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Meet the RNC Eight: Are they terrorists?

Left to right: Rob Czernik, Erik Oseland, Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, Luce Guillen-Givins, Garrett Fitzgerald, Nathanael Secor, Max Specktor.
rnc8.org
Left to right: Rob Czernik, Erik Oseland, Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, Luce Guillen-Givins, Garrett Fitzgerald, Nathanael Secor, Max Specktor.

Six alleged terrorists met on a bright sunny morning in Minneapolis' Powderhorn Park recently. I saw no one flee from them, take cover or even pay much notice.

These "terrorists" are among defendants known as the RNC Eight for their alleged plans to shut down the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last year. While their cases unfold in the courts, they live freely in our midst, working in preschools, a college cafeteria, a coffee shop and assorted odd jobs.


The RNC Eight are the first to face terrorism charges under the so-called Minnesota Patriot Act of 2002, anti-terrorism law enacted during the tense months following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

But does this ragtag group of local anarchists truly represent the menace the Legislature had in mind?

Even the prosecution struggles for the answer.

"It's not clear to us what the Legislature intended back in 2002," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.

"The language [of the law] clearly covers these kinds of allegations," Gaertner said. "Whether or not that is what the Legislature meant to do is much less clear. It's not completely unusual for the Legislature to pass a law and then, when it plays out in real life situations, that there might be a question about what the reach of the law should be."

So Minnesota must decide, while the nation watches, where to draw the line between terrorism and political protest that threatens to break laws.

"There is peaceful protest and criminal protest," said Nathan Sales, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia and an expert on the federal PATRIOT Act. "Even the criminal protests seem to be pretty far removed from our common-sense understanding of what terrorism is."

Sales was speaking in general, not in defense of the RNC Eight. Ramsey County courts will decide whether terrorism charges fit their case. A trial is expected in September.

The case
In August 2007, the Ramsey County sheriff began investigating self-described anarchists who called themselves the RNC Welcoming Committee and plotted to disrupt the convention. An undercover deputy and other informants infiltrated the group. Then, on the weekend before the convention, deputies arrested the Eight and held them in jail while GOP delegates met and other protesters filled the streets.

Court documents allege that the group's preparations ranged from practicing peaceful sit-ins to training for more violent tactics including throwing Molotov cocktails, overturning vehicles and rioting. Authorities also allege they organized other anarchists around the country for action in St. Paul.

In raids on the group's hangouts, authorities seized PVC piping, paint, bleach, marbles and slingshots, bricks and cement blocks, gas masks, bolt cutters, firecrackers, empty glass bottles, flammable liquids, rags, etc. You get the idea. Items that made virtually every news report were containers of urine and feces.

Authorities allege that the mundane items were homemade ingredients for dangerous weapons such as Molotov cocktails and missiles that could be dropped from freeway overpasses.

Those charged and now free on bail range in age from 19 to 33. They are Monica Bicking, Erik Oseland, Robert Czernik, Garrett Fitzgerald, Nathanael Secor, Luce Guillen-Givins, Eryn Trimmer and Max Specktor. 

Two of the four felony counts each of them faces are terrorism related: conspiracy to commit riot in the second degree in furtherance of terrorism and conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property in furtherance of terrorism. Both are punishable by up to five years in prison and/or $10,000 fines. Further, state law allows terrorism-related sentences to be expanded by 50 percent.

The defense
Attorneys for the Eight say their first defense is that they didn't do anything illegal.

"I don't think the state can prove any of the critical elements of the case," said Jordan Kushner, who represents Guillen-Givins.

Freedom of speech and dissent are other pieces of the defense strategy.

"This goes back to the history of prosecuting political dissidents in this country," Kushner said. "Eventually the Supreme Court set a clear standard … you can't criminalize speech unless there is a clear and imminent danger. But how could there be a clear and imminent danger when they were put in jail before any of this alleged stuff happened?"

Whether or not the Eight talked about violent acts such as throwing Molotov cocktails, that's not the same as actually doing it, said Bruce Nestor, who represents Bicking.

