Police watch protestors at the 2008 Republican
National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Republican National Convention was scheduled to begin Sept. 1 in St. Paul last year. With just days left on Aug. 26, a pair of videographers from New York who film street protests wandered around downtown Minneapolis lost and looking for a Greyhound station where a friend from Chicago was arriving. After finally retrieving her, they lugged a pile of heavy gear onto a city bus headed for the northwest section of the city to a house they planned to stay at for the night.

The tired trio climbed off the bus well past midnight near a busy corridor of cargo trains. Two police cars showed up and flooded them with search beams. The officers, saying they were investigating auto burglaries in the area, began searching their packs. They discovered pamphlets handed out by the Welcoming Committee and became alarmed. “It was like they’d found Al-Qaeda or something,” Vladimir Teichberg, one of the filmmakers on the scene, recalls.

Cameras, phones, laptops, notebooks and cash were taken away. Each was questioned individually in the squad cars. Their IDs came up clean. The group made sure, for the record, to deny consent to the searches before demanding itemized receipts of everything confiscated. None were given, nor was anyone charged with a crime. “This is your case number. Call tomorrow,” the officers said. They rushed to the house and began contacting lawyers.

The officers later sought approval for a warrant to examine all the electronic equipment they’d taken. The case was assigned to Minneapolis police Sgt. Thomas Stiller, who attempted to establish that the group had committed a “gross misdemeanor” by trespassing on the railroad property. That would mean a violation of the Minnesota Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002, which forbids anyone from nearing a “critical public service facility” without permission. Employees of such facilities are even empowered to carry out arrests of trespassers under the post-Sept. 11 state law.

The next day after the three were stopped, they held a press conference with legal aid volunteers and denounced the incident to reporters. Under pressure, the Minneapolis Police Department finally called to say they could have their possessions back, but batteries on the laptops were run down and film on an analog camera was exposed. They’ve since filed a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations.

Raid at a theater

Three days later during the weekend before the convention, multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies undertook a more coordinated drive against protesters they would later describe in court records as “disruption mode.” Their list of targets started with a fading brick building known as the Smith Theater, located across the Mississippi River from St. Paul’s Xcel Center where the convention would be held. According to their intelligence, activists from around the country were gathering there. About 70 people had convened inside.

On the evening of Aug. 29, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, the St. Paul Police Department and the FBI raced up to the theater in cars and screeched to a stop. The group inside suddenly heard a loud commotion as sheriff’s deputies burst into the theater yelling “Police! Get on the floor! Get on the floor!” leveling rifles and side arms at the crowd. The authorities sealed off the area around the building and everyone was zip-cuffed. They then demanded that the activists consent to having photographs taken and show their IDs if they wanted to leave.

Police walked through the theater looking for explosives, sticks and poles, chicken wire, roofing tar, spray paint, hollowed-out puppets, “urine and feces” they believed would be hurled during protests, and virtually every type of electronics possible, including X-boxes and iPods, all listed in a warrant signed by a judge. They breezed past a grand staircase that led to an adjacent screening room where people were watching movies and instead of using the steps to reach them counted to three before knocking down a nearby door with a battering ram.

But the raid by its end didn’t net a weapons cache as the warrant described. There was a traffic barrel with an anarchist symbol on it, two flares, one slingshot, “glass jar with unknown substance” and maps with entrances to the city allegedly color-coded to assist in blockading downtown St. Paul. The findings were enough for police to justify seizing laptops and cell phones, cameras, supplies for making banners and signs, bus-route maps handed out to visitors from out-of-town, piles of political pamphlets and other items. No one in the building was arrested during the raid.

Activist Garrett Fitzgerald, 26, was watching the front door of the theater when the raid occurred and didn’t get to his home south of downtown Minneapolis until 4 or 5 a.m. after police let everyone go. He set the alarm for 8 a.m., but before it went off, Fitzgerald heard the back door being broken down and the sound of police filling the house with commands — “Get on the floor! On your stomach!”

He was frightened and thought, “Well, I’d sure like to be wearing pants when they come in.” Fitzgerald dressed quickly and called a legal aid number before setting the live phone nearby as he lay down on the floor. They didn’t answer and police hung it up after crashing through his bedroom door with a battering ram. “Put your hands behind your back!” they shouted, Fitzgerald said in interviews.

Police proceeded to seize items from his house that Fitzgerald said could be found anywhere — jars of staples, a hatchet, spray paint, wire cutters and a hacksaw. But they also found 37 caltrops, steel points that can be placed in the street to deflate tires, according to court records.

