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Protestors vandalize police cars in the streets outside the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center September 1, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

Authorities say splinter groups caused most of protest violence

by Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio,
Michael Caputo, Minnesota Public Radio
September 2, 2008

Authorities say splinter protest groups, largely separate from the main anti-war march, hurled rocks at police officers, smashed windows, and punctured tires in pockets of violence around the city Monday.

St. Paul, Minn. — About 150 Minnesota National Guard troops were called in to help police quell disturbances in downtown St. Paul on Monday, the first day of the Republican National Convention.

Those arrested during the RNC could appear before a judge as early as Tuesday, but officials say they have until noon, Wednesday to charge or release them.

An anti-war march organized by the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War was a largely peaceful event as it snaked its way down the parade route from the Capitol to the Xcel Center and back.

An estimated 10,000 people of all ages walked slowly down the route, frequently singing, chanting, and shouting against President Bush and the war in Iraq. But maverick protesters broke away from the main demonstration and proceeded into other parts of the city.

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said the opening salvo happened when individuals set a dumpster on fire and rammed it into a police car. He said unrest continued through the day as bands of protesters roamed the city. Harrington said police were able to control the crowds even though protesters baited police.

"Throwing liquid on them, using gas of their own, being pelted with rocks, being called names and challenged and physically assaulted, my officers stood tall as did our partners," Harrington said.

Harrington said of the 10,000 marchers in downtown, roughly 200 were involved in violence. Some broke plate glass windows and smashed windshields on police vehicles.

Harrington said police positioned themselves throughout the city to allow the protests to go forward while sending a message that lawlessness in the city would not be tolerated.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman had nothing but praise for the officers.

"I had a chance throughout the afternoon to observe via camera how our officers responded; their efforts were nothing short of heroic," Coleman said. "I watched time after time as our officers stood on the line while people tried to provoke them, tried to get them to step out of their training. They did not fail."

The random demonstrations occurred even as Coleman and Harrington briefed reporters. On Shepard Road, hundreds of protesters walked along the river heading east to try and get back into downtown. They stopped at Jackson Street.

They locked arms and slowly moved across the road, and police fired pepper spray and tear gas. Police in riot gear, some on horseback, drove the protesters west on Shepard. Vehicles were stopped as the clash took place. Protesters trying to flee leaped on the hoods of cars and began chanting.

Police came from the opposite direction on Shepard Road, essentially trapping more than 100 protesters in a green space between the river and the Science Museum.

Officers told the protesters they were under arrest and to kneel down and place their hands on top of their heads

An American Civil Liberties Union attorney helped coordinate a group of volunteer lawyers to assist in defending those arrested related to the RNC protests. Teresa Nelson said it's too early to judge whether police responded appropriately. She said her group is concerned by some of the reports they've been hearing.

"I hope people weren't swept up, but it sounds like some of the people we've talked to are saying they were swept up even though they were not involved in any illegal activity," Nelson said. "If those reports turn out to be true, and people have been swept up, I hope that's an isolated incident and that doesn't happen in the next few days."

One question in coming days will be how many of the people now detained will be charged with crimes or dismissed based on lack of evidence.

Both Ramsey County and St. Paul City attorneys say they'll begin considering whether to charge or release those being held. Court begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

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