Sunday, August 31, 2008

Placid Lake Woebegon Begets A Nasty Police State

I grew up in the Twin Cities, a prosperous and bucolic community hard on the banks of the Mississippi, the last major metropolitan area until you Lewis-and-Clark yourself over the Rockies.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are filled with wide, tree-lined streets, good schools, close-knit families, a welcoming spirit, pride in a deep civic commitment, home of the Guthrie Theatre and Walker Art Centre, and a keen, congenital sense of justice and equality. It’s a place where even wealthy, fourth and fifth generation families like the Dayton’s (Target), the Rawlings’ (General Mills), the Pillsbury’s (of Dough Boy fame, tee-hee), the McKnight’s (3M) and the Hill’s (19th century railroad tycoons) still believe in and practice a gentle, Midwestern kind of mild social democracy. Example: Most CEOs of Fortune 100 companies based here actually drive themselves to work, often parking in the lot alongside cars belonging to the woman who brings the mail around or the guy working in the cafeteria line. About the only time you see limo’s crawling the streets is prom night or for a funeral.

After all, the characters and settings in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon stories are based on his life growing up in a working class suburb of the Twin Cities. There is more truth than fiction in his recounting of the goings-on of the three Norwegian bachelor farmers, the Buttermilk Biscuit Co., and all the other good folks he turned into cultural icons.

I haven’t lived in either Minneapolis or St. Paul for nearly 20 years, and last visited when my sister died in 1999, but I’ve always thought warmly of my hometown. So I was astonished when e-mails began trickling in during the week from confused, frightened and oft-times angry friends and acquaintances back home. They wrote chilling accounts of police conducting wholesale, warrantless raids on people whose only crime is that the Secret Service and Dept. of Homeland (In)Security, aided by local police goon squads dressed in riot gear, thought they might, possibly, somewhere, somehow, exercise their 1st Amendment right to protest during the Republican National Convention.

The first inkling of what was unfolding came late Thursday morning from Nancy, my fifth grade love who grew up to become a physician and soccer mom in an upper-upper middle class suburb called Edina – a place so conservative and rich I suspect there’s a local ordinance requiring residents to vote Republican before being allowed to move in:

There’s a story this ayem about St Paul police raiding a home and arresting people who were going to protest at the convention. OK, so you know me: I voted for Bush twice and I’m no lefty loonie. But this scares me. According to ‘CCO radio, police in riot gear raided a house early this morning, arresting nine people who said they were in town to protest at the convention. But they were charged with … are you ready? … having too many people live in a residential home! What the hell?

By mid-afternoon, I’d heard from two more friends.

Mike, who has three teen-aged kids and owns a store in a mixed St. Paul neighborhood, wrote, “I don’t know what’s going on but unmarked cop cars with sirens screaming are chasing all over hell and back.” Almost simultaneously, an e-mail arrived from Ivar, a playwright, declaring, “Jesus Christ! A bunch of cops dressed like the Road Warrior just broke into a home down the street and hauled out a bunch of people in handcuffs and hoods. As they were being thrown into police vehicles, cops arrested a guy across the street taking a home video of the bust. My street looks like Burma.” He meant Myanmar but Ivar’s showing his age these days like the rest of us boomers.

By Saturday, the trickle of messages became a torrent.

To verify what friends were writing, I called the St. Paul Mayor’s Office (615.266.8510) where I was directed to the police (651.291.1111). A PR woman for the cops said I had to talk to the Secret Service (612.348.1800), which refused to answer any questions but asked for the spelling of my name before telling me to call Homeland Security (202.282.8000) where repeated calls were not returned. I tracked down the cell phone number of the St. Paul convention office of the Republican National Committee where the man who answered claimed to have no idea what I was talking about, helpfully suggesting I call the police before suddenly asking how I got the number. Ring around the rosy.

It was like trying to get an answer from Dick Cheney’s office. Translation: The e-mails were accurate.

The unending barrage has continued all weekend.

From Carrie, a late 50-something who still lives in a mostly-student district near the University of Minnesota: “I saw 25 officers barge into a house wearing masks and black swat gear. They had large semi-automatic rifles. After, somebody told me the pigs (I haven’t used that word for decades) ordered everyone on the floor. Rifles pointing at their heads, they were handcuffed and ordered not to move. The cops refused to show a search warrant. They were forced to remain on the floor for 45 minutes while the officers took away computers and political stuff kept in the house.”

From Rick: “Remember Summit Avenue? Mansions, clubs, cronies, old money? A few blocks away from the Governor’s Mansion, the police just burst into a house looking for ‘photographs and maps of St. Paul.’ Shit! I have photos and maps of St. Paul! Better throw ‘em out or I’ll be next.”

From Robyn and Brent, two independents who decided this morning to vote straight a Democratic ticket: “Never thought we’d see this in America. Enya (their adopted teenage daughter) and a bunch of her friends from school were taking pictures of the convention center this morning when cops grabbed and handcuffed them, shoved them into a squad car and threatened them with arrest if they didn’t hand over the digital camera they were using to take tourist photos! She’s hysterical and we called (their lawyer). Obama and Franken just got two more votes and by the time this is over Enya’s college will be paid for with a large check from the city. Assholes.”

And so it goes.

Bucolic Lake Woebegon has turned itself into a brutal police state, intent on arresting everyone including the three Norwegian bachelor farmers, just in case.

Apparently, civil liberties and the Bill of Rights got tossed into the Mississippi mud like the remains of a once-great bridge that used to span the river. Oh wait. We're talking about the party of George Bush, who once said of the Constitution, "It's just a goddamned piece of paper!" Guess I - along with people back in the Twin Cities - shouldn't be surprised.

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