"We have not yet come to a point in this country where it's illegal to talk about things," Nestor said. "It's not even illegal to advocate violence. It's illegal to plan and carry out acts of violence but not to use overheated political rhetoric." 

It is a given that the defense will push hard against the terrorism charges, especially the charge of conspiracy to damage property.

"From the Boston Tea Party to the present, property sometimes gets damaged as a part of political demonstrations and police response," Nestor said. "That can be dealt with by criminal law and by society and by democratic debate. But do we really want to start labeling that as terrorism?"

Civil liberties v. security
Debate in Minnesota echoes nationwide controversy over the balance between civil liberties and security.

Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, was the only member of the U.S. Senate to vote against the federal PATRIOT Act when it passed in October 2001. Feingold explained later why he stood so firm even given the slaughter on 9/11: "We must examine every item that is proposed in response to these events to be sure we are not rewarding these terrorists and weakening ourselves by giving up the cherished freedoms that they seek to destroy."

I covered Feingold's re-election bid in 2004, when his Republican opponent Tim Michels, hammered on that vote. One of Michels' television ads featured smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center while an ominous voice said, "Our leaders passed new laws to keep us safe, but Russ Feingold voted against those laws."

Feingold won the election handily.

Even as early as 2004, standing up to the PATRIOT Act was becoming good politics, David Weigel wrote in "When Patriots Dissent," published by Reason.

"The PATRIOT Act is . . . becoming the most galvanizing legislation for civil liberties activists since the Sedition Act of 1918," Weigel wrote.

After post-9/11 shock faded, questions of whether the federal act went too far began to transcend typical left-right politics, he said, and "some of the act's most influential opponents are very conservative people in very red states."

Rather than follow Minnesota and pass their own Patriot Acts, two states — Alaska and Vermont — passed resolutions opposing the federal act, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislatures in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Michigan, New Hampshire and Washington considered similar resolutions.

It's hard to say how many states joined Minnesota because the acts typically took on different names, said a researcher at the National Conference. What is certain is that a flurry of anti-terrorism and homeland security legislation passed in states during 2002 and 2003.

Written broadly
Given the fear gripping the nation at the time, it's easy to understand why the Minnesota Legislature took a broad sweep against terrorism, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, who teaches criminal defense law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

"Put yourself in the place of a legislator back then, and you say, 'OK, something terrible has happened and we want to write a law to cover it.'But we don't want to make it too narrow because you can't anticipate every possible situation that will come up," he said. "So you end up writing in broad terms. It may end up applying to things they didn't anticipate."

The chief author on the 2002 bill was Kevin Goodno, a Republican who represented Moorhead in the state House at the time and now works for the law firm Fredrikson & Byron. Goodno told me last week that he had little to do with the anti-terrorism provision which was attached to a larger bill he was sponsoring.

What Goodno did recall was that "there was no intent to stifle any local protestors from expressing their opinions."

One of the bill's original co-authors was Richard Stanek, now the Hennepin County sheriff. He said it is fitting to apply the law to small-scale local acts.

The FBI has classified militant groups such as the Earth Liberation Front as domestic terror organizations, and when they "commit acts that are meant to scare or injure others, they may very well fall under the domestic terrorism piece of the Minnesota statute," Stanek said.

Sales, the PATRIOT Act expert, agreed that small-scale terrorism poses a serious security risk. While the United States has seen relatively large attacks, other countries have struggled against smaller threats perpetrated by locals who are inspired by radical ideology.

That's a reason lawmakers choose language flexible enough so it "could be used on apocalyptic-scale terrorism as well as on terrorists with more modest ambitions," he said.

The all-important challenge is to not go too far, especially when it comes to protest, Sales said.

Terrorism is classically defined as "severe violence involving threats to life or serious threats to bodily health for the purpose of coercing or intimidating a civilian population," he said.

"Low-grade crimes — throwing a bottle through a window or a rock at a police officer — ought to be prosecuted, but they do not rise to the level of severe conduct that in our common sense usage we would describe as terrorist acts," he said.

