Just before 8 a.m. Saturday, a 24-year-old arborist who gives his name only as Alex heard a commotion outside his bedroom window. The house at 3240 17th Ave. S. was one of three south Minneapolis homes being raided by law enforcement authorities Saturday morning.
“I was sleeping, and awoke to shouting of an official warrant,” Alex said late Saturday afternoon. “I looked out the window, and they all pointed guns at me, so I raised my hands to show I had no weapons.”
Within seconds, members of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office, the Minneapolis Police Department and, some witnesses believe, the FBI and the St. Paul Police Department were knocking in the back door of the gray, three-story, 100-year-old home. Inside, there were 13 people handcuffed and detained on the floor while authorities searched the house.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Alex says. “It was a predictable kind of raid.”
All told, law enforcement authorities raided five locations between Friday night and Saturday afternoon, though for now the sheriff’s office is claiming just four: a former theater on 627 Smith Ave. in St. Paul, the 17th Avenue house in Minneapolis, and 2301 23rd Ave. S. and 3500 Harriett Ave. S. in Minneapolis. (The Star Tribune is reporting another raid in the 900 block of Iglehart Avenue in St. Paul.)
According to Alex, five people live in the house, and the rest were in town as the Republican National Convention draws near. Sheriff Bob Fletcher’s office has associated the people at that house and the others with a group called the RNC Welcoming Committee.
“The ‘Welcoming Committee’ is a criminal enterprise made up of 35 anarchists who are intent on committing criminal acts before and during the Republican National Convention,” Fletcher said in a statement. “These acts include tactics to blockade and disable delegate buses, breaching venue security and injuring police officers. They have recruited assistance in their criminal conspiracy from other anarchists groups throughout the country. Through their plans and actions they have exhibited a blatant disregard for the law and the safety of others.”
But to hear Alex tell it, he wasn’t even planning on protesting the convention at all. Even so, according to a press release from Fletcher’s office:
• At 2301 23rd Avenue South, Minneapolis, one individual was taken into custody:
Nathanael David Secor (DOB: 1/29/82)
• At 3240 17th Avenue South, Minneapolis, three individuals were taken into custody:
Garrett Scott Fitzgerald (DOB: 2/28/83)
Eryn Chase Trimmer (DOB: 7/18/85)
Monica Rachel Bicking (DOB: 6/23/85)
• And Erik Charles Oseland (DOB: 4/11/87) was taken into custody at an undisclosed location.
• These individuals are being held at the Hennepin County Jail.
Police wasted no time in revealing items seized in the raids, issuing this list before 2 p.m.:
• “Materials used in creating “sleeping dragons” (PVC pipe, chicken wire, duct tape)
• Large amounts of urine (including 3 – 5 gallon buckets of urine)
• Wrist Rockets
• Assorted edged weapons including a machete, hatchet and several throwing knives
• Gas mask and filter
• Empty glass bottles
• Flammable liquids
• Homemade Caltrops (devises used to disable buses in roads)
• Metal pipes
• Bolt cutters
• Sledge hammers
• Old tires (for burning)
• Repelling equipment
• Kryptonite locks
• Empty plastic buckets cut and made into shields
• Material for protective padding
• An army helmet”
But to hear witnesses and others affiliated with the properties and the suspects tell it, these items aren’t necessarily weapons.
“Some of these are standard household items,” said Gary Schiff, a Minneapolis City Council member who counts one of the homes in his Ninth Ward. “These raids are clearly motivated by politics, not by public safety.”
Word spreads quickly
All local corners of the Internet and the south Minneapolis neighborhoods were abuzz with the news of the raids, and by 11:30 a.m., about 300 RNC protesters and concerned neighbors were assembled in Powderhorn Park trying to figure who had been arrested and what could be done. The general feeling, not surprisingly, was that the charges were trumped up, search warrants were fictionalized and that there was a logical explanation, of course, for every item seized.
Still, the effect was chilling to a certain degree. While many assembled mocked what was found in the searches — foam mattresses, anyone? — cell phones were abuzz with text messages and Twitter postings citing any number of raids that turned out to be false alarms. The feeling in some quarters : Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Dave Bicking, a longtime activist and auto mechanic in the area, noted that his daughter Monica was one of the suspects arrested. She’s the owner of the house on 17th Avenue.
“I arrived at 8:45 a.m. and she was sitting in a black SUV,” Bicking, 57, said. He said his 23-year-old daughter is a graduate of South High School and just bought the house in the last month. Some of the items seized, he claimed, were from the previous owners. “There was a whole stack of tires from a ’30s model Ford,” Bicking said. He and others said the younger Bicking had been renovating the property as well.
