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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.