The prosecutor's role
Of course, the Legislature could amend the state law. Meanwhile, a key check on applying it too broadly rests with prosecutors, said Sampsell-Jones at William Mitchell.

"The Legislature writes laws broadly and leaves it to the prosecutors to figure out which people are the really bad people and which aren't," he said. "The hope is that you have good sensible prosecutors in office who will recognize that not every single person who comes technically within the letter of the law should be charged with a terrorism statute."

Gaertner said a prosecutor in her office determined that the case clearly fits the language of the law.

"But there's no question that the terrorism charge has become a distraction to the core illegal conduct that is alleged," she said.

Another distraction is Gaertner's bid to become governor.

A trial next fall could give Gaertner much-needed name recognition at just the right time in the political cycle, said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

"A prominent case like this could boost her name recognition across the state which is her first challenge because she is facing better known rivals for the party's endorsement," Jacobs said.

But the case also could set back Gaertner's chances for the DFL endorsement because the Eight have sympathy among hard-core DFL activists.

"So it's a mixed bag for her politically," Jacobs said.

Gaertner laughed when I asked her to respond to the Eight's claims that she has a political motive for pushing the case.

"I'd like to hear any theory by which this prosecution is helpful to me politically. It simply isn't," she said. "As far as the timing of the trial, we have sought to have this resolved as quickly as possible but we have not been able to get a trial date sooner than this fall."

Standing their ground
Meanwhile, the Eight are not giving much ground on their right to dissent — at least peacefully.

Their gathering in Powderhorn Park on March 28 was for a bicycle ride which they called the "Tour de Fletcher" after Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher who led the crackdown on their group. Along with some 100 supporters, they pedaled to houses that Fletcher's deputies had raided in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Max Specktor, the 19-year-old, said he had recently returned from the West Coast where he spoke on college campuses in Washington and Oregon and also at the Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair in San Francisco. Their cause is attracting coast-to-coast attention.

I asked Specktor about damage other anarchists had done in St. Paul.

"They [police] kicked in our doors first and damaged property at our houses first," he said. "No cops were injured, but hundreds of protesters were Maced and beaten."

Luce Guillen-Givins, 24, is back at her old job earning $10 an hour at a cafeteria at Macalester College in St. Paul. But she's not giving up protesting.

"I'm a person who is committed to radical change in this country and around the world," she said. "I am not willing to slow down and moderate myself because the state would like me to do so."

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (24)

While I'm certainly not a Republican, it's too bad you don't have any pictures of these clowns in action. I was there. Are they terrorists? They are domestic terrorists, yes. No question about it. You just can't use violence and vandalism to protest--ever! Just because a bunch of me-first Baby Boomers got away with it, in large part, during the 1960s doesn't make it OK. These smiling punks need to pay for what they did. And, after their punishment, I'll bet they NEVER do it again.

Learn to protest with tact, kids. The laws of the land do apply to Generation Y, just as they do the rest of us.

The "Minnesota Patriot Act" is amongst many wrong-headed legal initiatives that recklessly blurred dissent with terrorism, that began with FBI memorandums first disseminated to police nationwide before the anti-war marches and FTAA protests in Miami in the fall of 2003. Although widely criticized and often resulting in illegal, over-broad investigations of peace and justice groups like those conducted by the New York City police in the lead-up to the 2004 RNC, these practices have continued nationwide and especially in the lead-up to "National Special Security Events" like the RNC.

The approximately 58 so-called "fusion centers" created to maintain, process, and "analyze" the massive data being collected are also the subject of widespread criticism. The most complete expose of why the massive data collection is not only ineffective but counter-productive to the goal of identifying actual terrorists was done by the ACLU here: http://www.aclu.org/pdfs/privacy/fusion_update_20080729.pdf

Other recent, good articles on this same problem with "fusion" centers overbroad approach to collecting non-relevant data are: "Surveilling for Clues of Evil Intent" by former Associate Deputy Attorney General (under Reagan) conservative lawyer Bruce Fein, 4/1/2009 (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/apr/01/surveilling-for-clues-of...); and "Public Advocacy Is Not a Crime" by former FBI (Terrorism Undercover) Agent Mike German, 4/1/2009 (http://www.campaignforliberty.com/article.php?view=38).

