The Aftermath of the RNC Continues by Steve Clemens. March 8, 2009
It is now a little more than six months since those days of protest and mayhem in the streets of St. Paul before and during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Last week I finally had my “first appearance” at the Ramsey County Courthouse for my civil disobedience arrest as part of the Veterans For Peace March the day before the Convention started.
It was definitely anti-climatic. A Deputy City Attorney addressed the ten or so defendants sitting in the Courtroom for what the written notice promised was to be our “Arraignment”. We were ordered to be present at 9:01 am, the letters screaming in all capital letters: “YOU ARE EXPECTED TO APPEAR AT THE ABOVE TIME AND PLACE FULLY PREPARED. ALL FINES AND FEES ARE PAYABLE AT THE TIME OF SENTENCING.” It was followed with the caveat in three languages, Hmong, Spanish, and English: “IF YOU NEED AN INTERPRETER AT THIS APPEARANCE, PLEASE CALL [phone number].” The top of the notice had my Case Number and the Case Title: The State of Minnesota vs. STEPHEN DOUGLAS CLEMENS. Wow, my name gets all capital letters while the fearsome state government is only deemed worthy of lower case! At the bottom of the notice, again in lower case type, is the charge – “Offense: Trespass – refuse to depart the premises of another".
The Deputy City Attorney explained to us that there was an offer on the table for all of us: If we paid $224. in “court costs”, he would place our cases on a “track for dismissal” and, if we did not commit any “similar offenses” for the next year, our charges would be dismissed and removed from our records. This was certainly an attractive deal for the non-RNC defendants present because they were there for traffic-related charges which could lead to driver’s license revocation, heavy fines, loss of insurance, and even possible jail time due to previous offenses. It was clear this “bribe” was designed to help clear the increasingly crowded docket of Minnesota’s Second District Court.
We had to make our decision then and there and pay the “bribe” (or arrange a payment schedule). If we didn’t have the cash in hand, we could request a future appearance that the Court would arrange. I already knew the drill because I was in the Courtroom the week before when four of my co-defendants were scheduled to appear and were offered the same “deal”. The eight of us (the ninth person arrested with us never gave us any address or contact information and has not been heard from. Will he mysteriously appear at our trial as an undercover witness against us?) may be the only defendants among the 800+ arrestees from the RNC who do not want our charges dismissed. We want to have our “day in court”. We want a jury trial “of our peers”. We want to put the Government and the War on trial. That was the whole point of our civil disobedience.
When my name was called, I explained to the prosecutor that I wanted a “speedy, jury trial” but he responded that he had no way of recording that request – that I had to make that request at an Arraignment date the Clerk would issue me. We assumed the date could be the same as our co-defendants from the week before but not in this bureaucracy! We were told the first date available would be April 2, a week after the others. So, I told the Deputy City Attorney, “If the city wants to pay me $224. For NOT proceeding to my right to a jury trial, I’d consider accepting that.” He laughed and called up the next defendant.
I’ve been in this Courthouse before – at the beginning of this endless, tiresome war. I had a sit-in at Senator Norm Coleman’s office, refusing to leave when it closed at 5PM. I was on a liquid-only fast (which I continued for 35 days until President Bush announced the lifting of the economic sanctions against Iraq, a week before declaring “Mission Accomplished”) and sat in Norm’s office every weekday for an hour during that period with my Muslim prayer beads and photos of Iraqis I met there in December 2002. As I expected, I was charged with criminal trespass and had to show up four times at that same courthouse before I was told that my charges had been “dropped”. I had no say in the matter. My friend and co-defendant (this time), Betty once had to appear ten times before charges were dropped against her. So, while it’s not what we hope for, it is most likely what will happen once again after a lot of mindless hassle. Given the fact that taxpayers shelled out $50 million for the fancy riot gear and other trappings of an empire under siege for the RNC, at least there should be some trials where we “criminals” are found guilty and given our “deserved punishment”. Meanwhile, we wait and dutifully show up for the next day in court.
But having the possibility of up to 90 days in jail ahead of me isn’t the only “aftermath” of the RNC. I still have the occasional “flashback” when I travel downtown St. Paul near 5th and St. Peter. I still have a visceral reaction when I see a police squad car or a cop in uniform. Not all the time – but enough to recognize that there are vestiges of PTSD from that week on the streets in September. My personal lingering harbingers are minor in scope when contrasted to the much deeper fear and/or disgust with “law enforcement” among many who witnessed or experienced the intimidation of “the Empire Strikes Back”. Was it only a coincidence that the riot-clad police resembled Darth Vader in their black-clad, helmeted gear? Their riot stick batons were shorter than the laser swords of Star Wars but still were eerily similar.
Every week or so the news comes dribbling out that more RNC-related cases have been dropped, a mistrial has been declared in a felony case where the government informer was accused of being a provocateur. Some first appearances of the RNC 8 in court have begun. But, for the most part, the media has moved on. All that is yesterday’s news. Who actually won the US Senate race or the latest unemployment rates and this weeks lay-offs need to be covered. The war, of course, continues. But unless you have a friend or family member in military uniform and deployed over there, it won’t make the front page of the ever marginalized and shrinking newspaper.
A lot of people came to St. Paul last fall to protest the war – and the politicians who presided and profited over it. But the demonizing of dissent and the actions taken by “law enforcement” made the focus more on them than the war. I was going to write “police” but stopped myself when I flashed on the fact that many of the real villains were wearing “Ramsey County Sheriff” uniforms. Some had FBI in bold letters on the backs of their windbreakers. One of the officers at my arrest wore a DNR uniform. Secret Service, National Guard. It wasn’t just “police” and it clearly was designed much more for intimidation than “law enforcement”. So people who came to protest the war ended up protesting the police.
How did we get so distracted? Or, is one merely a vestige of the other? In an imperial state, the power to wage war is sometimes focused inward, sometimes outward. Sometimes they are simultaneous.
A friend of mine and fellow Minnesota Peace Team Member is a professor at St. Thomas in the Justice and Peace Studies Department. He is presently teaching a class in Conflict Resolution and asked me to join a panel to discuss what should we do in the aftermath of the RNC events? He wants to explore: How do we address the damage done and help in the healing of the community? Should we form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Or do we encourage circle-discussion groups in the community? What is the process that can help repair the community and ourselves? Who needs to be in the room participating?
Some are advocating lawsuits and filing counter-charges. Some just want to feel there is some transparency about who decided what - maybe to hold them accountable, certainly to learn from before the next time. The national election is over and most people have “moved on”. But the scars and scabs, the fears and resentments remain –sometimes on the surface, sometimes down in the gut. Probably also lurking in the subconscious. I’m reminded of the words of the Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah: “You have covered over the wounds of my people lightly. You cry ‘Peace, Peace’ when there is no peace.”
We need an accounting. A public disclosure of who decided what. How was the decision carried out? Who/what was damaged in the process. Can restitution help in the needed reconciliation? If we “move on”, are we just damning another group of people to repeat the same mistakes? Was it a “mistake”? Or was the result the intended one?