Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security $100 million ($50 million each) to provide security for the Democratic and Republican national conventions. At the Democratic convention in Denver, political dissent and protest were marginalized. Protesters were confined to free speech zones, also known as “freedom cages”. This is a tactic that was perfected by the Bush Administration (see item 282). At the Republican convention in St. Paul, this went even further into outright suppression of dissent. Earlier in 2008, local law enforcement coordinated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (see also item 372 on fusion centers) began infiltrating Twin City groups with no history of violence, like vegans, in anticipation of the convention.
Then just days before the convention opening, the FBI and local law enforcement, especially of diehard Republican loyalist Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, initiated a series of punitive raids over the weekend against various groups. The first occurred at a central clearinghouse for protestors known as the “Welcoming Committee”. Those there were handcuffed, computers were seized, but no arrests were made. Sheriff Fletcher released a statement in which he described the “Welcoming Committee” as a “criminal enterprise made up of 35 self- described anarchists who are intent on committing criminal acts.” If such were the case, it is surprising no arrests were made. The following day raids were also carried out against other “dangerous” groups, such as Legalwatch and Food not Bombs. In one case, building inspectors arrived after a raid and gave owners until 6:30 the next morning to fix the door the police had kicked in or have the premises boarded up.
In the later raids, some 6 individuals were arrested but none charged. Instead they were kept on probable cause holds. Such a hold allows police to hold someone up to 36 hours, weekends not counting, without charge. Effectively, this permits law officers like Sheriff Fletcher to mete out 4-5 day jail sentences to anyone he doesn’t like, in other words, punishment without charge, conviction, or crime. Similar strong arm tactics by the New York police at the Republican convention in 2004 led to settlements in the millions. But with the federal government underwriting security costs this is not much of a disincentive.
On September 1, 2008, the police using pepper spray, tear gas, and “less lethal” projectiles fought numerous battles with demonstrators most of whom were peaceful. By the end of the first day, official figures listed 163 arrests, unofficial numbers 256.
This pattern of infiltration, fearmongering, high profile raids, large shows of military style force, aggressive indiscriminate treatment of demonstrators, and mass arrests has come to be known as the “Miami model” from its use against protesters to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations in Miami in November 2003.
In the early phases, police actions were largely ignored by the mainstream media and most of the reporting came from bloggers and independent media sources. As violence increased, the mainstream media did pick up the story but even they noted that most protesters were peaceful.
It is important to remember that the real object of these raids, seizures, and arrests is not to stop crime but dissent. They are meant to send a message, that if you protest, even legally, even peacefully, you risk arbitrary detention, seizure of your property, punishment, and humiliation by the powers that be. Dissent in this country has become for many un-American. Worse it is seen as a kind of terrorism. This is all the more bizarre and disheartening because our country was itself founded on dissent. Pilgrims, Quakers, believers and non-believers of all sorts, came to these shores precisely because they did not agree with the powers of their day. The Founding Fathers were dissenters and started a revolution and a country over their dissent. The Framers understood this and enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution the right to dissent in both the guarantees of freedom of speech and of peaceful assembly. Yet in the Age of Terror, dissent is no longer seen as a living, breathing expression of our democracy but as suspicious, probably criminal, certainly unpatriotic, a thing to be suppressed, especially so that the greater good, in this case the photo-ops of the national party conventions can proceed unquestioned, unchallenged, and unhindered.