The public has really been misled terribly about what's been going on. Curtailing and chilling First Amendment rights due to the blurring of dissent and protest with terrorism is maybe the least of the problems and costs to public safety occasioned by the diversion of law enforcement resources to the "war on terror" that led to creation of 58 "fusion" centers in the country. For instance, at times since 9-11, the FBI devoted almost half its resources to terrorism, nearly shutting down its white collar crime program (i.e. health care, financial institution frauds and corruption). So while warning in September 2004 that the country was facing a catastrophe unless resources were directed at the mortgage fraud problem, the FBI could do little to prevent the recent economic collapse. The Wall Street and banking fraud is now estimated to be 100 to 1000 times greater than the S and L frauds in the 1980s but the FBI only has 1/5 of the agents assigned to these frauds as they did during the S and L crisis. Bill Moyers' interview of William Black just disclosed this little appreciated fact which resulted from the diversion of investigative manpower from economic fraud to trying to find more "terrorists".

if a guy named yusuf mohammed fatmu ali or something like that was heard by an fbi informant to be discussing how to make molotav cocktails and then was found with the materials for said cocktails and this was all to possibly be used at an event in the united states in a major, metropolitan area and with many of our political leaders present, how many people would be up in arms about the guy being charged under the patriot act?

the defendants here ("RNC 8" is a bit grandious of a title, i believe) may be innocent and this all may be hokum (the charges, the informant, the evidence, police and/or prosecutorial conduct, etc), but the articles i've seen about these defendants all have photos of their smiling, mostly white faces, and tidbits about their day jobs, bicycle rides, granola-making abilities, you-name-it.

they may not be guilty, but their anglo names and photo ops in local parks don't mean that they're innocent, either.

nelson finstad:

Did you even read the article? These activists were arrested BEFORE the protests. It's not a matter of defending the RNC8, it's a matter of accuracy.

I saw the "RNC Welcoming Committee" in action too; upfront and personal. Their purpose was not to protest; it was to "Crash the RNC", "Shut it down" & etc.

They said so in no uncertain terms, right on their ill considered website.

They threw bleach on an elderly woman. They threw road signs and sand bags off highway bridges at passing busses. They tried, on at least two occaisions that I witnessed, to set fires.

Violence and riot directed towards a political event are calculated to stifle the Democratic process. Is an attack on our Democratic process an act of terrorism?

I'd say yes.

The fact that the weapons at hand were too modest to cause mass murder or massive destruction isn't a legitimate factor in ascribing motives or goals.

A few years in prison may not persuade our cafeteria worker/terrorist to "moderate" her activities, but it will ensure that those wishing to engage in the free excersize of political discourse won't have to worry about her for awhile.

Small scale terrorism, is still terrorism.

Hmmmm. Maybe Michelle Bachman could be charged under the Minnesota Patriot Act. She seems to be advocating violence against our duly elected government officials on a regular basis.

There are really TWO seperate issues here. The first is the actions of the RNC 8, which will be determined (hopefully fairly) by the legal system. The second is more insidious, and more systmic than these 8 individuals -- that is the Patriot Act itself.

Almost all civil libertarians and constitutional law experts agree this Act has overreached, and is a firghtening threat to our civil liberties and constitutionally guarnateed rights. As such, it needs to be modified and/or dispatched at the earliest possible date. It does not serve our nation well.

>> [TOM MOORE] the defendants here ("RNC 8" is a bit grandious of a title, i believe) may be innocent and this all may be hokum (the charges, the informant, the evidence, police and/or prosecutorial conduct, etc), but the articles i've seen about these defendants all have photos of their smiling, mostly white faces, and tidbits about their day jobs, bicycle rides, granola-making abilities, you-name-it. they may not be guilty, but their anglo names and photo ops in local parks don't mean that they're innocent, either. <<

Tom,

I just phoned Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and passed on the word that other smiling, mostly white granola-makers are loose in our community and doing photo ops in local parks. I'm sure the SWAT teams are suiting up and will be busting down doors in the morning.

Thanks for tip!

Thanks for writing this article. It is very concerning how the state can take away our 1st amendment rights. And it is even more concerning the public who turns a blind eye to it.
Thank you Coleen for your insight and intelligent remarks.
I hope the State legislature realize what a damaging law they passed 2002 and work to repeal it.
I hope everyone watches "Terrorising Dissent" to see the video clips and interviews of the RNC 8.
What criminal activity is really happening in our community when time is wasted investigating and working to prosecute community organizers?
It is really beneath Ramsey County District Attorney to prosecute the RNC 8, and I don't know what they were holding over her to do so. But i hope she finds courage to dismiss the cases.

The 3,000 police officers in downtown St Paul during the RNC made the city feel threatening just by their appearance, even before they started rounding up everyone in sight and throwing them into the Ramsey County Jail. Last week, 15,000 French police officers showed us how it can be done.

They arrested a total of 300 protestors (we arrested 800 at the RNC), all for acts of vandalism. None was called a terrorist; none was arrested because of his/her political philosophy or possible "intent."

Were there any lasting, positive, beneficial influences on our town of this bad carnival, the RNC?

The next time someone offers to send us a road show like this, I say let's take a pass on it, tell them to take it somewhere else.

The RNC 8 strike me as being incredibly childish and like so many children they played with fire and got burned. Claiming innocence because no crime was committed seems illogical as well, given that they were arrested before they could commit the crimes. Maybe they are damn lucky they were stopped before things really got out of hand for them.

The bottom line is this: as an adult you can choose to do whatever you want, any time you want, but you must accept the consequences of your actions.

And to Sharon Schmickle, please leave the bias and sarcasm out of your reporting for MinnPost. MinnPost is too valuable to be ruined by amateurish reporting.

I agree with Coleen Rowley 100%. If you look at resource allocation you have to consider broader public interests and effects. I knew resources were being diverted away from other pressing problems. Yes there are legitimate fears and there are also ongoing credible threats. On the St. Paul riots a young neighbor of mine was rounded up going to work that day and temporarily jailed. Yes he has longish hair, yes he wears black jeans, yes he is not 50 years old like me and he may have been young enuf to believe in full particaptory civics. He was not a provocateur. It had to have been a tough call for the police those days. My sympathy to both individuals.
For more on this I suggest reading "Decade of Nightmares, the Making of Eighties America" by Phillip Jenkins a prolific well-established/academic Christian writer. Believe it or not Tom Swift might actually enjoy this guy a bit. And Tom when you played catch as a young boy did you have friends or did you have to bounce a tennis ball against the wall? Lighten up. I am saying this with the best intentions. I apologize if this is hurtful.
More importantly why is there not one peaceful protest about Minnesota having only one Senator? Please discuss. I am not okay with the present situation but Maybe I just gotta lighten up too and watch the Twins.

As I skimmed through this story I thought someone played an evil trick on me and, without my knowledge, switched me to citypages.com.

"On the St. Paul riots a young neighbor of mine was rounded up going to work that day and temporarily jailed. Yes he has longish hair, yes he wears black jeans, yes he is not 50 years old like me and he may have been young enuf [sic] to believe in full particaptory [sic] civics."

Curious. In what way does your neighbor’s belief in "full participatory civics" have relevance if he was stopped for nothing more than "going to work"?

Did he, perhaps, stop to toss a couple of participatory rocks?

And, in what way does what I may or may not have done to amuse myself as a kid have relevance to the discussion at hand, dan?

I didn't find the comment hurtful at all, mind you.

It's been my experience, that when a leftist finally loses the tenuous grip on an inchoate train of thought during discussions, juvenile statements will often be blurted out, apropos of nothing. I hope it relieved a bit of your frustration.

