The View of a Protest

Police Surround Group
Police surround a group of people -- a mix of concert-goers and protesters -- who were ordered to sit down at an incident on Shepard Road near the Wabasha Bridge.
MPR photo/Paul Tosto

For twenty years I've been a journalist, and I'd never been in a riot. So when Minnesota Public Radio invited a first amendment lawyer to talk with us about police-protester confrontations I listened.

Attorney Mark Anfinson told us that if we got caught up in a melee, police didn't have to treat us differently from anyone else. And if we were arrested, or even charged with something, it was the police officer's word against yours.

I carried that, and other bits of advice, with me on Monday, as I was assigned to follow a group of protesters heading toward the river in St. Paul.

About a couple of hundred protesters walked down to Shepard Road. They started tipping over garbage bins and road signs. When we got to Jackson Street, we saw 40 or 50 more protesters in bandannas. They were holding up what looked like a corrugated sign. On the other side of Jackson Street were maybe ten police in riot gear. One of the officers knelt and aimed what looked like a small firearm.

"Many times you are certain about what you saw. You just aren't being accurate about what happened."

The protesters crouched behind their sign, locked arms and moved forward. Then came the bang... and another... and more.

I learned later the police fired stinger ball grenades and pepper spray. They drove the protesters, along with us reporters, back west on Shepard Road. The protesters began a loud chant - a warning of sorts.

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"The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching," the protesters chanted.

Another line of police waited as we headed east. We were trapped, right where Shepard Road passes by the Science Museum of Minnesota. Then we heard a police officer through a bullhorn tell us: "Ladies and gentleman, you are now under arrest, please kneel down and place your hands on top of your head."

At first police wouldn't let me go. But after frantically waving my press pass, I was released. Others weren't so lucky. More than 100 were given citations for unlawful assembly. Eighteen others were arrested and charged with felony riot.

Police watching protesters
Police in S.W.A.T. gear watched as protesters made their way towards the Xcel Center in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

The police had their version of events. In a complaint they said the confrontation began after officers told protesters not to advance. The complaint said protesters not only moved forward, but they hurled rocks, chunks of blacktop, fireworks, plastic bottles filled with an "unknown liquid" and a white bag with what appeared to be "fecal matter."

That's not what I saw from where I stood -- about an arms-length from the protesters and more than a car lane away from police. I saw no rocks. No fireworks. No bottles or bags filled with feces. The way I saw it, the police fired the first shot, and I never heard a warning.

Minneapolis-based blogger Aaron Landry stood about a block away. His memory disagrees with mine on one point: who fired first.

RNC protester
A protester leads the crowd in anti-war and anti-Republican chants as they approach the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. September 1, 2008.
Caroline Yang for MPR

"To my recollection," said Landry. "What I saw was something thrown toward the cops and ... Afterwards, the cops shooting something back at them, so I was seeing things lobbed going both ways, in both directions."

Another journalist on the scene was Corrine McDermid of the Web site The Uptake. She shot video from the median on Shepard Road about 20 feet from the clash.

"I didn't see any rocks thrown," said McDermid. "What I saw was the protesters move forward and then police starting to fire."

St. Paul police declined to comment about the event. We wondered how unusual it is for police to have a different story of events than other observers. So we asked someone who deals with police reports all the time: Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Leonardo Castro.

He said it amounts to the difference between accuracy and certainty.

"Many times you are certain about what you saw," said Castro. "You just aren't being accurate about what happened."

Castro says lots of things can cloud accuracy, even a cultural perspective. Some people hear loud voices and think it's an argument, others don't. So whose story is paramount?

"When that information goes before a prosecutor they are likely going to believe the story of the police officer," said Castro.

Attorneys like Castro and Mark Anfinson say that when cases go to court, juries also tend to believe the story that comes from police.

But here's the thing. The Ramsey County Attorney's office ultimately reduced the felony riot charges. There wasn't enough proof to support that the protesters had dangerous weapons.

They still face gross misdemeanor charges of rioting, based in part on the police recollection.