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Cop actions top complaints at RNC listening session

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Leah Lane
Activist Leah Lane, who was pepper-sprayed by police repeatedly because she wouldn't move, said she doesn't think police treated her right. But she urged others to empathize with police officers.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Questions about police response during the RNC are not going away. Anti-war protester Jess Sundin made that much clear.

"If you witnessed or were subject to police brutality, or unlawful arrests or detention, or you were ordered by police to disperse to end your protest, and to leave St. Paul with your voice silenced, please raise your voice now! Stand up!"

Journalists and business owners also joined in on the three-hour hearing. 

Audience demands
Many people who attended a community hearing on RNC issues demanded that charges against the protesters be dropped. More than 800 people were arrested during the RNC.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

But the most compelling testimony came from people like Elliot Hughes, 19, an activist from St. Paul who alleges guards at the Ramsey County jail beat him after he and other detainees started chanting for food.

Hughes said the officers slammed him into a concrete floor, knocking him out.

"I came back to consciousness in a pool of my own blood. I was taken into a hallway where a bag was put over my head. And it had a gag on the mouth," said Hughes. "I was taken into a detaining cell with no visible cameras. And the officers then twisted my ankles and used pressure-point tactics to torture me." 

Hughes said he later vomited while the bag was still on his head. Later on, a doctor at the jail told Hughes he would start treating his injuries only after Hughes stopped crying. 

A hearing to assess the impacts of the RNC was standing-room only. Protesters held signs saying things like, "Drop charges not bombs," and "Police were the terrorists."
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Despite the range of complaints and criticism, as of earlier this week, no one had filed an official complaint with the St. Paul police department's internal affairs unit.

As Hughes finished his testimony and the next speaker came to the podium, an anti-war protester interrupted.

"I just want to ask, what are you going to do? He just told a very moving story, and the plan is just to listen, and then to move on, as if this was OK? This is not OK!"

All together, four of the seven City Council members showed up at the hearing. An assistant chief with the St. Paul police attended in place of Chief John Harrington. Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland listened in, but Mayor Chris Coleman was on vacation.

Audience members watch a video detailing a pre-convention raid of a St. Paul home.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Tom Heffelfinger and Andy Luger, the two former prosecutors hired by the city to lead an investigation into St. Paul's security efforts during the RNC, took notes on yellow legal pads during the night.

The officials and others in the audience saw a video of a young peace activist whom officers repeatedly blasted with pepper spray for not leaving a street. That woman, 19-year-old Leah Lane, said officers were not right to do that. 

But she called for understanding.

"I really feel that people may need to realize also what maybe the police went through -- at least what went through their minds," said Lane. "I know a lot of you people here probably don't agree with me, but I'm just saying keep your mind and heart open."

Susan Jeffrey
Self-described pacifist Susan Jeffrey holds up a sign at a post-RNC "listening session" hosted by City Council member Dave Thune. More than 150 people packed the council chambers for the discussion.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

But the resounding refrain of the night was one that alleged injustice, and inconvenience.

West Side resident and cyclist Steve Hirsch said the High Bridge and many streets in and around downtown were blocked off during the convention. 

He said police officers offered little help on how he could find his way home. One even suggested he ride his bike along Interstate 35.

"I wasn't the enemy, and I'm thinking if I'm a white, middle-aged property-owning man, and I'm being treated this way, how are other people being treated?" Hirsch said.

Many people called for an official public hearing to go before the full City Council. 

Thune said the hearing would be reviewed and that he wants to hold another discussion. But he could not offer details on whether the hearings would play a role in any of the ongoing investigations.

Those who did not testify at the hearing to counter the complaints are sending across their messages in other ways. A group of businesses was planning to take out an ad in today's Pioneer Press, thanking the police for a job well done.

It reads: "Faced with new challenges, you performed at your best."