The Lessons of St. Paul
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
On Sept. 5, two men from Austin, Texas, were charged in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis in connection with a plot to disrupt the Republican National Convention (RNC) held in St. Paul, Minn., last week. According to the criminal complaint filed in the case, each man was charged with one count of possessing Molotov cocktails.
In the complaint, authorities noted that one of the men, Bradley Crowder, was arrested Sept. 1 for disorderly conduct. The second man, David McKay, was apparently arrested Sept. 1 but then released. McKay was arrested a second time after a search warrant on the apartment at which he and Crowder were staying in St. Paul uncovered a total of eight completed Molotov cocktails. Authorities claim that Crowder and McKay had planned to use the Molotov cocktails against police vehicles in a parking lot near the apartment where they had stayed. According to an FBI affidavit, law enforcement officers used electronic means to monitor a conversation McKay had about using the incendiary devices. In the monitored conversation, McKay reportedly said, "…it’s worth it if an officer gets burned or maimed."
Crowder and McKay, who were part of a small cell of activists that called itself the Austin Affinity Group, also brought a rented trailer to St. Paul that contained 35 improvised riot shields made from stolen traffic barrels. According to an FBI affidavit, the shields included protruding screws -- an indication that they were not just defensive shields, but offensive weapons that could be used against the police. During the execution of the search warrant on the men's apartment, police also recovered gas masks, slingshots, helmets and kneepads -- items that underscore the protesters' plans to actively resist the police.
Crowder and McKay were not the only ones planning to use potentially deadly means to disrupt the RNC. On Aug. 30, Matthew DePalma of Flint, Mich., was arrested by agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force at a residence in Minneapolis and found to be in possession of five Molotov cocktails. DePalma was also charged in Federal District Court with possession of the devices. According to an affidavit, DePalma told an FBI source that he planned to use the Molotov cocktails on police. In one conversation, DePalma reportedly told the FBI source, "I will light one of those pigs on fire."
Crowder, McKay and DePalma were only three among the more than 800 demonstrators arrested in connection with the efforts to shut down the RNC. Six of the primary organizers of the effort -- an ad hoc group that called itself the RNC Welcoming Committee (RNCWC) -- were also arrested Aug. 29 and charged with conspiracy to commit riot under Minnesota state law.
The complaints and affidavits filed in connection with this case provide an excellent look into the organization and tactics of the anarchists comprising the RNCWC. They also provide a great deal of detail regarding the combined efforts of federal, state and local authorities to infiltrate the group and to defang its most aggressive components.
RNC Welcoming Committee
The RNCWC is a self-described anarchist and anti-authoritarian organizing body created to disrupt the RNC. According to its Web site, nornc.org, the group's purpose was to "crash the convention" and shut down and disrupt the RNC.
The RNCWC's plan was to provide a loose organizational framework that would help integrate and coordinate the efforts of affinity groups from around the country -- including the Austin affinity group headed by Crowder that included McKay. The affinity groups, which are in effect autonomous cells, were then expected to develop their own individual tactical plans and implement them. The RNCWC would provide assistance with logistics and coordination between the various affinity groups.
In September 2007, the RNCWC began its planning in earnest when it held a pre-RNC conference in St. Paul, where some 100 activists met to plan their strategy for disrupting the convention. Most participants who came from outside St. Paul were either representatives of existing affinity groups or were intending to form an affinity group when they returned home. The conference also featured a number of smaller breakout meetings that focused on issues such as nationwide communication, security, legal support, logistics, media, coalition building and direct action planning. Some of the tactics discussed during the direct action planning session included the possible kidnapping of convention delegates, arson, vandalism, occupation of federal buildings in the Twin Cities and the blockading of roads and bridges.
In the end, the delegates at the September meeting formulated a three-tiered approach to disrupting the convention. Tier one consisted of establishing 15 to 20 blockades utilizing a variety of tactics to create an inner and outer ring around the Xcel Energy Center -- the site of the RNC. Tier two included immobilizing the delegates' transportation infrastructure, including shuttle buses used to move them between their hotels and the convention site. The third tier included blocking the five bridges connecting the Twin Cities.