Monica Bicking, 24, and Eryn Trimmer, 23, who also lived at the house with Fitzgerald, were arrested along with him and taken to a jail. Police from departments across the Twin Cities joined by the FBI carried out two more raids at homes that morning in Minneapolis and discovered “throwing-style knives in a bag,” a lock-picking kit, U-locks for the alleged tactic of attaching protesters to immovable objects, and light bulbs, which police claim can be filled with paint and other chemicals to be thrown.

Eight people total were arrested in the days to come, police charging them with “conspiracy to riot in the furtherance of terrorism,” criminal enhancements contained in the Minnesota Anti-Terrorism Act and used for the first time during the Republican National Convention. Seven months later, after the global media presence dissipated, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner dropped the terrorism accusations, complaining that they “complicated” the case. Today the RNC 8, as supporters have dubbed them, face charges of conspiring to riot and damage property.

Followed by undercover agents

RNC 8 defendant Garrett Fitzgerald, who’s out on bail, wasn’t shocked by his arrest, believing police commonly pursue political activists with undue haste. Infiltration of his group the Welcoming Committee had never been out of the realm of possibility. But police this time had gone to the extreme. Preemptive raids. Months of spying. Terrorism charges.

Paid undercover informants had followed him and the other activists to protest planning meetings around the country for months and were alleging in charging papers that Fitzgerald had discussed ways to disable police cars, puncture their gas tanks and use carpeting nails as road spikes. They described him as “present” during workshops where attendees proposed “kidnapping delegates,” “capturing federal buildings” and “sabotaging the Xcel Center.”

Lawyers have encouraged the group not to answer too many prying questions about specific claims made by informants. But the RNC 8 and their supporters have disputed implications that old tires and bricks found by police were going to be used for starting noxious fires and shattering windows. They’re also pointing to statements made in jest to informants that were then earnestly reported to police handlers as obvious plans for destruction.

“People need to be very wary of trusting these informants’ accounts of things,” said Fitzgerald. “Ramsey County filed the complaints. It’s their job to make the very best case they can, not necessarily to get the truth.”

It’s difficult to tell how much of the material collected was going to be used for furthering terrorism and rioting, such as ninja foot spikes and throwing-style knives. A memo from the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center – one of many intelligence-oriented fusion center established by local police with homeland security grants after Sept. 11 – admits many of the items police should look for are everyday objects like bottled water, first-aid supplies, computers and pamphlets. The center doesn’t offer meaningful advice for how police can establish probable cause and conclude reliably that something will be used for “illegal direct action” activities and thus be seized or photographed.

Tony Bouza is a former Minneapolis police chief whose own wife of 50 years was arrested during an anti-war protest in 1983 when he headed the department. He hasn’t hesitated in the past to criticize law enforcement decision-making, but on the issue of preemptive raids, Bouza called them “brilliant.”

“They secured search warrants. They secured evidence. If they turned up innocent people, then I would be critical,” he said. “I thought the aggressive police tactics [in advance of the convention] were well carried out. I don’t subscribe to the notion that these were baseless raids of innocent people.”

Police claims challenged

But other “intelligence-led policing” that occurred on Aug. 30 as the final countdown to the Republican convention began challenges the legitimacy of police claims.

Around 1 p.m. that day, a dozen St. Paul police officers rushed toward a duplex west of the city dressed in black and armed with pistols and rifles. Michael Whalen, a waiter at the North Star Hotel for 30 years where the city’s business and political elite frequently dine, saw the curious spectacle of police running past his window as he sat in the living room. More were coming through the yard.

The officers asked to be allowed in the house but didn’t have a warrant and were told no. So they waited for two hours until a judge approved one detaining all those who tried to leave before then. Whalen started calling newspapers and TV stations as the incident turned into a circus with media filling the neighbor’s yard angling for a view.

“This is what we’re going to do,” an officer said to the 10 or so people inside after the warrant arrived. “We’re going to search you, handcuff you, take you into the back yard, and then we’re going to search the house.” Each of the occupants was photographed after being sat down.

Whalen was dumbstruck. Sure people knew him as a noisy supporter of Irish independence and a radical on other issues. But his nephew dates the mayor’s daughter, and Whalen’s old roommate was once a top DFL official. Judges and mayoral candidates had attended events supporting the reunification of Ireland that he helped organize. “I’ve never been afraid of what I do politically,” he said.

Police, it turned out, had told the judge that a local bookstore Whalen helped run called Arise! was co-owned by Sara Jane Olson, a Vietnam-era political activist, sympathizer with the Symbionese Liberation Army and fugitive of more than 20 years who lived under an assumed name as a community volunteer and doctor’s wife in St. Paul. When finally arrested in June of 1999, she served seven years in prison and was released recently for her alleged role in planting bombs under Los Angeles police cars and a bank robbery stemming from the mid-1970s.

