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Fighting Against Criminalization of Protest: The Political Persecution of the RNC 8
A very important case is unfolding in Minnesota—8 people are being singled out by the government for their role in the political protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC).
At the September ’08 RNC in St Paul, war criminal John McCain and right-wing religious fundamentalist Sarah Palin were being selected as the Republican ticket for the presidential race. The national media spent endless hours on things like Palin’s unmarried pregnant daughter. Meanwhile, the streets of St. Paul were turned into a militarized zone with massive police mobilization. Over the course of four days, thousands defied the armed clampdown to make known their opposition to U.S. wars-torture-spying and the imperialist globalization that has brought suffering to a huge section of humanity and caused catastrophic environmental damage. Over 800 people were arrested and scores were brutalized by the police.
Even before the protests started, law enforcement authorities carried out preemptive raids and arrests of activists and independent journalists throughout Minneapolis/St. Paul (the Twin Cities). Among those arrested were 8 who are now being targeted for persecution, facing over 12 years in prison. They are known as the RNC 8.
For the first time, a state version of the fascistic USA Patriot Act is being applied to political demonstrations. The RNC 8 are charged with felony conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism and felony conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property in furtherance of terrorism, along with two other felonies. They were sitting in jail for the duration of the Republican convention—but they are being held legally responsible for anything that any protestor did during that time.
The prosecution of the RNC 8 would set a very bad precedent that criminalizes political protest. But too few people even know about this case. Everyone who understands the importance of dissent and the ability to resist the crimes being committed by the government and ruling institutions needs to speak out. A big demand to drop the charges on the RNC 8 needs to be raised from a broad cross section of society. This railroad must be stopped cold in its tracks.
In three articles over several issues of Revolution, this series examines key aspects and layers of what has come to light about the unjust prosecution of the RNC 8. The three articles are: “The Case of the RNC 8”; “The Informants and Undercover Agents”—the lies and strategy of the government; “The Clampdown”—the police state, mass arrests, and targeting of journalists.
Part 1: The Case of the RNC 8
Residents of the Twin Cities—Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota—say they have never seen anything like the heavy-handed police repression during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in September last year. Now 8 people (ages 19 to 33), who were preemptively arrested before the protests at the RNC, are each facing 4 felony charges that combined carry more than 12 years in prison.
The RNC 8 were charged with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism, a felony in the Minnesota version of the USA Patriot Act. In December 2008, three more felony charges were added: second degree conspiracy to riot (without the terrorism enhancement), first degree conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property in furtherance of terrorism, and first degree conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property (without the terrorism enhancement). [More information on the RNC 8, including their biographies, can be found online at RNC8.org and nlgminnesota.org (the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild).]
Conspiracy charges alone would be outrageous. Felony charges alone would be outrageous. But the RNC 8 are charged with terrorism essentially for organizing people from around the country to come to protest outside the RNC against the crimes of the government.
Two things in particular about this case could set very dangerous precedents.
First, the RNC 8 were arrested BEFORE the protests had even started. This is unlike earlier famous political conspiracy cases, like the Chicago 8 (a case stemming from the police assault on demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention), where the defendants were charged AFTER the protests. In this current case, all 8 were held in jail throughout the RNC. But they are charged with what other protestors are accused of doing while they were locked up. You’ve usually got a solid alibi if you were in jail while an alleged crime was taking place—but not in this case!
This is the same logic of preemption that the U.S. rulers have used in their “war on terror” as pretext for outrages like indefinite detention of people labeled as enemy combatants, torture, and the invasions of whole countries.
The National Lawyers Guild points out that the criminal complaints against the RNC 8 “do not allege that any of the defendants personally engaged in any act of violence or damage to property. The complaints list all of alleged violations of law during the last few days of the RNC—other than violations of human rights carried out by law enforcement—and seeks to hold the 8 defendants responsible for acts committed by other individuals. None of the defendants have any prior criminal history involving acts of violence. Searches conducted in connection with the raids failed to turn up any physical evidence to support the allegations of organized attacks on law enforcement.”
Even the official Heffelfinger Report1 released in January 2009 said, “During the four days of the convention, no one was seriously injured and there was limited property damage.”
Second, the RNC 8 are charged with conspiracy to riot and to commit criminal damage to property “in furtherance of terrorism.” As far as is known, this is the first time that Patriot Act charges have been leveled, by federal or state authorities, against organizers of mass political protest. The RNC 8 are charged under Minnesota’s Patriot Act which was passed in 2002 as a state version of the federal USA Patriot Act.
How can the government possibly make such an outrageous claim?
