Just before 8 a.m. on August 30, Jean Johnstad was sitting on her porch in south Minneapolis having her morning coffee. She was still in her bathrobe, enjoying a peaceful Saturday morning. Suddenly, the quiet was broken by a commotion and raised male voices coming from the street behind the garage. She peeked around the corner of a garage and saw police in SWAT team gear with their guns drawn in front of the Food Not Bombs house at 2301 S. 23rd Ave.
“I thought, ‘Whoa!’” said Johnstad. “We just don’t see things in Seward like this very often.”
Johnstad was witnessing one of three simultaneous raids taking place that morning, two days before the start of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul. Johnstad remembers seeing vans with darkened windows and even a red Homeland Security vehicle.
Jennifer Robey, a professor at Century College, lives with her husband and two boys in the house just south of the FNB house. When she came out onto her front porch with her breakfast, she saw law enforcement vehicles in the street, and watched as police wrapped yellow barrier tape around the trees and roped off the front of the FNB house.
Robey recalls asking police if there was “anything to worry about” and being reassured that there was not.
By the end of the day, police from several local and federal agencies had gone through the house, as had a Minneapolis housing inspector. One resident of the house, Nathanael Secor, was in jail, and housemate Robert Czernik would be arrested two days later.
Secor and Czernik, along with a half-dozen other people from the Republican National Convention Welcoming Committee (RNC-WC) were arrested and charged in Ramsey County District Court with conspiracy to commit riot in the second degree in furtherance of terrorism. Since then, they have become known as the RNC 8.
The RNC-WC website describes the Committee as “an anarchist / anti-authoritarian organizing body preparing for the 2008 Republican National Convention.” The RNC 8 are the first people charged under a Minnesota anti-terrorism law passed in reaction to 9/11. They maintain that the prosecution is political.
Who are the RNC 8? Where did they come from and what do they do? This article was planned as a profile of Nathanael Secor, one of RNC 8, and as a look at FNB, one of the organizations targeted in the pre-RNC raids. Because of an RNC 8 policy of refusing individual interviews, this article expanded to include Robert Czernik as well.
The 26-year-old Secor, a former Eagle Scout, grew up in Grayslake, Illinois, a village north of downtown Chicago. He describes his background as “middle-middle class” and recalls that every summer when he was little, his parents took their family to Lake Superior’s Northwoods. He fell in love with the woods and water, and that deep connection with nature defines him in many ways.
Secor attended Northland College in rural Ashland, Wisconsin, where he majored in fine arts and immersed himself in the ecology and culture of the region. After graduating in May of 2004, he spent the summer working on an organic farm in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Then he spent a year working with AmeriCorps VISTA on Wiwconsin’s Bad River Chippewa Indian Reservation. Secor said he liked the “local control” aspect of his VISTA work, where he was involved in an indigenous gardening project and a diabetes prevention program.
Secor moved to the Twin Cities in February 2006, because, he said, he liked the progressive, radical nature of the community and its geographic proximity to the Northwoods. He also moved closer to family, as a sister and cousins live in the area.
Secor worked at the Dodge Nature Center, an environmental education and habitat restoration organization in West St. Paul for about six months, teaching maple syruping, animal tracks and interpretive classes. Curently, Secor works as a substitute teacher at a preschool involved in abuse prevention.
Jennifer Robey remembers Secor as the first person she and her husband met when they moved to the Seward neighborhood in 2006.
“Nathanael seems like a sensible, intelligent young man,” Robey said. Secor has babysat for her two boys in the past, she said, and is gracious and welcoming of their children.
“We never would have let him look after our children,” she said, “if we had any doubts about him.”
In the spring of 2006, Secor saw an FNB sign posted at the Seward Café about finding a new space for cooking. Some of his roommates on 23rd Avenue had been part of FNB previously, and now their house became the new FNB headquarters.
The Food Not Bombs website defines FNB is a worldwide grassroots movement with a focus on ending hunger. The unifying principles are a commitment to nonviolent action, sharing free vegetarian food with anyone without restriction, and consensus or participatory democratic decision-making.
Culinarily speaking, Secor is a vegan, which means he consumes no animal products. He is also a “freegan,” meaning he eats food rescued from the waste stream. Rescued food can be food donated from grocery produce sections after it is past its salable prime. Gleaning–gathering produce left on a farm after the marketable stuff is harvested–is another way freegans rescue food.
Secor says he became part of the RNC-WC in early 2007, not so much because any one political party was coming to town but more in response to what he calls “a system that thrives on inequity.” He served as an informal liaison, helping to coordinate FNB participation in the daily meals being planned at the RNC-WC Convergence Center. Secor maintains that his role in the RNCWC was logistical: organizing food and building bikes for people from out of town who came to protest the RNC.
“In the sense that everyone who was involved in the Welcoming Committee was an organizer,” Secor said, “I was an organizer.”
His arrest in the pre-RNC raid is the only time he has ever been arrested. His parents came to the Twin Cities to support him.
