A security culture: Planning RNC protests

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On a crisp February night the RNC Welcoming Committee gathered in a run down community center in South Minneapolis. Members of the Welcoming Committee watched a young man in a plaid shirt give a Power Point presentation. The presentation included information on bridges near the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul. As it came to a close, the group broke up and some of the members bolted out the door for a frigid smoke break, unwilling to talk to the one outsider in the room.

Excerpts from the pamphlet, Direct Action Survival Guide, promoted by the RNC Welcoming Committee.

How to deal [with tear gas or pepper spray]:

-If you see it coming or get a warning put on your protective gear.
-If able, try to move away or get upwind.
-Stay Calm. Panicking increases the irritation.
-Breathe slowly and remember it is only temporary.
-Blow your nose, rinse your mouth, cough, and spit. Try not to swallow.
-If you wear contacts try to remove your lenses or get someone to remove them for you with clean uncontaminated fingers.

Inclusive Group Interaction:
-Pay attention to who is speaking: is one person (or a few) dominating or constantly leading the conversation? Particularly watch this in terms of race and gender.
-Leave space for the less heard voices
-Do not force anyone to speak
-Step up/step back: if you speak a lot, watch for opportunities to step back (when a lot of people seem to have a lot of things to share). If you do not speak that often look for opportunities to step up (like when you feel really strongly about an issue)

Apparently, reporters aren’t welcome at the RNC Welcoming Committee, an anarchistic collective ironically named for its plans to protest the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul this September. Karen, a near middle-aged woman dressed all in black, was willing to talk but only gave her first name. She would not give out contact information for the Welcoming Committee members who were recently refused entry to Canada while garnering support for the RNC protests.

Instead, Karen repeatedly mentioned the group’s policies: no one person speaks for the collective, so they only speak to the press in groups of two or more. She shook her head as she said, “the media shouldn’t be here. That’s not okay.” There were more than fifteen people at the meeting.

Why the reticence? The culture of the collective fosters secrecy, but they also have reasons to be cautious, both because of their planned activities for the convention, and because of government surveillance of protest groups.

The RNC Welcoming Committee has been actively seeking national support for the RNC protests, deploying small groups of people to organize across the United States. In January, three members toured the Northeast and planned to enter Canada to promote the RNC protests.

Two members of the Northeast Tour would give only first names, and those turned out to be pseudonyms, as both wanted to remain anonymous. One of them said the Northeast Tour “helped facilitate other groups who want to act autonomously.” He added, “We’re trying to step up the radical organizing because we’re a small group of people who can have an impact and critique the electoral and political system.”

On February 2, the Canadian border patrol denied the group entry into Canada at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in Buffalo, New York. The Canadian border patrol pulled them over, searched the contents of their car and questioned them.

According to Welcoming Committee members, they carried large quantities of protest literature, some of which they made available to the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Most of the pamphlets contained standard guides for staying safe during protests, including tactics for protection against police actions such as tear gas. One pamphlet outlines the lessons learned from the WTO protests.

Another pamphlet entitled “Security Culture: a Handbook for Activists” reads like a mixture of a parent’s advice to a child and advice to a secret agent. The pamphlet encourages serious activists to keep their talk to a minimum and understand the consequences of illegal action. It states, “The reason for these security precautions are obvious, if people don’t know anything about it, they can’t talk about it.” For this reason activists should avoid lying, gossiping, and bragging, among other behaviors.

Excerpts from St. Paul Police Department’s SIU (Special Investigations Unit) Policy and Guidelines for Investigations and Information Gathering Operations Involving First Amendment Activity.
General Information Activities

Information systems: The SPPD is authorized to participate in the identifying, tracking, and operating of informational systems for identifying and locating persons involved with the planning and execution of unlawful activities, or otherwise detecting, prosecuting, or preventing unlawful activities.

Visiting Public Places and Events: For the purpose of detecting or preventing unlawful activities, the SPPD is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public, on the same terms and conditions of the general public. Still photographs and videotapes of public gatherings may be performed so long as the public gathering is not singled out on the basis of the message. The Department may record a public event for a legitimate law enforcement purpose such as identifying suspicious activity, intelligence gathering, identifying unlawful activity, recording criminal acts, or training purposes.

No information obtained from such visits shall be retained unless it relates to potential unlawful activity or training purposes.

General Topical Research: The SPPD is authorized to carry out general research, including conducting online searches and accessing online sites and forums, as part of research on the terms and conditions, as members of the public generally.…

Jean D’Amelio-Swyer, spokesperson for the Canadian Border Services Agency, would not comment on the contents of the car, the literature, or on the reasons for denying the RNC Welcoming Committee entry into Canada.

After being refused entry to Canada, the group returned to the U.S. customs station, where the U.S. border patrol held them for more than four hours. Additionally, the U.S. border patrol called in a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) to search the car and question Welcoming Committee members.

According to Welcoming Committee members on the Northeast Tour, the U.S. border patrol photocopied the literature until the JTTF representative arrived. The JTTF also made photocopies, searched a laptop, and isolated one member of the group for questioning. The group decided to remain silent, citing the First Amendment. The Welcoming Committee member said, “The JTTF guy said to the border patrol, but so that we could hear, ‘We could get them with a felony obstruction of a federal investigation.'”

The spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Buffalo, Paul Moskal, wouldn’t comment on the particulars of the case. However when asked about the JTTF comment on federal obstruction Moskal said, “anyone has the right to remain silent, but they may have to suffer the consequences. The court may decide to hold them in contempt.”

The surveillance of protest groups is not limited to federal authorities. The St. Paul Police Department recently defined policies about intelligence gathering. One document is called “Policy and guidelines for investigations and information gathering operations involving First Amendment Activity.” The document states acceptable procedures for keeping tabs on groups whose demonstrations may pose “a public safety risk.” It defines acceptable police actions during the surveillance of these groups.

Tom Walsh, a spokesperson for the St. Paul Police Department, denied a direct link between the new policies and the RNC. “People would have you believe that all we do at the Police Department is plan for the RNC, and that’s simply not the case. This won’t alter what we do, or affect our preparations for the RNC,” he said. Walsh said that the document is part of a general review of the St. Paul Police Department, but did admit that the RNC “may have sped up the process of making the official policies available to the public.” Whatever the motivation, the St. Paul Police Department policies set out guidelines for the kind of monitoring they do.

Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva (peterson.delacueva@gmail.com) is an educator and has taught in various contexts, including junior high social studies and adult basic education. She is transitioning from a career in teaching to freelance writing and is interning at TC Daily Planet.

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