The affidavit supporting the search warrant also claimed that 21 heavy packages were delivered to Whalen’s home and that a postal carrier questioned by police could only lift them two at a time. An FBI agent learned from a “reliable source” that the packages contained weapons intended to be used at the convention. A St. Paul police officer assigned to the area’s Joint Terrorism Task Force told the judge they were conducting surveillance on Whalen’s house when he allegedly climbed into a Chevy Cobalt to leave. They attempted to pull the car over and the driver fled briefly before being stopped, according to the affidavit.

But the St. Paul Police Department’s own later report of the incident, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, contradicts the sworn affidavit and says that Whalen himself was not in the car. The document further states that the Cobalt was pulled over after the warrant was served, not before.

No dangerous arsenal was discovered in the duplex and no one was arrested, including Whalen. The boxes a reliable source alleged were full of deadly weapons turned out to contain pamphlets that offered advice on how to convert to a vegetarian diet and belonged to someone who rented a room in the house. The roommate earned $17 an hour handing them out on college campuses around the Midwest.

“That application for a search warrant was ridiculous,” said Eileen Clancy, a founder of I-Witness Video based in New York who was in the home that day. “We were not involved even in organizing demonstrations, not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Whalen’s had little to no contact with Olson since she withdrew from Arise! in 1995. He has filed suit over the incident.

Searching a bus

Raids continued elsewhere that day.

At around 5 in the afternoon six miles west of Whalen’s home, two bike patrol officers from the Minneapolis Police Department learned about a green bus located in a parking lot downtown with a group of people gathered around loading supplies. Police had been told to be on the lookout for feces and urine that protesters might attempt to throw during clashes on the street, or devices that could be used to link demonstrators together making it more difficult for them to be removed.

According to one fusion center document, arriving demonstrators will likely have “limited financial resources,” which should make it “difficult for these groups to restock their logistical support system” if protest materials are taken away by police. “History has shown that violent demonstrators collect and stockpile items at various locations to be used to further their cause at these types of events. … Anything that seems out of place for its location could indicate the stockpiling of supplies to be used against first responders.”

As they watched, the officers noticed two five-gallon buckets near the rear entrance of the bus. Because the sun shined through them, the pair could see irregular-shaped mounds inside the pails that didn’t appear to be entirely liquid. One container lid fell off and suddenly they could smell an odor coming from the area of the bus resembling human feces, according to a police report. There was a large amount of PVC pipe and plywood stacked in the back of the bus, and someone also loaded in an animal kennel. They must be planning some type of direct action, the officers thought, so the two contacted a lieutenant to relay their fear, police documents state.

The bus pulled out of the parking lot, and Stan Wilson sat in the driver’s seat, his wife Delyla helping to navigate as they made their way toward St. Paul for an event there. With their daughter, the family of permaculture enthusiasts travels the United States teaching sustainable living techniques.

At around 6:30 police lights flashed behind the bus. At least two more cars were waiting for them when they pulled over on a highway exit. Soon several law-enforcement vehicles crammed the road’s shoulder, including an unmarked black suburban, and around two-dozen officers were on scene from Ramsey County, St. Paul, Minneapolis, the highway patrol and a local university.

“Everybody off the bus now,” one officer ordered.

Stan Wilson asked why they were pulled over. But none of the explanations were quite clear, according to the couple.

What Delyla and Stan Wilson couldn’t have known at the time was that local authorities had contacted a fusion center in Montana where the bus was registered. Police there possessed information that the Wilsons were affiliated with Earth First!, a group that at times has advocated radical methods for ending environmental degradation. The Montana center then supplied a “full report” on the “suspects,” according to a partially redacted document the Center for Investigative Reporting obtained.

But it doesn’t indicate whether there was reasonable suspicion to believe any crime had occurred involving the bus or what details fusion center analysts from Montana included in their shared report.

Delyla Wilson freely admits being involved with Earth First! years ago. She served five days in jail and two years probation after splattering animal entrails on a top agriculture official in 1997 to protest hundreds of bison being killed near Yellowstone National Park. She hasn’t been charged with any crime since.

Police decided to tow the bus off the highway. A case report says they did so “after officers received information relating to illegal activity that this vehicle was involved in.” But no one was arrested or charged in connection to the incident.

The Wilsons were allowed to keep the five-gallon buckets, which didn’t contain feces and urine, but rather chicken feed. As for the other supplies police considered potentially dangerous, the family had piping and scrap lumber onboard for random building projects and heavy-gauge fencing to enclose their birds.

