Sammy Schutz and Gabe. (Photo: Mary Turck / Twin Cities Daily Planet)
"I heard somebody saying, 'They're coming, they're coming!' And feet pounding on the back stairs, pounding on the door saying they had a search warrant. They busted through the door. They've got their guns cocked at people." Sammy Schutz held tightly to five-year-old Gabe, who had been watching a video with his mother and father and about 20 other people when the police stormed into 827 Smith Avenue in St. Paul, ordering everyone down on the floor.
"All I could feel was Mama Bear - do whatever you want to do to me, but I need to get my son out safe. He was watching his dad get handcuffed. And he's saying, 'Mommy, mommy, why did they crash through the door?'"
Gabe's question remained unanswered. Ramsey County sheriff's deputies said they were executing a search warrant, but would not show a copy of the warrant to lawyers or reporters. More than a dozen police vehicles , almost all unmarked, and more than 20 sheriff's deputies and St. Paul police arrived at the building about 9:45 Friday night and were still there at 1 a.m., when I left.
After handcuffing the people in the building (occupants said there were about two dozen on the second floor and "about 40 or 50" on the first floor), police processed them one by one. Each person was asked for identification, name and address, and then photographed.
People who had been inside the building told similar stories of police entering with guns drawn. They said police rushed past the security desk on the first floor, and used a battering ram to crash through the second floor back door.
"They said if you don't show us ID and get your picture taken, we will arrest you and take you away," said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, who had arrived five or ten minutes before the raid began, planning to attend a meeting. "They never said what the basis for arrests would be. We were waiting for a meeting, for God's sake! I cannot tell you how much like a police state that felt to me."
After each person was released after being photographed, exiting the building and crossing between police cars to a crowd of cheering friends on the sidewalk across from the building. No one was arrested, but sheriff's deputies remained inside the building.
Eventually, a city contractor arrived to board up the building, allegedly for unspecified code violations.
St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune said he was trying to find out who ordered the building locked up and on what grounds. "This isn't the way we do things in St. Paul," Thune said. "I don't want the city to get sucked into something that the sheriff's office is concocting."
Thune said that someone had called in the city contractor and ordered him to secure the building, but this was not done according ot St. Paul city procedures.
"Normally," said Thune, "we only board up buildings that are vacant and ramshackle. The fire inspector has no idea what's going on. He hadn't been called. The person who is on 24/7 call was not called. I talked to him trying to fid out who did issue that order and why."
The building at 827 Smith Avenue had been rented by the RNC Welcoming Committee as a "convergence space," open to activists for meetings, eating, and just hanging out. Earlier in the week, a large downstairs room in the former theater held tables of literature and about a dozen computers, set up for free wi-fi access for visitors. Large maps showed downtown St. Paul streets. The kitchen was spotless, with stainless steel refrigerators and a gas range, looking like a commercial kitchen in a church basement. The second floor room, where Sammy and her family were watching a video on consumerism Friday night, had comfortable theater seats and space for meetings.
A young man who would not give his name said that many people had asked to see the search warrant. After "what seemed like a long time," someone was allowed to read the warrant aloud. His recollection, affirmed by at least two others, was that the warrant was very long and listed many items, including soap flakes, X boxes, paint, computer operating support manuals, caltrops, bleach, floppy disks with digital information, Molotov cocktails and many other items.
Dave Thune reported that sheriff's deputies hauled out literature and other items in boxes. Literature available in the Convergence Center earlier in the week included "The Struggle is Our Inheritance: A History of Radical Minnesota," "Anarchy: A Pamphlet," "a guide to 2008 antiRNC organizing," and "Need to Know Basics: Coldsnap Legal Collective's Minnesota Legal Primer for the RNC."
Police loaded confiscated items into a police vehicle.
The activists had studied their legal rights, and said they repeated asked to see the search warrant, said they did not consent to searches, and asked to see their lawyers. At least one person on the second floor managed to dial a number for the National Lawyer's Guild (NLG) as the police burst through the door. Though NLG lawyers arrived on the scene early, they were not allowed to enter the building and no one in the building was allowed access to lawyers.
"Here we are in this country trying to fight terrorism," said one activist, "and I experience it - a gun in my face!"