“I think it’s probably a little rougher on them than on me,” he said.
Czernik, whose intimates call him “Tumbleweed,” tells this story: In the spring of 1998, he was arrested at a protest in Ohio and spent a week in a county jail. During the week he spent there, he told his cellmate about his forest activism and the way he traveled around.
“He said, ‘Oh, you’re like a tumbleweed,’” recalls Czernik, and his cellmate began calling him that inside that county jail.
“And it kind of stuck,” said Czernik.
Czernik went to high school in the village of Mokena, south of Chicago, but demurred from discussing much else about his childhood.
According to the bio posted on the RNC 8 web site, Czernik
…was born at Fort Campbell, Kentucky the day after Pink Floyd released their “Wish You Were Here” album. He spent the next 11 years as an Army brat, living on military bases around the world. In 1988, he spent his freshman year of high school in West Virginia, in the coal country of Boone County. He hiked his first clearcut, saw his first mountain top removal project, and witnessed first-hand the abject poverty of Appalachia.
At 33, Czernik is the oldest member of the RNC 8. After graduating from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1998 with a degree in anthropology, he traveled to Minneapolis to join friends who were organizing protests surrounding the Highway 55 reroute project in Minneapolis, which become known as the “Minnehaha Free State.” (The occupation was the subject of a book by local writer and former Minnesota Public Radio reporter Mary Losure, entitled Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State.)
“I only thought I was going to be here a week,” Czernik recalls, “and now, it’s 10 years later.”
Czernik hooked up with Sister’s Camelot in the winter of 1999. Sister’s Camelot is a local collective, which, like FNB, rescues food from the waste stream, and then cooks and distributes the food. Its headquarters are at 3649 Chicago Ave. in Minneapolis. The collective’s two mobile buses are equipped with food kitchens and go where food is needed, such as providing free food at fundraisers and community events like the annual Barebones Halloween Show held at Hidden Falls in St. Paul. An article about Sister’s Camelot ran in City Pages in October 2006.
“I really liked the project,” he recalls. “We always call it food share. We don’t call it a distribution program. We take this food, we gather and share it. … I’ve seen some great conversations … (people from) different cultures sharing recipes, and it’s a really great way to get people to know their neighbors and get people to talk about issues of food and food politics.”
Czernik said he has long been a proponent of “bioregional concepts”—eating local food and understanding its seasonal nature. He would much rather eat a conventional tomato grown 10 miles away than an organic tomato trucked in from California.
Protests and political involvement led to arrests for Czernik in 1999 and 2000. The 1999 arrest was connected to the Highway 55 protests. In July 2000, Czernik was arrested in a raid on the Sister’s Camelot house following protests against the International Society of Animal Genetics (ISAG). He said he was beaten by police. A City Pages article describes the raid:
Tamara Willis, age 29, had dozed off in a chair in the back of the two-bedroom apartment when the raid began. She says she was kicked and might have been hit with a baton. “There was noise and commotion,” says Willis. “I looked to my left and there was a cop in riot gear with a riot shield. There were at least eight cops in there. There was a female cop with a ski mask over her head so all you could see were her eyes and the top of her nose.”
For more than two hours, she and others say, 13 people were kept, handcuffed and blindfolded, in the house while authorities ransacked closets, bedrooms, and a shed in the backyard, and examined the files on the nonprofit’s three computers. One volunteer, 16-year-old Wendy Koon, says the police were telling one another to “get all the ISAG info.”
What was going on, according to the jumbled accounts contained in police reports and court files related to the raid, is that Minneapolis police believed that Sister’s Camelot was playing host to “out-of-town” agitators and others who “wanted to shut our city down,” according to Police Chief Robert Olson.
Czernik was arrested on charges of drug possession in that raid. Ultimately, the charges were deferred while he served a one-year probation. He did not file charges regarding the beating with the Minneapolis Police Department Internal Affairs Unit because, he said, he had “no illusions” that anyone would do anything.
From November 2000 until September 2004, Czernik worked for the Pulse and Southside Pride, writing and selling ad copy. Ed Felien, editor of those two publications, remembers Czernik as being “a wonderful guy to work with” and describes him as “very interesting and politically very on top of things.” One of Czernik’s projects while at the Pulse—“ironically,” said Felien—was editing certain chapters from former police chief Tony Bouza’s books for publication in the Pulse. Czernik currently works as a cook and does freelance marketing work.
Czernik said he became involved with the RNC-WC because he felt it was important to have a visible anarchistic presence at the RNC. He describes his role in the RNC-WC in terms of providing logistical support for people who wanted to protest. He said he had resigned himself to the idea that, because of this support role, he would not be participating in any protests.
“The whole point of the Welcoming Committee was to create an anarchistic, anti-authoritarian framework to work in,” said Czernik. He saw an opportunity to try mass mobilization with an organization model based on the anarchistic principles of consensus, mutual aid and a horizontal organizational structure.
The way that the RNC-WC organized, he said “was just as much a protest as people in the street.”
Roxanne Bergeron is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis.