Ramsey County prosecutors have formally charged eight members of a prominent activist group with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism. The eight members of the RNC Welcoming Committee are believed to be the first persons ever charged under the 2002 Minnesota version of the federal PATRIOT Act. The activists face up to seven-and-a-half years in prison. We speak with the father of one of those charged and the president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: Here in St. Paul, Ramsey County prosecutors have formally charged eight members of a prominent activist group with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism. The eight members of the RNC Welcoming Committee are believed to be the first persons ever charged under the 2002 Minnesota version of the federal PATRIOT Act. The activists face up to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner announced the charges at a news conference Wednesday.
SUSAN GAERTNER: Through this week, I’ve seen much about my great city to celebrate, but it also, in some ways, has been a sad and painful time for my community. We have watched as a few lawless people tried to overshadow the peaceful protests and the exercise of free speech rights by thousands of law-abiding citizens. Some of the people who allegedly planned illegal acts to disrupt the convention and our community were thwarted last week when law enforcement agencies executed warrants and made arrests at several locations. Today, my office has charged eight persons with the felony crime of conspiracy to commit riot in the second degree for their alleged criminal activities as members of the RNC Welcoming Committee. All but one of those persons are currently in custody.
AMY GOODMAN: According to the National Lawyers Guild, the criminal complaints filed by the Ramsey County Attorney do not allege that any of the defendants personally engaged in any act of violence or damage to property. Instead, authorities are seeking to hold the eight defendants responsible for acts committed by other individuals during the opening days of the Republican National Convention.
Most of the activists were arrested over the weekend in preemptive house raids. None of the defendants have any prior criminal history involving acts of violence. Authorities are basing their case on paid informants who infiltrated the group. The eight activists charged are Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, Luce Gullen-Givens, Erik Oseland, Nathanael Secor, Robert Czernik, Garrett Fitzgerald and Max Specktor.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher explained the terrorism charges.
SHERIFF BOB FLETCHER: It allowed us to execute search warrants last Saturday, as you know, on the leadership of the Welcoming Committee. And frankly, that — severing that leadership from the organization skills from that entire process was huge, because a lot of these anarchist groups that came here were supposed to be dedicated to different intersections, different sectors of the city. And by taking those maps away really made it harder for them to coordinate their assault on our city. And we only removed ten percent of the problem, but the ten percent we removed was the coordinating aspect of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Two guests join me here in St. Paul, Minnesota: Bruce Nestor is president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and David Bicking is the father of Monica Bicking, one of the eight activists charged with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism. David Bicking lives in Minneapolis.
Welcome, both, here to our studios at Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, SPNN, public access. Well, why don’t we start with you, Bruce Nestor? Explain the significance of these charges.
BRUCE NESTOR: These charges are very significant for any political activist or anybody that cares about the right to organize politically or for freedom of speech. By equating plans or stated plans to blockade traffic and to try to disrupt the convention with acts of terrorism, the conspiracy nature of the charge, where you punish people for what they say or advocate, but not for what they do, really creates a possibility that anybody organizing a large-scale demonstration, at which civil disobedience may be a part of it or where other individuals may then engage in some type of property damage, creates the potential that all those organizers can be charged with these conspiracy charges and face significant penalties.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean, "in furtherance of terrorism"?
BRUCE NESTOR: In Minnesota, that was a law passed after the attacks in New York on September 11th. It kind of tracks the definition in the federal PATRIOT Act, which is any criminal act, in this case at least a felony, that’s designed to influence or coerce public opinion or to disrupt a public assembly. And so, my guess is that the charge is based upon the idea that there was an attempt to disrupt the RNC, which would be treated as a public assembly, even though they didn’t apply for a permit under St. Paul public assembly laws to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: David Bicking, your daughter Monica is one of the eight. First, can you talk about her, talk about her activities?
DAVID BICKING: Yeah. My daughter Monica is a wonderful person, very concerned —-
AMY GOODMAN: How old is she?
