The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.
SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA -- Will the 2008 Republican Convention be a blessing or a curse for the Twin Cities? Saint Paul Assistant Police Chiefs Matt Bostrum and Tom Smith sounded optimistic during a no holds barred public Q&A session (sponsored by the Justice and Peace Studies Program at the University of Saint Thomas) this week. The audience, including a number of seasoned and skeptical activists - sounded less certain.
Sharing the stage with Dick Bernard, President of the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers and Gerald Schlabach, Director of the University of Saint Thomas' Justice and Peace Studies program, Bostrum and Smith held their own, establishing their credentials as Saint Paul natives, expressing their love for the city, and stating they were there to talk and listen.
The activist skepticism surfaced before the meeting. Twin Cities-based activist group The RNC Welcoming Committee passed out handbills, saying, "Please note that there are no anti-RNC organizers on this panel." The handbills went on to accuse the police of protecting, "the current power structure, not the people."
Meeting organizers quickly pointed out that anti-RNC activists had been invited to participate, but had declined. For the next two hours, the cops and the audience volleyed and served on a variety of subjects, with the two Assistant Chiefs asserting all things positive and the activists expressing doubt and concern.
A lot of the concern focused on a fundamental distrust of the Bush Administration and the Federal agencies usually involved in big events - primarily the Secret Service.
Questioners and commenters pointed out that, at the Democratic National Conventions in Los Angeles (2000), and in Boston (2004), and at the Republican National Convention in New York (2004), the Secret Service came to town and over-ruled much of the planning that had been done by local authorities. The Secret Service established their own perimeters and policies - especially concerning protest around convention sites.
Assistant Chief Bostrum said that, to date, planning with the Secret Service has gone very smoothly; that protocols now in place call for the Secret Service to control security inside the convention venue, and the Saint Paul police to be in charge everywhere else in the city. He said that the Secret Service has learned from past mistakes, and that he has not encountered that type of behavior in his dealings with the Secret Service.
Asked about Free Speech Zones, Bostrum drew a round of applause, stating, "The city of Saint Paul is a free speech zone." He denied any plans were under way to construct protester holding pens.
Other concerns expressed by the audiences ranged from the pragmatic (what about permits?) to theoretical (Gandhi advocated peaceful resistance, not peaceful protest) to the paranoid delusional (Will you resign if the government suspends the Constitution?) and the virtually impossible (Will you arrest the mass murderers who'll be attending the RNC?)
Several people asked about "Agent Provocateurs" - infiltrators (often thought to come from within law enforcement itself) bent on provoking confrontations with the police. Bostrum denied Saint Paul police had either the time or the intention to use those tactics.
Will there be Blackwater-style private security contractors? One labor movement veteran cited an anti-globalization rally in Miami, where 3,000 armed contract security agents in tactical gear oversaw 15,000 protesters.
Bostrum said Miami would not be "the model," and that plans do not call for using private security contractors. He pointed to the way Washington D.C. police handle events like inaugurations. He said security - including people on loan from other police departments and law enforcement agencies will be under the control of Saint Paul police - and that the Saint Paul police will be in uniforms, not tactical gear.
Another activist pointed out that, while the police were advocating dialog and cooperation, the City of Saint Paul had yet to issue any permits for protestors - permits that are necessary in order to reserve public space and begin planning protests.
Bostrum pointed out that city ordinances state permits can't be issued more than 180 days in advance of events.
And so it went. Back and forth. Nice and civil, for the most part, with everyone shaking hands and withholding judgment at the end of the evening. And no one's mind especially changed.
There are eleven months until the convention. The Saint Paul cops are out there, working the local activist community. All of which begs two questions:
Will the local activists respond? And who's coming in from out of town next September?