Two anti-poverty protesters who organized an outdoor encampment on Harriet Island in St. Paul were arrested Thursday night after they refused to clear the park by the 11 p.m. closing time.
The arrests were peaceful, and the camp shut down quietly -- at least for the night.
But it brought a strong police presence to the camp, known to its inhabitants as "Bushville." About 60 officers arrived by bike and on foot, setting up a large perimeter around the area that gradually tightened throughout the night. About half of the officers were part of a crowd-control team, known as the "mobile field force," which will be sent out to trouble spots during next week's Republican National Convention. It included at least one officer securing the park with an assault rifle.
Officers notified the protesters about the closing time shortly after a couple dozen began hauling mattresses, sofas, a tent and a generator into the park Thursday afternoon. Starting around 8 p.m., the negotiation ensued. Mayor Chris Coleman also stopped by in the evening to observe.
The two arrested were taken to Ramsey County jail, and police said they were expected to be charged with trespassing. The remaining protesters left the park after receiving orders from police.
MPR News counted about 30 activists milling around the tent, but police said about twice that number were in the entire park after closing.
Protester Shamako Noble of San Jose, Calif., is a member of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. He thinks the police reaction was overkill.
"There's one thing to have police officers available and out there to enforce an ordinance. It's another thing to bring out 50 to 60 officers, at least 10 to 20 in riot gear, coincidentally around the same time that the Republican National Convention is taking place," Noble said. "So I think one of the biggest things we wanted to get out of this is to expose the fear of people speaking up for themselves in places where people don't want them to."
Sr. Cmdr. Joe Neuberger, who supervises the mobile field force, said the team was deployed to the park because the officers happened to be in training Thursday night. At one point, an officer was videotaping a videographer who was there to document police behavior.
Neuberger said the night provided a first glimpse of how police might respond to civil disobedience during the RNC, which starts Monday.
"If it goes like this, it's going to be great," he said. "The folks that wanted to make their statement made their statement. The folks that wanted to be arrested got arrested. I don't want to say it's a great resolution -- I would just as soon no one was arrested and we wouldn't have to come down here -- but if this is example of how police can cooperate with the folks who want to express their First Amendment rights, I think everyone won on this one."
The group, which aims to raise awareness of the poor and homeless, are also organizing a march around downtown St. Paul on Tuesday.
One of the two people arrested, organizer Tim Dowlin, said he drove all the way from Philadelphia to protest the RNC. And he says many more people will be joining the camp.
"Yes, it is a protest, it is a statement, but it also is a necessity," he said. "Our members don't have the money for hotels, so we really need a place to stay. There are actual homeless people that organize that would be homeless in their home towns, so to come to Minneapolis in an encampment is no different than what they're already dealing with."
The protesters who left the park Thursday said they will stay at churches and houses, rather than take up space in homeless shelters. And they planned to return today to Harriet Island and get settled in.