The liberals will definitely say; no they are not terrorists. I have absolutely no problem with protest marches, etc. However disruptions; shutting down the RNC through civil disobedience and violence; yea, they are without question domestic terrorists and need to be treated as such. This means for their actions, prison time. And it needs to be stiff prison time. This is a civilized nation and when someone does not like the way we do things, then there are other places to live. But when you decide you don't like the way we do things, and elect to destroy, disrupt and damage our land and society, you need to pay the price. Your most effective power is in your vote, not in your weapons and breaking windows, overturning cars, and other mayhem.

My neighbor did nothing but go to work and ended up losing a day's pay and a night in jail. He did nothing but was in the wrong place at the wrong time fortunately he had an understanding boss who needed a good worker like him. Also in the comment universe people use words like enuf.
And not everyone feels the need to use spellcheck. Its basically a dialogue but too many men and women use it as a one way soapbox. The reason you were not jailed is because you're older, white. I did not approve of the riots in fact I thought they were a terrible idea and I even liked Sarah Palin initially. We are all reasonably bright people it is when you are a little bit in the center that you get rocks thrown at you.

I really appreciate this coverage, so thanks Ms. Schickle, as I feel there has been lack of it and want to know what is going on. It is fairly obvious to me after not too much research that whether or not these young people were "conspiring" to commit "civil disobedience" (which is basically the only thing that has ever moved this country forward) or not, the state has been and still is way out of line with this type of prosecution. Yes, people should be held accountable for their actions and from my understanding that's what the whole "crash the convention" thing was about - holding the Republicans accountable. Obviously there is not too much "real power" in the vote, as Jeff Kline suggests, when our youth and the rest of the country have to take to the streets in order to be heard. And for those of you who need to be reminded, the real "domestic terrorists" are the police (and those who defend them) who continually exploit and abuse their power over civilian populations going about their daily lives.
And one more comment to mr. kline - a gentle reminder that the land you're living on was obtained through terrorism and genocide. It just happened to be at the hand of (likely) your ancestors.

>> JEFF KLINE: yea, they are without question domestic terrorists and need to be treated as such. This means for their actions, prison time. And it needs to be stiff prison time. <<

In these tough economic times, Kline has quite the money saving solution for the courts: forget the haggling over witnesses, evidence, the facts; go straight to sentencing.

Do we really have to bother with the presumption of innocence?

And what is this about "overturning cars"? Are we still talking about the RNC 8, the convention in St. Paul?

I love it! The Liberals continue chanting the "keep government out of my bedroom" rhetoric, but when the President of the United States arbitrarily takes over management of a publicly-held corporation we hear not one complaint from them.

I'm a liberal (maybe even leftist) but I make no excuses for them. Terrorism is an attempt to instill fear through violent means in order to achieve a political end. If a court finds these eight committed such an act, then yes they're terrorists.

Tom Moore is absolutely right: "if a guy named yusuf mohammed fatmu ali... was heard by an fbi informant to be discussing how to make molotav cocktails and then was found with the materials for said cocktails and this was all to possibly be used at an event in the united states in a major, metropolitan area and with many of our political leaders present..."

... he would be labeled a terrorist without a second's hesitation. If the RNC 8 care about racial justice, they should plead guilty to terrorism.

I like group pictures. but any suggestion that these are terrorists, allegedly, pales in view of another group picture, virtually embedded in my mind. I suggest it be taken in Lafayette Park across from the White House this time.

Call then the "Penn Avenue Eight"; anarchists allegedly. George W.Bush is the guy on the far right, followed in the front row by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rove, Gonzales. Two are missing. You name them.

Mr. Cremnity says "a gentle reminder that the land you're living on was obtained through terrorism and genocide. It just happened to be at the hand of (likely) your ancestors."

Label it as you want, that's a semantic issue, but it's a law of nature that better adapted, which usually means more powerful and advanced, people invade and conquer the less adapted. Mother Nature calls this "progress" and arguably the conquered survivors end up more advanced and better adapted as a result. We are all a product of this natural selection, including you Mr. Cremnity. Were it otherwise, you would not exist.