On Saturday, Aug. 30, 2008, the Ramsey County Sheriff executed search warrants on three houses in the metro area. They arrested eight young people who had been associated with the Republican National Convention Welcoming Committee: Luce Guillen-Givens, Max Specktor, Nathanael Secor, Ervy Trimmer, Monica Bicking, Erik Oseland, Robert Czernik and Garrett Fitzgerald.
The RNC 8 are charged with Riot in the Second Degree, a felony. The Ramsey County Attorney alleges that between Nov. 1, 2006, and Aug. 30, 2008,
the defendants did “wrongfully and unlawfully conspire with one another and others to commit the felony of Riot in the Second Degree, a premeditated act involving violence to persons or property that is intended to significantly disrupt or interfere with the lawful exercise, operation, or conduct of government, lawful commerce, or the right of lawful assembly and the defendant or one or more of the parties to the conspiracy did an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.
“Said acts constituting the offense of Conspiracy to Commit Riot in the Second Degree in Furtherance of Terrorism. Maximum Sentence: 5 years or $10,000 fine or both.”
Those are the charges listed in the complaint. First, and most important, there was never any conspiracy to commit a violent act against a person. Everyone associated with the Welcoming Committee was committed to nonviolence. Even the police spy who pretended to be their friend for almost two years admitted that they were committed to nonviolence.
They were intending to disrupt the Republican National Convention, but so were a lot of other people. I marched with thousands of others on the first day of the Convention. I hoped that by our presence, delegates to the Convention would reconsider their commitment to the war in Iraq and bring all the troops home now. Many of us who marched would have marched with or without a permit. The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and the St. Paul Police Department met with demonstrators for almost a year to work out an agreeable scenario. But thousands of us who marched wanted to disrupt the Convention. We intended to march down the streets, interfering with traffic. The Anti-War Committee, the organizers of the march, wanted a children and senior citizen safe march, so they worked with the St. Paul police to insure there would be an agreeable route—no disruptive vandalism on our part and no police overreaction on their part.
There was only one moment in the march, that I was aware of, when the march became more than a stroll in the park. Just before the part of the march that I was with, the last third of the group, got to the iron cage that was just opposite the convention center—there was an iron cage/tunnel more than a block long in front of the convention center that the march had to go through—the group was stopped for a couple of minutes while over a hundred anarcho-punks, all in black with wild hair and metal over their bodies, ran screaming down the tunnel.
We all cheered. Finally, here was something extraordinary, something that might register and communicate our passion. Those of us who marched were unaware of police overreaction in other parts of downtown St. Paul. Internationally respected journalist Amy Goodman was arrested trying to find out what happened to her camera crew. The video of her being manhandled by police went viral on the internet. Also, people wanting to go to the concert on Harriet Island, trying to cross the Wabasha Bridge, were (for no reason) beaten and arrested. Most of these cases were later dismissed.
So, the St. Paul Police Department collaborated with the Anti-War Committee to allow demonstrators to disrupt traffic, march through the streets of St.
Paul, scream at the convention center and at any conventioneers getting off buses and entering the center. The police knowingly participated in this conspiracy to “significantly disrupt” and “interfere” with the “right of lawful assembly” of the Republican Convention.The problem with the law, Riot in the Second Degree, is that it is so broad that it would include the legally sanctioned march, and the St. Paul police should therefore be charged with participating in a conspiracy to commit riot.
On Good Friday, priests, nuns and parishioners from St. Stephen’s Church in the Phillips neighborhood carry a large wooden cross through their neighborhood. They are disrupting traffic. What’s worse, they are adherents to a philosophy attributed to a Jewish radical who tried to overthrow Roman rule in Jerusalem. Shouldn’t they be prosecuted for riot? Although the Anti-War Committee worked with the St. Paul police to insure the protests at the RNC would be safe, they have organized many marches from the public library at Lagoon and Hennepin to Loring Park and they have never asked for a permit to march. Why isn’t that a riot?
Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater marches every first Sunday in May down Bloomington Avenue to Powderhorn Park. This is in celebration of May Day, an international worker’s holiday. May Day was such a frightening concept to the capitalist class and the established church during the Red Scare in the 1950s that Eisenhower changed Labor Day from May 1 to the first Monday in September and the Catholic Church made May 1 a feast day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. So, why isn’t the May Day Parade a riot and threat to the established order?
But there was a genuine criminal conspiracy leading up to the Republican Convention. It was a conspiracy of the Department of Homeland Security in collaboration with the Ramsey County Sheriff and the St. Paul Police Department to deprive eight U.S. citizens of their constitutional right to petition their government for redress of grievances. Homeland Security came to St. Paul and offered the Ramsey County Sheriff and the Chief of Police $50 million in toys and legal fees. They got a catalog of mouth-watering delicacies: plastic armor to make them look like Batman; the latest gadgets to shoot tear gas into crowds; the handiest of mace sprays. They also got a blank check for any legal problems they might encounter.
In other words, they were encouraged to use excessive force with the understanding that there was enough money to back up the blue in case some whining demonstrator decided to sue. So, “Battlin’ Bob” Fletcher, the Ramsey County Sheriff, a loyal Republican, felt called upon to defend the sanctity of the Republican National Convention by any means necessary. He sent spies into the RNC Welcoming Committee. For two years he kept tabs on them. Then, just before the Convention, he rounded them up. He determined that the Republican National Convention was an assembly he would protect, and the demonstration of anarchists was an assembly he would suppress. He determined that the freedom to assemble in the Bill of Rights was not a right at all, but a privilege that he could grant or take away depending on his judgment. In doing so, Bob Fletcher committed a serious crime against the basic covenant that unites us as a free society.
What do members of the RNC 8 think? Eryn Trimmer, a Powderhorn Neighborhood resident from South Minneapolis, says: “The charges brought against us are part of larger strategies by the government to repress dissent. This is an attempt by the State to expand their tools of repression and set new precedents for the future. It is the first time as far as we know that charges have been brought under the Minnesota Patriot Act, a law that goes so far as to classify ‘violence against property’ as terrorism. This is also the first time in recent history that conspiracy charges have been brought against organizers of a mass mobilization. Our supporters recognize that this is not just about the eight individuals who are charged, but rather about the ability of everyone to be able to speak and organize against the status quo.”
Another of the RNC 8, Erik Oseland, agrees: “I personally see it as just another attempt by the state/feds at broadening the scope of what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable to do to activists. It won’t be long now before they start attacking Code Pink, United for Peace and Justice, and other mainstream liberal organizations.”
The case against the RNC 8 is based on the testimony of a police informant who for two years befriended the group. The group, the RNC Welcoming Committee, never made general statements about attacking the Convention. As Eryn Trimmer says, “We were a logistical body, organizing things like food and housing for the protests; there really wasn’t a forum within the Welcoming Committee for suggesting we take any illegal actions.” Individual members of the group may have made some intemperate statements. They may have wished they could stop the buses or stop the delegates from meeting. They probably expressed these sentiments to Marilyn Hedstrom, the police spy. But we don’t know if she encouraged or prompted these statements. In any case, the RNC 8 are not accused of doing anything. They are accused of thinking something and talking about it with their friends. The case against them is a fantasy based on a hyperbole. Charges against the RNC 8 should be dropped immediately in the interest of protecting our constitutional right to dissent and in the interest of saving Ramsey County taxpayers the expense of producing a farce.