Jailed protesters criticize police actions

Police arrest protesters in St. Paul
Police take protesters into custody September 1, 2008, at the intersection of Wall and East 7th St. in downtown St. Paul.
MPR Photo/John Pearson

Outside the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center last night, hundreds of people stood anxiously waiting for friends and loved ones to be released. Some lit candles and sang songs, standing across the street from a line of riot police on horseback.

Anita Betancourt was there waiting for her 19-year old daughter, who was taken into custody outside the Xcel Energy Center on Monday.

Arrests during the RNC
Graphic showing number of arrests by day during the RNC
MPR Graphic/Rebecca Cioni

Betancourt remembers her daughter describing the scene on the phone just before she was arrested.

"They just shot me and arrested me and I was just standing there. Everything, all of a sudden, everything was just chaos all around me," she told me, "They started pushing and shooting people, and the gas and pepper spray and all that stuff."

Betancourt's son is serving in Iraq. She says that's why her daughter made the trip from Mankato to St. Paul -- to protest the war and to call for the troops to come home. Now, she worries about how the arrest will affect her daughter.

"I wish everything would have just been peaceful and the cops would have been more careful of who they were arresting and shooting at before they did that because it seems like they were just charging at everybody," Betancourt said.

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With one more day of the convention to go, St. Paul has already doubled the number of arrests made in Denver during the Democratic National Convention.

Anita Betancourt waiting outside jail
Anita Betancourt, from Mankato, was waiting outside the detention center for her daughter. She says her daughter was participating in a peaceful anti-war demonstration on behalf of her brother, who is serving in Iraq, when she was arrested with a group of others
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

Attorney Matthew Ludt has handled more than a dozen cases of people arrested this week. He said the police caught a lot of innocent people up in the net as they attempted to target troublemakers.

"Not only were they trying to keep demonstrators, protesters, people who want to get their message across off the streets, as well as anybody that would have been violently doing so, they swept up everybody else, which was bystanders as well as journalists," Ludt said.

Ludt said many of his clients were arrested on inflated charges so they could be held longer. He also said they were denied the opportunity to make phone calls during their 36-hour custody.

Officials with the Ramsey County Sheriff's office deny those accusations. A spokeswoman said the department went out of its way to provide services for detainees, and even installed extra phones in the detention center for the RNC.

Of the more than 300 arrests this week, authorities issued charges for 21 felonies and 47 gross misdemeanors. The rest were either cited for misdemeanors and released, released pending further investigation or just let go.

Photojournalist Natha Weber says police beat him
Nathan Weber is a freelance photojournalist in St. Paul to cover the RNC. He was arrested Monday as he was documenting a street protest. He says police beat him, giving him a black eye and cutting his face.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

A number of journalists were among those arrested this week.

Chicago-based freelance photographer Nathan Weber was swept up as he covered a street protest near the Xcel Energy Center for an Independent Photo agency called Trifecta Press Photo. He said he identified himself as a member of the press, but said the police beat him and threw him to the ground before arresting him.

"Basically, once I was on the ground I received a couple of blows to the back of the head, which busted my forehead and the side of my face up and they had their knees in my back and were telling me not to resist and I wasn't resisting," Weber said. "I was trying to cooperate but I think under the heat and the pressure of what was going on that it was a kind of take no prisoners sort of attitude with the police and it didn't matter if you said you were press. It didn't matter what you said, you were going to jail."

Weber said he's angry the cops arrested him when he was just trying to do his job.

But former prosecutor Chris Wachtler said it's not easy for police in the heat of the moment to separate members of the media and innocent bystanders from protesters. Wachtler is an attorney who works with the Minneapolis and St. Paul Police unions and the Law Enforcement Labor Services union. He said making distinctions is even tougher for cops during a big event like the RNC.

"We've got a bad element in town and anytime that happens, unfortunately it's going to create a situation where there is going to be collateral damage, if you will, or collateral activity and it's unfortunate that that happens," Wachtler said.

He said cops will come under fire, no matter how well they handle themselves.

"If you're a cop, you live with that and you know that is going to be the case going into this, but that is part of your job," Wachtler said. "It's one of those jobs where it's sort of like being the coach of the Vikings. Everybody's got an opinion and everybody knows better than you do when the day is done, yet they are not the ones who have to stand in your shoes and do what you have to do. It's an incredibly difficult job."

Wachtler said Twin Cities law enforcement trained for years for the RNC. Considering the high profile nature of the event and the number of people in town this week, he said they did a great job.