Just over three months ago, we wrote of the FBI's effort to recruit moles to infiltrate and report back on peace activists throughout the Twin Cities ("Moles Wanted," 5/21/08). Upon the story's appearance in print, bemusement gave way to outraged speculation on message boards and in conversation. The idea of the federal government keeping tabs on "vegan potlucks" seemed at the time almost too absurd to be true.
But any doubts were eliminated Friday when the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department and St. Paul police—working under the direction of federal agencies, including the FBI—began raiding homes of protesters throughout the metro. Before the weekend was through, authorities would arrest six people and detain dozens more in a preemptive strike against would-be RNC rabble-rousers.
It began Friday night when officers stormed through the St. Paul headquarters of the RNC Welcoming Committee, an anarchist/anti-authoritarian group. Committee member Brian Hokanson, 21, was upstairs in the cavernous "Convergence Center" on Smith Avenue when he heard a large uproar downstairs.
"It sounded like a huge fight had broken out," he says. "Lots of yelling, lots of commotion."
In less than a minute, rifle-wielding officers rushed upstairs and herded about 25 anarchists to the center of the room. "Get down on the ground!" the cops commanded. "Nobody move!"
The anarchists complied and were handcuffed. At that point, one of the captives began singing Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry."
"We're 99 percent sure he [the singing captive] was the infiltrator who told the police when to show up," says Hokanson. "Because right when he started singing, the officers let him up and led him outside. That was the cue. It didn't feel like an arrest. The police didn't say anything."
With that, the authorities began separating the detainees by gender.
"They took the women one-by-one to an adjoining room and patted them down for weapons," says Hokanson. "Shortly thereafter, they started processing the men. They never patted down the men."
The activists were handcuffed for nearly an hour before being set free. No one was arrested, though officers seized numerous computers and equipment as evidence.
The Ramsey County Sheriff's Department has confirmed that it planted moles in the Welcoming Committee, as well as in other groups. In a press release, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher stated, "The 'Welcoming Committee' is a criminal enterprise made up of 35 self-described anarchists who are intent on committing criminal acts before and during the Republican National Convention."
But authorities didn't stop with the anarchists. The next morning, the cops ransacked three more homes in south Minneapolis—one a "hippie house" inhabited by activist group Food Not Bombs—before returning to St. Paul, where agents stormed two additional homes.
Shelby Eidson and five of her colleagues with I-Witness, a New York-based citizen journalism outfit, were in town for the RNC. They stood on the porch of a two-story St. Paul duplex that afternoon awaiting a taxi. Having captured footage during the RNC in New York City—some of which led to the dismissal of charges against hundreds of arrested protesters—the crew knew what to expect. Which is why they weren't entirely surprised to see 20-odd law enforcement officers storming down Iglehart Avenue with rifles drawn.
"Two agents had already come by that day and we had heard about the other raids," say Eidson. "So we already knew we had to get the fuck out. They were obviously listening to our cell phone conversations, because they knew when we were leaving and timed their arrival just as we were going."
The six ran inside the duplex and locked the door as the police detail reached the porch. Through the thin glass front door, police explained to them that if anyone stepped outside, they'd be detained. The cops didn't have a warrant "but one's on the way," an officer claimed.
The team staked out the perimeter of the house, each officer about 15 feet from the next. Meanwhile, Eidson and company placed frantic phone calls to Coldsnap Legal Collective, a group of attorneys providing free legal assistance to protesters. I-Witness members also sent word to various media outlets during the one-hour standoff.
When the warrant finally arrived, officers burst through the door of the adjacent duplex where some of the I-Witness members had been staying and handcuffed three people inside. Officers went on to sift through boxes, search cabinets, and peruse computer files.
"Only they didn't seem to be looking for anything," says 34-year-old Daniel Haynes, an out-of-work social studies teacher. "They weren't thorough at all. It was almost like it was just for show."
Officers led Haynes, his roommate Julian Grant, and owner Mike Whalen—all in plastic handcuffs—to the backyard, where they would sit for 45 minutes. Back inside, officers kicked open an upstairs door to the adjoining section of the duplex and rushed down the stairs, guns drawn. Six activist journalists were similarly detained and led outside while authorities sorted through their possessions.
By this time, numerous media outlets had arrived. When Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman attempted to climb the rusty, four-foot-tall chain-link fence in the backyard in order to question the policemen, she was met with a wave of officers. A minor fracas ensued, with several voices shouting for the officers to unhand Goodman. Perhaps wary of the many television cameras in attendance, the authorities relented.
"That's when the entire tone changed," says Eidson. "Almost right after that, they let us go and told us to go back inside. Then they took off. They didn't take any of our stuff with them."
Bruce Nestor of the National Lawyers Guild, who is representing five jailed activists, contends that the raids were politically motivated.
"We have not been allowed to see the affidavits that were filed in support of the search warrants," he says. "We're confident they'll wait until the 10 days are up, until after the RNC."
Yet local authorities maintain that the raids were justified.
"I can tell you that there was sufficient probable cause, and there would have been violence had we not executed the warrants," says Tom Walsh, the spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. "I would suggest that that possibility has been minimized. Not eliminated, but certainly minimized."
On Monday morning, the RNC Welcoming Committee participated in a makeshift press conference in St. Paul. A diverse group of 35 activists gathered around a couch propped before dozens of television cameras. On a corner less than a mile from the Xcel Energy Center, RNC Welcoming Committee member Jesse Sparkles addressed the crowd.
"For our political beliefs and our efforts to organize healthy communities outside the spectacle of electoral politics, five activists remain locked up," she read from a prepared statement. "The people of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the world must take back control of their communities."
Later that day, authorities raided the RNC Welcoming Committee's communication center. Nine people were arrested on charges of conspiracy to riot.