we do receive would be simply for day-to-day maintenance of public safety,” jokes Diablo, “and are not at all related to the RNC – just like the St. Paul Police Department’s order [of Tasers].”
In May, the Twin Cities’ alternative-weekly, City Pages, reported that University of Minnesota police were working with an FBI special agent to recruit “moles” to attend vegan potlucks, gain the trust of RNC protesters and report back to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a partnership between federal agencies and local police.
Last summer, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the nearby Ramsey County Sheriff’s office was preparing to construct pens to hold 5,000 arrested protesters – a report Bostrom of the St. Paul police claimed was news to him.
Says Braun of Women Against Military Madness: “We have as much concern about the police as anyone, because when we look at political conventions in the past, it’s often the police that have a history of overreacting.”