Dozens of journalists arrested at RNC

Their crime? Covering the story

A weird thing happens to your nervous system when a flash-bang grenade explodes close enough for you to smell it. The higher functions of your consciousness evaporate and you suddenly go into slow-motion autopilot. The rational part of your brain knows that flash-bangs are virtually harmless, that their function is to frighten, not injure. But that part of your brain is gone. Base instinct takes over and you're no longer human—just a hairless ape trying to avoid things that go bang.

As John McCain spoke inside the Xcel Energy Center Thursday night about America's obligation to confront "threats to peace and liberty in our time," armed agents were busy cuffing and detaining nearly 400 people a half-mile away across I-94. Most were protesters who had overstayed their permit. (Their freedom to assemble had expired at 5 p.m. that afternoon.) Many were journalists and bystanders.

It began that afternoon when 800 demonstrators coalesced on the State Capitol lawn. They marched southward down John Ireland Boulevard, only to find that riot police had blocked off the bridge going into downtown. The crowd headed due east to get around them, this time taking Cedar Street across the interstate. Guided by overhead helicopters, police had already repositioned and blocked off Cedar. After an hour-long standoff, the demonstrators followed the same route they had taken across the State Capitol lawn. They were outflanked once again. Authorities had John Ireland Boulevard sealed just as tight as it had been two hours earlier.

As John McCain spoke inside the Xcel Energy Center about America's obligation to confront "threats to peace and liberty," armed agents were busy cuffing and detaining nearly 400 people, many of them journalists and bystanders
Nick Vlcek
As John McCain spoke inside the Xcel Energy Center about America's obligation to confront "threats to peace and liberty," armed agents were busy cuffing and detaining nearly 400 people, many of them journalists and bystanders

Just as dusk descended, the protesters headed north along Marion Avenue, away from the Xcel and away from the police. They took a right at University Avenue, filing down the eastbound lanes of the major thoroughfare chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!" They hadn't gone more than a block before the first smoke bomb was unleashed.

A thick billow of neon-green smoke wafted toward the crowd. Everyone retreated. Some ran.

"Walk!" yelled their fellow protesters, not wanting the officers to give chase. "Don't run! Walk! Don't run! Walk!"

It didn't matter. Loud explosions sounded and canisters flew in the air as we cut across University National Bank on the corner of University and Marion. We headed south on Marion—back the way we came—as impossibly loud flash bombs began going off around us with increasing frequency. Now people were running. Frantically scattering. A large number assembled on the bridge across I-94.

Standing across the street from the bridge, we could see they were bottlenecked in. Riot police had them ensnared.

Our only way out appeared to be a vast Sears parking lot behind us. We set off in that direction, unaware that our noose, too, had already been slipped. Droves of reinforcements materialized seemingly out of nowhere.

"Get back!" they shouted. "Get back!"

As if warding off vampires with garlic, I held my blue RNC press credentials in a vain attempt to summon their guidance. "Just tell me where to go," I said. "Just tell me where to go."

"That way!" roared an officer. He shoved my left shoulder and pointed across the street, away from the parking lot, back toward the bridge. The situation there looked every bit as chaotic, only more congested. I trotted in that direction, looking every direction at once, trying to avoid—

THUD! A skull-piercing noise exploded inside my cranium. It took a few seconds to realize that a flash bomb had just gone off less than 10 feet in front of me. Ears ringing, I turned around and stared directly into an inhuman gas mask. A muffled voice barked inside it.

"Move! Move! Move!"

But where? Officers were closing in from every direction. Now on the corner of St. Anthony and Marion, two dozen protesters, journalists, and bystanders suddenly realized they'd been had. The expertise with which the police had unfurled the trap was impressive in a way that makes your stomach churn.

Everyone's hands shot up.

"Everybody down!" bellowed numerous voices around us. "Get down! Put your hands behind your head!"

An elfin, curly-haired photographer tried to explain something to an officer, something about his equipment. The officer indifferently took out a Mace canister and unloaded it in his face. The photographer emitted primordial screams and dropped to his knees, rubbing his eyes and crying for help.

"I said put your hands behind your head!"

But he couldn't take his hands away from his face, which was now awash in tears and mucus.

"Put your hands behind your head, or you're getting Maced again!" This time, the photographer managed to pry his hands off his face and follow orders.

We sat in that position for a half-hour as police secured the area. A rigid silence had now replaced the shouting and screaming and exploding. Behind me, a sobbing middle-aged woman kept repeating that she lived in a nearby apartment, she didn't do anything, she was just outside watching. An officer told her to calm down and that "freaking out just makes it worse."

A female officer, noticing the press credentials around my neck, took them off and brought them to show a few of her colleagues. They stood in the middle of the blocked-off intersection and examined them. She returned and put them back around my neck.

"Those things are all bullshit, anyway," scoffed a young officer who was standing nearby.

"I just checked 'em," she replied. "They're valid."

"Well, I heard that press are going to jail tonight anyway, so it doesn't matter." He turned his head and spat.

Officers put us in white plastic cuffs. They herded us over to the curb. Of the 24 people perched on the curb, at least five were reporters of some stripe. We were charged with unlawful assembly. To my right sat a young videographer with MTV. Two spots down to my left sat Art Hughes, who, exactly one week earlier, had penned a guest opinion in the Pioneer Press condemning the detention of reporters and confiscation of equipment (it was titled "Free people in a free country are free to use their cameras"). The short, unassuming freelancer now sat on a curb, his hands bound, his backpack lying useless on the grass behind him.

We sat there for two and a half hours as police processed the hundreds of detainees. We were searched and patted down. Officers snapped makeshift mug shots in the middle of the road. Finally, we were herded into Greyhound buses bound for the Ramsey County Detention Center in St. Paul.

There, we were fingerprinted and held in 15x30 chain-link holding pens—a dozen people per cell—for about three more hours. One by one, we were called up to speak with booking officers. Then more waiting. Our names would be called again. Paperwork with another officer. Then still more waiting.

When my name was called to speak with officer L. Boudal, she handed me a checklist of my possessions. I verified that the list was accurate and complete, then answered a few very broad medical questions.

"Okay, that should do," she said. "Go ahead and take a seat and wait for the next officer to call you. Any questions?"

"Yes. What's happened to our democracy?"

A startled pause, then a quick recovery: "It's still here, don'tcha think? You'll just have to remember to follow the orders next time, won'tcha?"

I was freed at 3:30 a.m. 

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