The autobiography of a former police officer in Minnesota discloses fresh details about the breadth of law enforcement spying on political protesters that took place leading up the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
The book has received only scant attention outside of Minnesota since first being published in June of 2009. But now-retired officer Richard Greelis from the Bloomington Police Department near Minneapolis reveals that local authorities quarreled over who would get to plant informants in political-protest groups, created their own activist organization with an “appropriately provocative name” and laughed about getting paid to participate in a monthly demonstration bike ride known as Critical Mass that encourages alternative transportation.
Political activists have posted sections of the book online and point to it as evidence that law enforcement officials overstepped their boundaries in gathering intelligence on protesters and infiltrating groups engaged in First Amendment-protected activities.
Titled simply “CopBook,” Greelis says that another “certain law enforcement administrator” who is not identified sought to be the lead official for security planning at the RNC among local authorities. Giving him the pseudonym “Chicken Little,” Greelis describes the official as wanting credit for “saving” St. Paul and the approximately 45,000 people who were expected to attend the Republican Party’s nominating bash.
It’s possible the unnamed official is Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who coordinated what became the most aggressive effort to collect information on political activists planning to protest the GOP’s agenda during the convention. Authorities considered the protesters – namely a group calling itself the RNC Welcoming Committee – a possible terrorist threat with plans to disrupt the convention, and eight locals were arrested at the height of global media attention on the city just as the event kicked off.
According to Greelis:
[Chicken Little] had a longtime, reliable undercover in the Welcoming Committee who was getting him good intel. When he learned that our intel unit had inserted a source into the group as well, he became adamant that we remove him; adamant enough that he followed our intel unit back to Bloomington from a surveillance in Minneapolis, and performed a traffic stop on the truck I was driving. … As he approached the passenger side of my truck, [Greelis’s partner] reluctantly lowered her window. Expecting obsequiousness, or at least acquiescence, he was disappointed to find that [we] defended our position and strategy. Though I had a good, working relationship with Little’s intel commander, there had been some miscommunication between agencies, and Little overreacted like a spoiled child.
The eight people arrested were ultimately charged with “conspiracy to riot in the furtherance of terrorism,” a relatively new state law passed after Sept. 11 and used for the first time during the convention. A county prosecutor later dropped the terrorism enhancements, however, complaining that they “complicated” the case. The group still faces lesser charges today.
According to the book, Greelis worried of losing his own cover while secretly attending a meeting held by protesters at a public library. Greelis realized that among panel participants was a former FBI agent he knew named Colleen Rowley who in recent years has become a vocal critic of police spying on political activists. But Rowley didn’t say anything.
Greelis says he and a partner attended the meeting to determine if anyone was “advocating violence,” and they noticed what appeared to be another undercover officer seated nearby, “looking mostly at his feet and probably feeling as out of place as we did.” It turned out later the man was doing his own version of intelligence gathering but actually worked for emergency medical services and not the police. Greelis writes that the meeting’s crowd mostly consisted of older people and a handful of college kids.
While skeptical of the subjects he was monitoring at the meeting, Greelis says he was aware of differences between nonviolent protesters and those who seemed open to more confrontational measures on the street:
I was encouraged by most panel members who, like Rowley and the Vets for Peace, espoused only nonviolent demonstrations and protest. One of the Welcoming Committee members, however, had a different agenda. His casual delivery belied an obvious contempt for law enforcement; his arrogance was transparent beneath the polished veneer of articulate presentation. … He cautioned them that even though they might be peaceful protesters, they should respect other protesters who ‘might be acting out, using other tactics.’
The book says that the Bloomington Police Department’s intelligence unit also answered solicitations from the Welcoming Committee’s website to claim an area of St. Paul where they would conduct protests. The unit did so by establishing its own group with an “appropriately provocative name” and even wrote up an “anti-capitalist manifesto” that was then published on radical websites.
Sheriff Fletcher, meanwhile, deployed undercover personnel from his office to attend protest planning meetings and travel to other parts of the country where activist gatherings were taking place. Spying from Fletcher’s team occurred for as long as a year before the RNC. During the weekend prior to the convention, deputies carried out several high-profile “pre-emptive” raids in the Twin Cities area where police seized cameras, cell phones, laptops, supplies for making banners and signs and political pamphlets. They also allegedly found “caltrops,” steel points that can be used to deflate car tires by placing them in the road.
The Center for Investigative Reporting co-published a two-part series of stories last year with the news website Minnpost.com that examined police conduct before and at the time of the convention. The stories were in part based on documents obtained from Minnesota’s intelligence fusion center through open-government laws. Hundreds of people were arrested during convention protests mostly for misdemeanors that included unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct and obstructing traffic. About a dozen people were charged with felonies, seven of which had resulted in guilty pleas for criminal property damage at the time of our story.
Richard Greelis worked as an officer for nearly 30 years in Minnesota, mostly with the Bloomington Police Department, and served for five years after the Sept. 11 attacks on a local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Several such teams are maintained around the country by the FBI.
Recent satirical video from eight Minnesota locals facing RNC-related charges
Flickr RNC protest photos by Waiting Line