DAVID BICKING: —- very committed. She’s twenty-three. And she and all the people — I mean, the people they have charged here are not criminals. They’re some of the best people in our society. She’s really dedicated to her activism. She’s experienced activist already. She’s come about this through her own experience in her life over a long time. She is always concerned about the feelings of others.
She has done some travel abroad. And when she was eight, we were in Ecuador for four weeks, and she saw the poverty and the children begging, but also humanized it by playing with the children, the maids in the, you know, inexpensive hotels there. She has — went to Honduras for eight weeks after her junior year to work in a very remote village, humanitarian work.
After high school, she took off a year before college and worked as an intern with the American Friends Service Committee, which is a Quaker peace group. She was based in Chicago and helped in their organizing and their peace work and liaison with other groups.
So she has a lot of experience, and she’s really seen what it means when — you know, the United States’ actions through war, through injustice at home, through poverty and how that’s affected people’s lives. And it’s affected her very deeply. And so, she’s strong. She’ll get through this one way or the other.
AMY GOODMAN: Is she still in jail?
DAVID BICKING: She is still in jail right now.
AMY GOODMAN: When was she picked up? How was she picked up?
DAVID BICKING: She was picked up on Saturday morning at 8:00 in the morning. She was staying in her house, which she had just bought a month before. And there were several roommates there and a whole bunch of people who had come in for the week. And at 8:00 in the morning, they were woken out of a sound sleep. The police came banging through the back door, held everyone at gunpoint. They had automatic weapons, assault rifles, forced everybody — ordered them to the floor, face down, handcuffed them behind their backs and then proceeded to search the entire house, just ransack everything.
When I got there forty-five minutes later, she and her boyfriend Eryn and a housemate, Garrett, were already in one of these big black SUVs they have, you know, and were taken off to jail just after that. And then, for the next hour or so, they released the other people in the house one by one, after photographing them, checking ID and searching them.
Then the search of the house went on for another like six hours probably, as they carted all sort of stuff out of the house. I watched, you know, as they took things out of the garage. There were old tires. I suppose those could be burned someplace. You know, there were just the sort of things homeowners would have, especially people fixing up a house. Many cans of paint, each which was patiently labeled and loaded onto the truck. It was just an absurd, absurd overreaction.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the RNC Welcoming Committee?
DAVID BICKING: The RNC Welcoming Committee is a group that defines itself as anarchist or anti-authoritarian. And she was working with them very closely, as were these other people. They saw their role as facilitating the protests and the actions around the Republican National Convention this week. Their major function was to help other people from out of town come and express what they wanted to express and do what they wanted to do to protest or to resist the convention.
So they spent a lot of time setting up housing, medics, legal support, child care, but, of course, also — and of more interest to the authorities — helped coordinate some strategies, helped people brainstorm about what sorts of things could be done or what would be effective. And so, members of the Welcoming Committee traveled around the country meeting with similar groups around the country to talk to them so that people could, as a whole, come to some agreement of how — not necessarily all use the strategy, all the same tactic, but how their actions could be coordinated, instead of at odds with each other. So, they were not planning the activities of this week, but rather helping others to plan and forming some sort of consensus so that this could all work and people could come here and do what they planned to do.
AMY GOODMAN: How much time do they face?
DAVID BICKING: Up to seven-and-a-half years under these charges.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen Monica in jail?
DAVID BICKING: She was released for a few days and then is back in again. So I’ve been able to talk to her about her experiences in jail and talk to her a little bit about all of this, and she could tell me more about how she experienced the house raid and the effect it had on her.
AMY GOODMAN: Her boyfriend, also one of those arrested, he’s in jail.
DAVID BICKING: Yes. Eryn Trimmer, yes. Another fine man. You know, as a father, I couldn’t be happier with her choice of a partner. Very committed individual, also kind of quiet, but very dedicated, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Nestor, there have been over 300 arrests.