The RNCWC articulated general guidelines for affinity groups to use in accomplishing these three tiers in a set of principles called the "3Ss" -- swarm, seize and stay. The swarm principle encourages activists to move into and around St. Paul in groups of various size and attack like bees or fire ants -- in numbers large enough to overwhelm authorities at a specific location. This tactic is a staple of anarchist demonstrations, where a number of affinity groups come together to form a larger formation called a black bloc. The large congregation of similarly-dressed activists inside the black bloc is intended to make it difficult for law enforcement to identify the perpetrators of any particular illegal action as individuals find shelter within -- and attack from -- the large numbers of people comprising the formation. The black bloc is also intended to provide safety in numbers and keep individual activists from being arrested. The seize principle encourages activists to occupy facilities and to block streets and building entrances. Such blockades can be either fixed or moving. The stay principle, a longtime anarchist tactic, encourages activists to maintain engagement in the protest activity and to regroup with and reinforce their fellow activists as needed while the swarm group moves around.
On Sept. 30, the RNCWC published a formal call to action in which it outlined its three-tiered strategy. It also called on the various affinity group leaders to get organized, hold regional meetings and develop their own plans and tactics to implement the overall three-tiered strategy according to the 3Ss. Individual affinity group leaders were also urged to train and practice with the members of their respective affinity groups in the implementation of those tactics. Indeed, several of the RNCWC core activists practiced their blockade techniques July 2 when they used dragon sleeves -- devices protesters use to lock themselves together and to buildings and other structures -- during a protest at a facility belonging to military equipment manufacturer Alliant Techsystems in Anoka, Minn.
During the spring, the RNCWC conducted a nationwide tour during which it traveled to, or communicated with, affinity groups in 67 cities. On May 3 it hosted a second pre-RNC conference in St. Paul called the "5.3," which was attended by more than 100 activists representing at least 40 affinity groups and other organizing bodies from across the country. At the conference, St. Paul was divided into seven sectors, and different organizations were assigned responsibility for the direct actions that would occur within those sectors, according to the FBI affidavit.
The RNCWC members living in St. Paul conducted extensive preoperational surveillance of the city and particularly the area around the Xcel center and created detailed surveillance packets for each of the seven sectors they had divided the city into. They then provided a packet to each nonlocal affinity group that had assumed responsibility for conducting direct action attacks within the particular sector. This provided the affinity groups with a huge head start in their tactical planning. Two of the core RNCWC members also reportedly told an informant that they conducted detailed surveillance of Republican presidential candidate John McCain's security detail during a June 19 campaign stop in St. Paul.
From July 31 to Aug. 3, the RNCWC and a group called Unconventional Action Midwest hosted an "action camp" at Lake Geneva in Minnesota. This camp was attended by approximately 50 people from many parts of the United States. The action camp was intended to train activists in a variety of direct action tactics, ranging from the manufacture of Molotov cocktails to less violent civil disobedience such as the use of dragon sleeves, lock boxes and tripods to create human barricades that would obstruct traffic. Attendees at the action camp were expected to take the skills they learned back to their respective affinity groups.
The Long Arm of the Law
According to the search warrant affidavit approved by a state district court judge Sept. 2, anarchists were not the only people present at the action camp held at Lake Geneva. A law enforcement source referred to in the affidavit as Confidential Reliable Informant 2 (CRI 2) was also in attendance. In fact, the various complaints and affidavits filed in connection with the RNCWC arrests make it very clear that law enforcement sources and even one undercover officer had thoroughly penetrated the RNCWC since shortly after its inception and had attended the planning sessions to include the pre-RNC event in September 2007 and the pre-RNC event in May 2008.
These law enforcement penetrations appear to have allowed the authorities to identify many of the most violence-prone individuals and target them in an effort to disrupt their potentially deadly schemes. Certainly, they were able to arrest Crowder, McKay and DePalma and recover the Molotov cocktails before the devices could be deployed.
This intelligence also allowed law enforcement authorities to arrest six of the primary RNCWC organizers Aug. 29, before the RNC, and execute a series of search warrants that seized a large quantity of the demonstrators' equipment before it could be deployed. Items seized during those search warrants included caltrops, spike strips, buckets of marbles and dragon sleeves as well as other tactically useful items such as gas masks and disguises intended to help protesters get past police checkpoints. Computers and planning maps were also seized.
However, the fact remains that many of the affinity groups were still able to launch direct action and block streets with dumpsters, fly signs from high-rise buildings, deploy dragon sleeve blockades, slash tires, throw bricks and other items from bridges onto cars, throw caltrops and spike strips on streets to flatten tires, shoot at police and convention attendees with slingshots, block delegate buses, assault delegates (physically and with noxious chemical sprays) and generally create large-scale mayhem and vandalism. These direct actions resulted in most of the more than 800 arrests during the RNC. These activities clearly showed that not all the affinity groups had been penetrated or rendered impotent.