The Minnesota Patriot Act defines terrorism far more broadly than even the US Patriot Act. The Minnesota law defines terrorism as "a premeditated act involving violence to persons or property that is intended to: (1) terrorize, intimidate, or coerce a considerable number of members of the public in addition to direct victims of the act…" In contrast to the federal Patriot Act, the Minnesota law's definition of terrorism does not require harm or threat of harm to people, only property.
In both the federal and Minnesota versions of the Patriot Act, terrorism is so broadly and vaguely defined that the government can label almost any demonstration or outbreak of protest as in “furtherance of terrorism.” If what happened in Minneapolis can be labeled as terrorism, then almost any form of determined mass political protest could be subject to government suppression in the name of counter-terrorism.
Bruce Nestor, President of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, points out, “The charges [against the RNC 8] represent an abuse of the criminal justice system and seek to intimidate any person organizing large scale public demonstrations potentially involving civil disobedience.”
The criminal complaint against the RNC8 cites political slogans and videos on the website of the protest group RNC Welcoming Committee to buttress the state’s draconian framework for the charges. For instance, “crash the convention, shut down and disrupt the RNC” is pulled out as particularly alarming by the government. The complaint also points to videos on this site and YouTube which the government claims show people in black-bloc attire committing property damage (“black bloc” can symbolize an anarchist affinity). And the complaint even points to a band’s provocative song title. These kinds of rhetorical political speech and artistic expression have in the past been ruled by courts as “protected”—that is, speech protected by the First Amendment (for example, the “Stop the Draft” slogan in the 1960s).
If the RNC 8 are convicted for their political expression or viewpoint, it would represent a serious leap in criminalizing dissent, and even what could be called the language of dissent and resistance.
Turning Ordinary Items into “Proof” of Crimes
The criminal complaint against the 8 draws heavily on “reports from Confidential Reliable (sic) Informants.” The informant reports are filled with wild allegations that are used as a sinister paradigm (or prism) through which ordinary household items are turned into “proof” of criminal plans. An RNC 8 supporter describes how the authorities held a sensational news conference, displayed a tire seized in a raid, and then claimed that “someone was going to burn the tire to hinder traffic.” The complaint lists things like: “light bulbs (which can be filled with paint or other chemicals and thrown at the police)”; “broken up cement blocks (which can be thrown at police and windows)”; “Unidentified yellow liquid,” which police claim was urine to be thrown at police. The yellow liquid, RNC 8 supporters say, was sink water collected for recycling and environmental conservation.
The Real Conspiracy—Government Plots Against Protests
Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights warned in her 2002 book Silencing Political Dissent “Because this crime [domestic terrorism in the US Patriot Act] is couched in such vague and expansive terms, it is likely to be read by federal law enforcement agencies as licensing the investigation and surveillance of political activists and organizations that protest government policies and by prosecutors licensing the criminalization of legitimate political dissent. Confrontational protest activities, by their very nature are acts ‘that appear to be intended...to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.’ In addition, clashes between demonstrators and police offices and acts of civil disobedience—even those that do not result in injuries and are entirely nonviolent—could be construed as...in violation of the criminal laws.” (pp. 44, 45)
What Chang predicted is unfolding in Minneapolis.
The real conspiracy in this case is the one carried out by U.S. law enforcement. According to court documents, as early as August 2007 a concerted plan began be put into effect to disrupt and conduct surveillance and provocateur operations against potential protestors. The local sheriff alone spent over $300,000 on his department’s undercover operation.
The Heffelfinger Report also reveals that law enforcement nationally have an approach to demonstrations of determining a priori (beforehand) that protesters will commit certain crimes: “The seminal event in threats to national and international conferences took place during the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organizational Ministerial Conference (‘WTO’). There, a group of well-organized, violent, self-proclaimed anarchists attacked the city, forcing it to shut down the conference. At times, the Seattle police lost control of their city as they were caught unprepared...
“Following the WTO, all cities hosting national political conventions have undertaken measures to prepare for anarchist violence by developing intelligence into the anarchist groups and drafting security plans to prevent the anarchists from achieving their goals of shutting down the convention. As the SPPD [St. Paul Police Department] learned from these jurisdictions, the anarchists always set the same goal—shutting down the event—and used similar tactics including creating Molotov cocktails to throw at police; utilizing blockades to close off traffic and prevent delegates from getting to the event; carrying slingshots to throw rocks, urine, feces and other items at police; and monitoring police communications to avoid arrest and detention.”
The authorities decide in advance what the protestors supposedly ALWAYS do—and then set out to find (or create) these elements. One example from the RNC protests: several search warrants for preemptive raids specified fire bomb materials or hazardous materials as items being sought, but none were ever seized. The only time fire bombs were actually seized in the course of numerous raids and arrests was AFTER the RNC started. and this was only at the instigation of a key FBI informant (this is discussed further in Part 2 of this series).
