RNC8: The saga continues

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Wearing the uniform of the Ramsey County Sheriff ‘s Department, Chris Dugger looks every inch a deputy, close-cropped hair, jaw cop square. A cord runs from an earpiece to the walkie-talkie he has clipped to his left epaulette. If an important call comes while he is on the witness stand, he looks ready to go. It’s Friday, May 14 in Courtroom 1080 of the Ramsey County courthouse in downtown St. Paul. Dugger is testifying on the fifth day of evidentiary hearings preliminary to the trial of the RNC 8. 

Because eight is too many defendants to fit at the table with the lawyers, the accused sit in the jury box. Suited up for court, they still look like activists, faces bathed in laptop blue, lank hair tucked behind ears, dashes of metal in lip or nose.

The eight were members of the RNC Welcoming Committee, a self-styled anarchist group formed to coordinate and promote protest at the 2008 Republican National Convention. All have been charged with felonies for their activities. All of the defendants spent the actual days of the convention in preventive custody. The prosecution does not claim any of the defendants committed an act of violence or vandalism. The prosecution focuses on conspiracy, a focus that makes testimony of informants like Dugger critical to conviction.

Mary Jane LaVigne attended part of the court proceedings and wrote this article for the TC Daily Planet. You can also find extensive accounts of the proceedings on the Friends of the RNC8 website and TC Indymedia.

Dugger looked different back in the fall of 2007 when he started attending meetings of the RNC Welcoming Committee. His hair was longer and he often wore t-shirts that exposed the tattoo of a flaming skull that decorates his shoulder. He wasn’t a licensed peace officer then, or employed by law enforcement in any way. Court documents term Dugger a CRI, a confidential reliable informant. He was a volunteer spy.

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department began keeping tabs on the RNC Welcoming Committee in August of 2007, according to testimony Thursday by Sergeant Jay Maher. A twenty-year veteran of the force assigned to special investigations, Maher’s concern was initially sparked when he viewed “We’re Getting Ready,” a RNC Welcoming Committee produced video on YouTube.

In the opening scene of “We’re Getting Ready” a black-clad individual showers fully clothed. A kerchief masks the face and even gender. Sipping coffee without lifting the scarf, the person sprints through several scenes cast with other people also wearing black. On the music track, Blondie sings, “one way or another, I’m going to find you – I’m going to getcha, getcha, getcha.” [The music track has been disabled by YouTube.]

Sergeant Maher characterized one particular scene as disturbing. Just before the middle of the three-minute video, the protagonist jogs down an alley with a brown bottle, the handwritten words ‘because we live here’ barely readable on the label. The fabric fuse is lit and the bottle lobbed over a garage, where it lands on and lights a barbeque grill.

Interpreting this scene, and others, as a threat, Maher started taking pictures of individuals, groups and residences which he felt might be associated with the video.  Maher also asked Chris Dugger to infiltrate the group. Dugger had previously worked undercover with the Metro Gang Strike Force but had not received any formal law enforcement training. Dugger’s first contact with the criminal justice system was as the defendant in a domestic abuse case.  Charges were dismissed in August 2007, five months after filing.

Passing as an anarchist wasn’t easy for Dugger. During a break in the hearing, I ask Carrie Feldman and Natalia Shulkin how Dugger was perceived within the group. Feldman and Shulkin attended RNC Welcoming Committee meetings but are not among the eight who were charged. They mention his tattoos and his aggressive demeanor. “I hate the cops,” Dugger reportedly said on many occasions.

If no one was surprised to learn he was an informant, why was his presence tolerated in the group? “Well,” says Feldman, “I think people generally wanted to be welcoming, it was the Welcoming Committee. And, we weren’t planning to do illegal things.”

We file back into the courtroom. The defense attorneys pepper Deputy Dugger with questions. Did you ever tell people they’d find bombs or bomb making materials? During the hours you spent cooking with Nathanael Secor, did he ever tell you he was encouraging people to riot? Do you recall Mr. Trimmer advocating property destruction? Monica Bicking, did she strike you as a violent person? Did you ever hear her advocate violence? During the ten-hour ride back from the Wisconsin recruiting trip, did Mr. Fitzgerald talk about damaging property, stockpiling weapons, using disguises or hurting delegates? How about when the two of you worked together on a motorcycle?

Each question, asked in different ways, by eight attorneys, in regard to every one of the defendants boils down to the same inquiry: in Dugger’s year of surveillance, did he hear the RNC 8 plan to harm people or to break things.  As far as I could tell, Dugger answered, dozens of times, “No.”

The evidentiary hearing continues on June 9. As the judge and attorneys compared calendars to set that date, one of the prosecuting attorneys mentioned a potential conflict with an upcoming murder trial of a juvenile certified as an adult.

I wanted to ask why a felony conspiracy prosecution of these eight young people serves the citizens of Ramsey County. The county attorney’s office chose not to comment on a matter currently before the court. We’ll hear their case at trial in October.

 

CORRECTION 5/23/2010: Charges against Dugger were dismissed in August 2007, five months after filing. Article orignially said he was acquitted.