The RNCWC was unable to fully implement its three-tiered strategy, but it did have the strength to attempt all three stages. It executed operations intended to block intersections, attack shuttle buses and block bridges. Some of these efforts met with success for a limited period of time, but the RNCWC's goal of significantly interfering with the RNC was clearly not met.
The RNCWC meetings and its action training camp all included blocks of training on operational security -- what the activists refer to as "creating a strong security culture." Indeed, after the September 2007 gathering, the RNCWC announced that it had discovered one "local police cooperator" in attendance and had expelled him from all activities. They clearly attempted to vet attendees, but apparently their efforts did not go far enough, and the informants and the undercover officer were able to crash the protesters' party. However, not all the affinity groups appear to have been penetrated, so it appears that some of them were apparently more security conscious than others.
Due to the legal requirements for search warrant affidavits and criminal complaints, the two confidential sources and the undercover officer used to monitor the RNCWC will be easily identified by the activists when they read those documents and apply deductive reasoning. This means that the usefulness of these particular individuals in monitoring similar groups in the future will likely be over. Essentially, their cover has been blown, and new sources will need to be developed.
Following the events of last week, the cat-and-mouse game between left-wing activists and law enforcement informants will continue, with each side seeking to learn from the experiences in St. Paul. From an outside perspective, it appears that the law enforcement agencies have gained the upper hand in this round, and clearly have learned from past law enforcement failures such as the 1999 "Battle in Seattle."
One lesson learned from Seattle was the need to focus national attention on such events to help prevent a security failure. Now, high-profile events such as the RNC, the Democratic National Convention and even the Super Bowl are labeled as national security special events -- a designation that ensures the receipt of millions in additional federal dollars for police and security coverage and, not insignificantly, greatly increased intelligence support from the federal government. These additional resources greatly bolster the efforts of local and state police agencies to protect these events from threats, whether they emanate from militant anarchists or militant jihadists. In the case of St. Paul, these efforts and funding greatly aided designs to penetrate the RNCWC organization.
The Future of the Radical Anarchist Movement
When reviewing the material posted on the RNCWC Web site, it is clear that its vision went far beyond the RNC event itself. One of the key objectives it hoped to achieve from the demonstration was to gain some momentum and build the operational capabilities of the radical anarchist movement for the future.
According to the Web site, "A new reality will not emerge by simply stopping the four day spectacle of the RNC. We need folks with an alternative vision to come to the Twin Cities and turn their dreams into reality. Start something new, be creative, and come ready to build sustainable alternatives worth fighting for and defending. The new skills that we teach, learn, and put into practice here will allow us to return to our communities stronger, smarter, and more empowered."
This is an interesting statement to ponder when one considers the type of skills the RNCWC taught at their pre-RNC meetings and action training camp, and the skills the various affinity groups employed during the protests against the RNC.
However, since the much-publicized "Battle in Seattle," these anarchist demonstrations have been steadily declining in size, if not in intensity. The demonstrations in St. Paul were smaller than those in Seattle in 1999 or in New York at the 2004 RNC. In fact, the NYPD arrested more than 1,800 protesters in connection with that event, compared to just over 800 arrests in St. Paul.
Certainly, police preparation in anticipation of such events has markedly improved after the 1999 Seattle protest where police were caught off guard and unprepared. As noted above, coordinated local, state and federal efforts like those seen in St. Paul to gather intelligence in order to disrupt the activists via arrests and search warrants have been increasingly effective. Despite declining numbers -- a trend we believe will continue -- the anarchist fringe is not going to totally disappear any time soon.
Young radical anarchists such as Crowder and McKay, in their early teens at the time of the Seattle riots, are part of a new generation of violent protesters radicalized after that event. This newer generation of radical anarchists appears to be smaller, but no less dedicated or willing to use violence against the political, corporate and governmental entities they view as enemies. They will not hesitate to damage property or -- as the alleged plots and comments of Crowder, McKay and DePalma signify -- hurt people to achieve their goals.
It is also significant that many of the protesters in St. Paul came from places outside Minnesota. Ultimately, when they leave St. Paul, they take the skills and disruptive tactics learned there back home with them. We are likely to see these tactics emerge in other cities in the future.