The city of Minneapolis concluded later that the bus contained numerous mechanical violations. But on Sept. 2 of convention week, officials relinquished it after receiving a wave of angry phone calls supportive of the family and lifted all fines for the alleged vehicle infractions. A city spokesman, Matt Laible, said the bus was released because the Wilsons had agreed to address “brake issues.”

Delyla Wilson disputes even that claim. “The city attorney’s office called, apologized for the mistake, and told us we could have the bus back free and clear without fear of being harassed or the bus being re-impounded,” she said. “When, and if, we made the repairs was up to us.”

The Wilsons were abandoned on the road that day, the last officer telling them it’s illegal to stand on a freeway exit as he sped away, the family claims. Minnesota’s fusion center described in documents the role it played in receiving the shared information on the Wilsons from Montana. But center director Michael Bosacker would only say that any data his team requests from other jurisdictions must be linked to an active probe in which police have reasonable suspicion a crime occurred or is about to occur.

“I’m an old-time cop. I worked investigations and I know a lot of veteran investigators [who] wouldn’t even share with the guy sitting next to them,” he said in defense of intelligence-led policing. “That’s the extreme other side of this thing. If they don’t even share within their own agency, how are you going to get them to share outside, which could benefit more than one department in getting a handle on a real crime problem? We have to figure out how to do that.”

‘Huge mistake’

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU affiliate in Minnesota, counters that police wanted to frustrate protest groups through sweeps and other means in order to tactically outnumber them on the streets during the convention.

“These fusion centers are a huge mistake policy-wise. This is bad, bad juju. It is a refutation of our ideals as a republic,” Samuelson said. “Michael Bosacker is a nice guy. None of these guys are evil. That’s what makes it so banal, which makes it so scary to me. If this guy was a drooling Bull Connor [the Civil Rights-era Klansman and belligerent police official from Alabama], it’d be easy. People would be enraged and we’d shut it down.”

On Aug. 31 following the day of area-wide raids, the police disruption of protesters continued. An informant reported to a case agent from the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Squad that a trailer rented by demonstrators from Texas contained 35 shields fashioned out of highway barrels that they planned to use in confrontations with law enforcement.

St. Paul police investigator David Langfellow of the Joint Terrorism Task Force notified his commander that he’d found the trailer on Woodbridge Street northwest of downtown. Instead of instructing Langfellow to seek a warrant, the commander told him to “disrupt the trailer” and “deal with it,” in part because local law enforcement had decided they were in disruption mode and not investigative mode. So Langfellow broke into the trailer and seized the contents, which included helmets, plastic shields, a medic bag and “batons that looked like cut-off shovel handles,” according to court records.

A federal judge later ruled that the search was illegal and remarked in a telling footnote on the notion of police preemption, “the law does not recognize a distinction between disruption mode and investigation mode. … Law enforcement is required at all times to comply with the Constitution regardless of whether it is seeking to disrupt potentially unlawful activities or to investigate crimes for later prosecution.”

By the convention’s end, Ramsey County prosecutors had charged just 14 people out of the hundreds of demonstrators arrested with felonies. The remaining 800 or so were mostly held for unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, obstructing traffic and other misdemeanors before being released. Three felony cases were eventually dismissed due to insufficient evidence, another seven resulted in guilty pleas or jury convictions for criminal property damage and the rest are pending.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher held a press conference weeks after the RNC at the same time a public meeting was convened to hear citizen comments on the police handling of demonstrators. He reportedly pasted the walls of a room with booking sheets of people arrested during the convention’s first turbulent day and declared that a majority were not from Minnesota. The town could have been destroyed after nightfall without a confrontational police response, he insisted.

Several requests for an interview with Fletcher were denied, and the St. Paul Police Department wouldn’t answer detailed questions in an e-mail or follow-up requests for comment. More than two-thirds of the misdemeanor arrests that took place during the convention have since been declined or dismissed due to lack of evidence and other reasons, including more than three-dozen cases brought against journalists.

Peter Erlinder, a St. Paul attorney representing one of the RNC 8, said the behavior of law enforcement created a “chilling effect” for future protests. “It’s clear,” Erlinder said, “that there was a conscious effort to carry out surveillance and penetration and to infiltrate all of the groups that had any idea of expressing their opinions in St. Paul.”

This account is based on in-depth interviews, news stories and an extensive examination of police reports, available court records and other public and government documents, including memos obtained from the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center through the state’s open-records laws.

This story is part of a collaborative project by the Center for Public Integrity and CIR examining the effectiveness of America’s homeland security efforts. Support for this partnership project is provided by the Open Society Institute.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.