ST. PAUL, Minn. _ Police surrounded and arrested about 200 protesters Thursday night after a lengthy series of marches and sit-ins timed to coincide with Sen. John McCain's acceptance of the Republican Party's nomination for president.
Caught up in the clash were several reporters assigned to cover the event, including Amy Forliti and Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press. Officers ordered them to sit on the pavement on a bridge over Interstate 94 and to keep their hands over their heads as they were led away two at a time.
The arrests came three days after AP photographer Matt Rourke, also on assignment covering the protests, was arrested. He was released without being charged Monday after being held for several hours. Forliti and Krawczynski, who were among at least 19 members of the media detained, were issued citations for unlawful assembly and released.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said the St. Paul police department and its police chief decided that members of the media would be issued citations and released.
Fletcher said he expected most of the charges would be for unlawful assembly.
"Whoever got arrested was whoever didn't disperse and was still on the bridge," Fletcher said. "The tactic of blocking people on the bridge could very well have prevented a lot of activity later tonight. Clearly there were a number of people with no intention of being law-abiding tonight."
The confrontation resulted in at least 200 arrests, Fletcher said. Protesters had gone ahead with a planned march near the state Capitol even though their permit had expired.
Marchers tried to cross two different bridges leading from the Capitol to the Xcel Energy Center, where McCain was to accept his party's nomination for president. But they were stopped by lines of police in gas masks and riot gear who blocked the bridges after the marching permit expired.
A cat-and-mouse game followed as protesters moved around the Capitol area, splintered, and then organized into a marching force again. The size of the crowd varied from a high of about 1,000 down to a hundred and back to around 500.
About three hours into the standoff, about 300 protesters sat down on a major thoroughfare and police closed the four-lane boulevard. Officers then set off smoke bombs and fired seven percussion grenades, causing protesters to scatter.
A spokesman at an information center set up during the convention said the number of arrests would likely increase as people were processed.
Some of the scattering protesters entered a residential area north of the Capitol. Later, at least three smoke bombs were discharged in the area of apartments and houses.
About two hours into the standoff, police began arresting a handful of people even as the crowd dwindled from around 1,000 to around a hundred.
"The important thing is even though we didn't have a permit to march, people have decided they want to keep protesting despite all these riot police," said Meredith Aby, a member of the Anti-War Committee.
Even as protesters were being arrested, the mood was much more relaxed than earlier in the week. It even turned festive at times.
Younger people did cartwheels. Tourists came by to check out the spectacle. The chants, which were political at the outset, turned silly a couple hours in.
"You're sexy, you're cute, take off the riot suit," protesters serenaded those blocking their path.
Brandon Thorson didn't find much to joke about. The 23-year-old factory worker from Minneapolis said he just wanted to go home -- but he tried to do it through police lines.
"One officer used his club to push me away and another officer hit me in the back with his club," Thorson said. "A third officer came in and sprayed me right in the face."
Minutes after the skirmish, Thorson's right eye was nearly swollen shut from the pepper spray. He was not arrested.
"This is a fascist military style occupation of the city of St. Paul," Thorson said. "Just because the Republicans are in town doesn't mean they can turn our city into a battlefront."
More than 400 people have been arrested in the past week, most on Monday, when violence broke out at the end of another anti-war march.
The Anti-War Committee, which organized Thursday's march, urged others to join in and denounced the increased presence of police in riot gear and acts of "intimidation" in the city.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty blamed the week's violence on a small group of "anarchists, nihilists, and goofballs who want to break stuff and hurt people."
"They need to be dealt with," Pawlenty said in a radio interview with WCCO-AM of Minneapolis.
A federal judge rejected a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to recover leaflets seized during police raids. The ACLU claimed a violation of First Amendment rights because protesters haven't been able to distribute the flyers.