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Judge sets bail for anarchists charged with terrorism-related felony; attorney says charges are 'scary' and overblown

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Detained
Black clad police surrounded a detainee as a crowd in Mears Park chanted at them, demanding they release the man on the ground.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The Ramsey County attorney today charged eight members of an anarchist group with felonies, including a charge of conspiracy to commit riot in furtherance of terrorism.

Those charged were: Robert Joseph Czernik, 32; Monica Rachel Bicking, 23; Erik Charles Oseland, 21; Garrett Scott Fitzgerald, 26; Nathanael David Secor, 28; Max Jacob Speckton, 19; Luce Guillen-Givens, 23; and Eryn Trimmer, 23.

The eight are alleged to be leaders of a group called the RNC Welcoming Committee. The were arrested in conjunction with raids carried out last weekend in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Authorities say all but Guillen-Givens are in custody. Ramsey County Judge Ed Wilson set bail at $10,000 each; prosecutors initially requested $75,000. 

Protester in Mears Park
An angry protester screams at the police after they use horses to move protesters during the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign's March For Our Lives rally in St. Paul, MN September 2, 2008.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Authorities allege the activists hatched a wide-ranging plan to disrupt the Republican National Convention, going so far as to discuss sabotaging a St. Paul airport, "capturing" buildings, and kidnapping delegates, according to court papers filed Tuesday.

The specific charges are conspiracy to riot, conspiracy to commit civil disorder, conspiracy to damage property, and second degree conspiracy to commit riot in furtherance of terrorism.

"Through their plans and actions they have exhibited a blatant disregard for the law and the safety of others," Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said in a statement.

The maximum penalty for the last count is five years and a $10,000 fine. The terrorism charge is available under the Minnesota Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

It allows for the sentence to be increased by 50 percent, said Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney who is representing the eight individuals charged.

Arrests during the RNC
Graphic showing number of arrests by day during the RNC
MPR Graphic/Rebecca Cioni

Nestor said he cannot find another case in which the terrorism standard has been applied.

"A charge of this nature significantly chills political speech," Nestor said, adding the defendants are charged with organizing a demonstration at which other people engaged in acts of violence.

"Calling the intent to disrupt traffic and delay buses an act of terrorism trivializes real violence and runs the risk of criminalizing legitimate political expression."

The group at the center of the conspiracy probe -- the RNC Welcoming Committee -- issued a statement Wednesday afternoon accusing police of "brutality," and demanded the release of jailed protesters.

Police allege the group of self-described anarchists plotted for more than a year to burn vehicles, spear police with sharpened poles, blockade bridges and wreak criminal havoc on St. Paul this week.

7th Street Protest
Police tear gas protesters in the streets outside the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center September 2, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images

The allegations, contained in a 17-page affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for pre-convention raids, came from confidential informants who had access to meetings and e-mails, and from publicly available documents, police say.

A demonstrator, who called herself Song, said that she'd spent some time with the group. She claimed that police informants were responsible for the alleged conspiracy. 

"I really firmly believe it now," she said. "I have seen it for myself. I have seen it on a number of occasions, undercover cops dressed up as anarchists, throwing the bricks. Throwing sh*t at the cops." 

The affidavit, filed Tuesday in Ramsey County District Court, describes several meetings attended by members who, police say, organized efforts and stockpiled materials.

Police called the RNC Welcoming Committee "an organized criminal enterprise" made up of 30-35 members who attended more than 100 meetings during the last year.

Man arrested
This man was taken into custody at 5th and Wacouta Streets after trying to slip through a line of mounted police on the second day of the Republican National Convention.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

They planned a "three-tier" strategy for shutting down the Republican convention that  consisted of blockading the downtown Xcel Energy Center; immobilizing delegates' transportation; and blocking connecting bridges, documents allege.

The group also allegedly discussed sabotaging Holman Field, a small airport in St. Paul.

The Committee organized two major gatherings of anarchists and anti-authoritarians in the past year, the documents say - a meeting from Aug. 31-Sept. 2, 2007, that drew 150 to 200 people and a meeting on May 3, 2008, attended by more than 100 people representing about 40 organizing bodies from across the United States.

During the 2007 meeting, one of the informants reported, a workshop was held at which ideas were discussed for shutting down the Republican convention, including kidnapping delegates and sabotaging the Xcel Center by blockading the perimeter air vent.

According to the documents, the RNC Welcoming Committee and Unconventional Action Midwest hosted an "action camp" from July 31-Aug. 3, 2008, at Lake Geneva in Minnesota, attended by about 50 people from across the U.S.

Tear gas
Police tear gas protesters in the streets outside the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center September 2, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The GOP will nominate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the Republican choice for U.S. President on the last day of the convention.
Max Whittaker/Getty Images

An informant said a raised platform stage labeled "Xcel Center" was the target of most of the training.

At the camp, someone discussed using large street puppets to conceal and transport Molotov cocktails, bricks and shields, and using the puppets' large bamboo poles as spears to drive back police.

Nestor was dubious about the allegations.

"They raided three houses. They found one plastic thing they call a shield," the attorney said. "If they had found 5,000 plastic shields and 10,000 bamboo spears, maybe they would have evidence of an organized insurrection."

Close to 300 protesters have been arrested so far after confrontations with police during demonstrations related to the Republican National Convention.

Downtown building owners estimate about 15 windows have been damaged during convention protests, at a cost of about $20,000 to $25,000, Matt Anfang, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association, told Minnesota Public Radio News.

The group plans to survey its members after the convention to tally any other damage.

Tuesday's demonstrations didn't have the violence that marred the rally on the opening day of the Republican National Convention. 

There were only 10 arrests and minimal property damage. But both police and demonstrators brought a new intensity to the streets in downtown St. Paul.

Demonstrations and rallies are scheduled through the end of the Republican National Convention on Thursday.

Police took some extra precautions to prepare for a concert tonight in Minneapolis featuring the politically charged band Rage Against the Machine.

The St. Paul police department brought in a deputy chief from Los Angeles to counsel local authorities on his experiences with the band. 

After the group performed during the Democratic National Convention in L.A. 8 years ago, police used tear gas to break up a crowd that police said became violent.

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington says officers on both sides of the river are ready to handle any unruly crowds after tonight's performance.

Also on Wednesday, the Anti-War Committee pledged to go forward with a Thursday 5 p.m. march from the Capitol to the Xcel Energy Center, even though its permit will have expired by then.

"We're going to demand the police honor our rights to march and we'll see what they do," said organizer Jess Sundin.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty today told the C-SPAN cable network he celebrates protesters' First Amendment rights of free speech. But he says matters change when there is violence or property damage.

"Anytime you have an event like this you are going to attract protesters, and there is some subgroup of them who are going to be anarchists, or nihilists, or just goofballs -- and they are going to do bad things," Pawlenty said.

"We enjoy and appreciate their First Amendment rights to shout, to yell, to hold signs. But once you start breaking stuff, once you start hurting someone else, once you start endangering others' property or lives, you don't get to do that," he continued.

"These are serious matters. It's not most of the protesters, it's a subgroup. They are just nutty I think, in my opinion, trying to hurt people, trying to break property and for that subgroup of protesters they need to be dealt with and arrested."

    (Minnesota Public Radio reporters Tim Nelson and Paul Tosto, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)