The RNC 8 worked in and around the RNC Welcoming Committee. In a letter, the 8 said, “The Welcoming Committee's purpose was to serve as an anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizing body, creating an informational and logistical framework for radical resistance to the RNC. We spent more than a year and a half doing outreach, facilitating meetings throughout the country, and networking folks of all political persuasions who shared a common interest in voicing dissent in the streets of St. Paul while the GOP's machine chugged away inside the convention.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which reviewed 1000 pages of notes by police informants, reported about the Welcoming Committee meetings: “Many meetings involved no talk of property damage, or even protests. They dealt with tasks like finding places to stay.” (“Cops Infiltrate GOP Convention Protest Group—Then Bust Them for Conspiracy,” 12/1/08)
One demonstrator was convicted of slashing a tire on a bus carrying RNC delegates. This is the kind of activity that the authorities are trying to portray, in the case of the RNC 8, as property destruction in furtherance of terrorism. The demonstrator was given no jail time and sentenced to 3 years probation and community service. The judge even suggested that the defendant could do community service hours for Communities United Against Police Brutality, and reportedly called the protest actions "Gandhi-like."
Movement to Defeat the Railroad
There is a developing movement in Minneapolis/St Paul and beyond to defeat the railroad of the RNC 8. In the government’s first show trial of arrestees who were among the 800 swept up during the RNC protests, the defendants refused easy plea deals, and missed school and work to travel back to Minnesota in order to set a good precedent for others facing trial. They were acquitted. Court hearings are filled with supporters. There is a committee devoted to defending all the demonstrators as well as growing support efforts for the RNC 8. People from a range of political views are uniting to not allow the RNC8 to be singled out and portrayed as “bad protestors” by the authorities. Leading in to the RNC demonstrations, activists developed what they called the St Paul principles2 which drew important dividing lines about non-cooperation with law enforcement against other activists. These principles played a positive role in the protests and in not splintering in the face of the repression that followed.
Well over 100 attended a January town hall meeting in Minneapolis to support the RNC 8 . The event featured a panel of speakers (including Colleen Rowley, retired FBI whistle blower; Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality; a representative of the Anti-War Committee; a Minnesota legislative representative; parents of RNC 8 defendants) as well as updates from their legal team.
There have been important steps in fundraising, speaking engagements, publicizing the case, and forging broad support. More is required, across the country and internationally.
The RNC 8 have just been assigned a new judge. The previous judge, who removed himself from the case, was the same judge mentioned above who refused to throw in jail the protester who slashed a bus tire. The case is still in the stages of discovery. There are myriad agencies, federal and local, who were involved in infiltrating and surveilling organizers of protest around the RNC for over a year. There are over 6000 hours of videotape of the demonstrations alone.
Who Are the Real Criminals?
Among those inside the Excel convention center during the RNC were people who made decisions that resulted in terrorizing whole countries with invasions and occupations. They caused massive destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, leaving hundreds of thousands without medical care and safe drinking water. They issued orders leading to torture in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. They unleashed a war OF terror—kidnapping people in different countries and disappearing them across the globe. The candidate they chose dropped bombs on Vietnamese people.
Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others did not just talk tough among themselves about these criminal actions. These are crimes that they actually committed—documented through photos and memos, legalized through Congress, and proclaimed openly and proudly as their legacy.
These are war crimes and crimes against humanity under international and domestic law. But the perpetrators have not been charged with anything, and Barack Obama has made no moves to even investigate. (See Revolution online article “A Moral and Legal Necessity: Indict the War Criminals!” at revcom.us/a/153online/war_crimes-en.html)
In the meantime, the RNC 8 have been singled out by the authorities for their supposed “crimes”—daring to organize political resistance and protest when the reigning regime of U.S. imperialism hosted the Republican convention in Minnesota. Standing up, refusing to be complicit, taking meaningful political action to resist—these are not crimes. The charges should be dropped NOW.
Those who protested against the RNC were making a statement that was very important for the whole world to hear. You could say it was akin to a metaphorical and massive public “shoe throwing” at the RNC. Some of the demonstrators refused to be confined to the state’s designated protest pens/cages surrounded with chain link fences. Some refused to be confined to the “protest pen” of the elections. Both of these are designed to channel and constrain resistance to that which is acceptable to those who rule over the empire.
As a father of one of the RNC 8 defendants said during the town hall forum, recounting a friend’s remark, “Your son should get a medal, not be on trial” for his role in organizing protest at the RNC.