BRUCE NESTOR: That’s right. A number of felony arrests on probable cause that just started to go —-
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that means, “on probable cause.”
BRUCE NESTOR: It just means that the police officer is allowed to charge someone based upon their description of events. It doesn’t go through a prosecutor or a judge. In Minnesota, that allowed anybody arrested on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday to be held until noon on Wednesday.
AMY GOODMAN: Because Labor Day was Monday, so it goes beyond -— it can only be business days?
BRUCE NESTOR: That’s right. And then a judge actually signed an order extending that thirty-six-hour to forty-eight-hour period. A number of the —-
AMY GOODMAN: So, ultimately, it just keeps them through the Republican National Convention.
BRUCE NESTOR: That’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: In jail. I mean, we saw this in New York in 2004, the protests of the Republican National Convention. This was under Mayor Bloomberg. They then -— the police there arrested over 1,800 people. Hundreds have been — you know, the charges were all dropped against them, but it was just clearing the streets until afterwards. And then they just — the city dealt with the consequences of having falsely arrested them in the years to come.
BRUCE NESTOR: What we’re seeing here is not quite as widespread, but it’s a similar pattern. The charges started to go through the court system yesterday. I believe about a third of the felony charges were dismissed outright, and then a number of others were reduced to misdemeanor and referred to the city prosecutor for charging. And so, it’s that same type of preventive detention or a sweep where there’s no effort to distinguish between who’s caught up in a mass detention, whether it’s journalists, journalist students from the University of Kansas being detained —-
AMY GOODMAN: Kentucky, right. In fact, when I was arrested on Monday, just before the police wagon took off from this parking lot, where the police had arrested so many on these PC riot charges, probable cause riot, a young woman from the University of Kentucky was brought in. And she’s one of those who -— they remain in jail?
BRUCE NESTOR: They —-
AMY GOODMAN: The two students and their teacher.
BRUCE NESTOR: I believe they may have now been -— now been released. But, for instance, my neighborhood hardware store owner, Republican family, his son was out riding a bicycle, got caught up in a mass sweep and just got out yesterday, after being held for almost a day and a half. So not just journalists are being targeted and caught up — also caught up in sweeps, just citizens out in the streets are getting swept up. And there’s no effort or mechanism on the part of the police to distinguish between who do they have evidence against to arrest and try to prosecute, which we can deal with in the court system, or do they just sweep people up and keep them in custody and let it all sort out afterward.
In fact, St. Paul actually negotiated a special insurance provision with the Republican Host Committee so that the first $10 million in liability for lawsuits arising from the convention will be covered by the Host Committee. The city is very proud of this negotiation. It’s the first time it’s been negotiated between a city and the Host Committee. But it basically means we can commit wrongdoing, and we won’t have to pay for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, one more time, explain how the money will work.
BRUCE NESTOR: They negotiated an agreement where the first $10 million in damages arising from any lawsuits against the city related to the city’s actions during the convention will be covered by insurance or by the Republican Host Committee, separate from the city’s own insurance coverage and own — or own financial reserves.
AMY GOODMAN: Last comment: is Monica afraid right now? Is she sorry she was involved with organizing protests around the Republican National Convention?
DAVID BICKING: Absolutely not. She’s going to continue her work, because, I mean, the work she is doing is far more important than, you know, the legal consequences, whatever they may be. So, no, she’s confident, she’s strong, she’s experienced. While this is an outrageous violation of people’s rights, outrageous imposition on people’s lives, it’s nevertheless something which is not entirely unexpected, and she knew that going in.
AMY GOODMAN: David Bicking, I want to thank you for being with us, father of Monica Bicking, one of the eight activists charged with conspiracy to riot in the furtherance of terrorism. Bruce Nestor, I’d like to ask you to stay. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the head of I-Witness Video collective, Eileen Clancy. Her organization, now in town for the Republican convention, has been raided twice in these, quote, "preemptive” raids. We’ll find out the latest.