St. Paul downtown to remain open during conventionby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
A top St. Paul police official is promising that demonstrators will be able to exercise their free-speech rights close to next year's Republican National Convention. But police have not designated any protest locations, and city officials have yet to issue permits to demonstrators. A watchdog group is threatening legal action if an agreement isn't reached soon.
St. Paul, Minn. — Republicans will gather at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul next September to nominate their presidential candidate. The U.S. Secret Service is in charge of security, and few details have been released about those preparations.
Assistant Chief Matt Bostrom of the St. Paul Police Department is also involved in the planning. He said a lot of security decisions just haven't been made. But Bostrom insists demonstrators will be allowed within sight and sound of the convention.
"We have no interest in pressing the edges of the law," he said. "The courts have been clear, sight and sound. We will provide that as part of a comprehensive public safety plan. And the protection then is protect free-speech rights and protect the rights of those Americans who are exercising their freedom of movement that want to get to the convention, as well as the freedom of movement to get to their businesses or places that they live downtown."
Bostrom is also promising that police won't spy on demonstrators, and said there are no plans to build a large, outdoor pen to hold arrested protesters.
In 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston protesters were limited to a caged free-speech zone. But Bostrom rejected that idea. Even without a finalized security plan, Bostrom is assuring the public that downtown St. Paul will remain open and accessible.
"What will probably happen is around the Xcel Energy Center, there will be an area that will more secure than in place at this time," he said. "There will be an area where there will be tickets and credentials to get in, and to get in there, you'll have to go through a magnetometer."
Bostrom is reaching out to protesters trying to build trust before the convention. Some of those protesters have grown frustrated with the city as they try to organize for 2008.
"We want more than promises from our city officials. We want to see action," said Jess Sundin of Minneapolis.
Sundin is with the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, a group planning a demonstration on the first day of the convention. She said as many as 50,000 people will participate.
But Sundin said the group has been unable to get a permit. A St. Paul ordinance prevents such approval until six months before an event. But Sundin said organizers need a permit early for an event this large.
"There's a 1001 things we need to do in order to plan our demonstration," she said. "Things as simple as getting contracts for sound and staging that have a set place and time, and as complicated as trying to find parking and loading for the thousands of cars and buses that will be coming in from out of town. So, we need to know what time and what location our permit is going to be approved for so we can proceed with that planning."
The anti-war group has an important ally in its permit quest. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has taken up the matter to protect what it sees as free speech and assembly rights.
Executive Director Chuck Samuelson said a team of lawyers is standing by and ready to start legal action if necessary. Samuelson said the city is forcing protesters to wait for a permit while convention organizers get to place a temporary hold on nearly every available gathering space.
"Our clients cannot get insurance, cannot get grants, cannot get permits to have a rally at the State Capitol," he said. "All because there's a hold put on everything. And that's effectively a denial of their first-amendment free-speech rights."
Samuelson said meetings are planned this week with city officials to try to resolve the permit disagreement. He said a neutral third party might be needed to help mediate the dispute, and that might be the only way to keep it out of court.
- All Things Considered, 12/10/2007, 5:24 p.m.