“She called me last night and said police cars were driving by slowly,” Bicking continued. “The whole thing is bogus. It’s outrageous. … I’m worried about it because they are very serious charges.”
Video by Chuck Tomlinson of G.R. Anderson Jr. interviewing Dave Bicking, whose daughter Monica was arrested on Saturday during a police raid. Courtesy of The UpTake.
According to Jordan Kushner, a local attorney who is a member of the National Lawyers Guild, all three search warrants contain essentially the same “probable cause” litany. According to Bruce Nestor, a local attorney who is the president of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, all five are being held on “conspiracy to commit riot” or “conspiracy to cause public disorder.”
Schiff, Bicking, Kushner and Nestor all noted that the charges were similar to those used against the Chicago Eight during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
“We don’t generally allow for preventative detention in this country,” Nestor said late Saturday afternoon. The upshot is that the suspects can be detained for a “36-hour hold” period, during which a judge can either say the charges are bogus and release them, or say that the suspects can post bond, or decide to hold them with no bond. Given the timing of the arrests and the Monday holiday, the five could essentially be held until Wednesday.
(Nestor said there may be a sixth arrestee.)
“I’m disappointed, to say the least,” council member Schiff said, adding that Bicking’s house was available as a crash pad for out-of-towners. “Targeting political organizers in a pre-emptive strike is a tactic from the ’60s. This country is better than that.”
And there’s a question of whether the charges will stick at all. “One test of these charges,” Nestor said, “is whether the Ramsey County attorney and Sheriff Fletcher will bring these charges to trial.”
Puzzling jurisdiction questions
Most everyone was puzzling over the notion that the raids — especially the three in Minneapolis — appeared to be spearheaded by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office. According to the attorneys and Schiff, this sort of “cross-jurisdictional” action is a direct result of the agreement entered into by Minneapolis and the RNC host committee. Some believe it does, in effect, put all local law enforcement under the command of the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
That, according to Schiff, is the reason he voted against the agreement. (The other Minneapolis council member to do so was Cam Gordon, whose Second Ward contains one of the raided houses.) “It was loss of local control,” Schiff said.
Minneapolis Police Department Capt. Amelia Huffman sent an email to city leaders and officials Saturday morning explain the department’s role in the raids. “The criminal investigation underlying these warrants was conducted by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office; because the locations to be searched fall within our jurisdiction, the Minneapolis Police Department served a supporting role in the execution of the warrants,” Huffman wrote.
Reached by phone by MinnPost Saturday evening, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan sought to clarify further. “Ramsey County did the investigation,” Dolan said. “It’s part of any investigation to have some of it end up in another jurisdiction.”
Dolan, while saying he didn’t know the number of his officers involved in the raids, said “we were requested to assist.” The Secret Service and Homeland Security authority, according to Dolan, applies only to the Xcel Energy Center during the convention. “This is not a special RNC task force type of thing,” Dolan said.
Some conspiracy theorists will have a picnic over that, while grassy-knoll enthusiasts on the other side will wonder exactly what’s going on with the buckets of urine confiscated.
“It’s not pleasant,” Schiff said, implying that protesters could stockpile urine to throw at cops and whatever other souls might be in the wake of that nifty trick. “But it’s not flammable. You can’t make a bomb out of it.”
But according to attorney Nestor, the Bicking house had a “gray water system” in place. “[Police] found three five-gallon buckets of urine,” Nestor said. “They conserve water by pouring the (recycled) gray water into the toilet.”
Other items, such as bricks that Fletcher displayed at a press conference Saturday afternoon, were also explained away by Nestor. “He had 12 bricks from the backyard,” Nestor said, admitting that a construction permit for the residence had expired Aug. 10. “There were 200 to 300 left from work that was supposed to be done on the house.”
Nestor fought city inspectors all day to keep the house from being boarded up because of a small handful of code violations — one violation being the cracked door from the police raid.
Back at the house, Alex exuded a calm not often found in folks who have been detained by police just hours before. His pale blue eyes greeted the steady stream of folks coming and going — those presumably still intent on crashing at the house. He wore a black T-shirt that read, “Educate, Agitate, Organize.”
He’d been in raids before, and figured the house wouldn’t get hit again. “We still want people to have access here,” he said. He lamented that some of his arborist equipment — “ropes, harness climbing gears” — had been seized. But mostly he noted the support that came from his neighbors, most of whom came out of their homes during the raid.
In fact, the folks who live in the house next door put up a homemade lawn sign that said: “We are NOT intimidated.”
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.