In Context

In September 2008, thousands of delegates, officials and members of the news media descended on the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul for the Republican National Convention (RNC), as did thousands of protesters who wanted to speak out against issues ranging from the Iraq War to the economy to environmental policy.

Two years prior to the 2008 RNC, Minneapolis-St. Paul was designated a "homeland security site" and the FBI began "preventative" intelligence operations nationwide, including sending informants into many activist circles. As FBI special agent Christopher Langert says, "We, the FBI and the federal and state and local governments, knew that there were go[ing to] be some people that were go[ing to] come to St. Paul to do more than just demonstrate, more than just express their grievances. They were going to try to block delegates, cause destruction and . . . criminal activity."

In anticipation of demonstrations, the St. Paul police department formed a small group of police officers informally referred to as the free speech liaison team, or dialogue officers. These officers were tasked with establishing networks of open communication between law enforcement and demonstrators to preempt any tensions building during the lead-up to the convention. Their preventative measures included printing brochures informing protestors of their rights. The brochures state that protestors' rights to demonstrate in public areas are protected under the First Amendment, and police and government officials may only place "non-discriminatory and narrowly drawn 'time, place and manner' restrictions" on these rights. Permits may be required for certain events, but permits "cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views." The brochures also explained that engaging in unlawful acts, such as blocking traffic, destroying property, harassing people or trespassing on private property, is not protected by the First Amendment.

Over the course of the convention, from September 1 to September 4, when John McCain was announced as the Republican presidential candidate and Sarah Palin as his running mate, thousands peacefully participated in marches and other organized events. According to The Wall Street Journal, some protesters turned to smashing windows, clashing with police, slashing tires, throwing bags of human waste and confronting Republican delegates on the street. St. Paul police responded with pepper spray, tear gas, smoke canisters and what police called "distraction devices."

On September 4, the last day of the convention, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and mainstream media outlets reported that police arrested more than 300 people in St. Paul and about 100 people in Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, all but a handful were cited and released immediately, while in St. Paul, the vast majority were charged with gross misdemeanors or felonies and held for 36 hours, at which point individuals had to be charged or released in accordance with Minnesota law.

But the final night of the convention brought the largest show of force as hundreds of antiwar protesters rallied at the state capitol and tried to march to the convention center without a permit. According to Democracy Now!, hundreds of riot police arrived on the scene, using snowplows, horses and dump trucks to seal off downtown from the demonstrators. Protesters continued marching, and police employed concussion grenades, smoke bombs and pepper spray. The march ended with more than 200 demonstrators trapped on a bridge and hundreds of police in riot gear blocking them on either side. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 672 people were jailed over the course of the convention, 442 of whom later had their charges either dropped or dismissed.

In the wake of the convention, the ACLU called for an investigation into possible violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, including the arrest of reporters trying to gather the news, the mass arrest of hundreds of peaceful protesters, surveillance of and subsequent raids on several activist groups and private homes and the confiscation by law enforcement agents of constitutionally-protected private property.

In January 2009, the city of St. Paul released a report examining both the successes and shortcomings of its response to the 2008 RNC and made numerous suggestions for how future convention cities should prepare for such an event.

» American Civil Liberties Union: "ACLU Renews Its Call For Investigation Into Civil Liberties Violations At RNC"
» American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota: "Annual Report 2008-09"
» American Civil Liberties Union: "At Arraignment Court in St. Paul"
» Associated Press: "Nearly 300 Arrested at RNC Convention Protest"
» Democracy Now!: "Eight Members of RNC Activist Group Lodged With Terrorism Charges"
» Democracy Now!: "Nearly 400 Arrested on Last Day of RNC, Including Over a Dozen Media Workers"
» The Wall Street Journal: "Republican Convention Sees Violent Demonstrations"
» The New York Times: "As Throngs of Protesters Hit Streets, Dozens Are Arrested After Clashes"
» Saint Paul: "Report of the Republican National Convention Public Safety Planning and Implementation Review Commission"
» The Christian Science Monitor: "Protests at RNC Test Appropriate Response"
» The New York Times "G.O.P. Convention Has Police Alert and Protesters Planning"