BY Jon Collins and Alex Robinson
A University student arrested preemptively before the Republican National Convention will be one of the first people prosecuted under a terrorism clause in the Minnesota Patriot Act since it was passed in 2002.
Cultural studies junior Max Specktor is charged with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism.
Monday, Specktor’s hearing was postponed until at least November.
Specktor and seven other defendants facing the same charge will be heard together, and face a maximum of seven and a half years of jail time.
The eight suspects, calling themselves the RNC 8, plan to plead not guilty to the charges, defendant Nathanael Secor said.
As a housemate fried long strips of sweet potato in the kitchen, Specktor sat on the front stairs of his Minneapolis house and dwelled on the prospect of seven-and-a-half years in jail, and the guarantee of cost and worry from a yearlong trial.
Specktor, a graduate of Minneapolis South High School, got involved with activism by planning protests against the Iraq War.
“After doing that kind of work in high school, I was kind of burned out on trying to change something with a big protest,” Specktor said. “I was getting into local community work.”
He got involved with a now-closed Jackpine Community Center on Lake Street in Minneapolis, where many people were planning protests with the RNC Welcoming Committee , an anti-authoritarian activist group.
“The RNC, obviously I didn’t want it to come to my town,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is a chance to learn some skills and build community.’ ”
The group, which typically fluctuated between 20 and 30 people, took inspiration from mass mobilizations from the “anti-globalization movement” of the late 1990s, like the protests that helped shut down the World Trade Organization’s conference in Seattle in 1999.
“I got a lot of inspiration from that,” he said. “Our movement, especially the radical anti-war and social justice, needs a big event to keep it going.”
The RNC Welcoming Committee wasn’t planning any illegal actions, Specktor said; instead they set up housing, meals and legal support for other protesters, some of whom might engage in civil disobedience.
“Basically, we provided the infrastructure for people to survive in the city while they’re protesting,” he said.
But authorities pointed to the group’s website, which urged a strategy called “swarm, seize, and stay” that used civil disobedience to try to shut down the convention.
Civil disobedience, while illegal, can be traced back to the foundation of the United States and is very different from terrorism, Specktor said.
“[Civil disobedience is] consciously making a decision to disobey for a higher purpose,” he said. “It’s a time-honored tradition that we celebrate in our history books, the people in the civil rights era who sat in at the lunch counters and wouldn’t get out of their seats.”
The weekend before the protests, activists’ houses, including Specktor’s, were raided by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies.
Six members of the RNC Welcoming Committee were arrested Saturday, Aug. 30, while Specktor and another man were arrested the following Monday morning — Sept. 1, the first day of the RNC.
Protesters had yet to unfurl the first banner during protests in St. Paul.
During raids, police said they found throwing-style knives, fireworks, a box containing gas masks and lock picking kits, according to the criminal complaint.
They also seized activist literature concerning the RNC, maps of St. Paul, paint and electronics, the complaint stated.
After Specktor’s arrest, police found a backpack containing a plastic bottle of Mylanta, black gloves, and a paper entitled: “St. Paul and the RNC burn 9/1/08.”
In Specktor’s vehicle, police found a pry bar, two boxes of firecrackers, five assorted black helmets and a roll of unused caution tape, the police complaint stated.
The actions police and authorities took were ridiculous, said Ted Dooley , one of the lawyers representing the RNC 8.
“Anything is a weapon if it is used as a weapon,” he said.
The Ramsey County Sheriff’s department spokesperson did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment.
After the raids, Specktor was the only one of the RNC 8 who was held in the psychiatric ward of the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center, he said.
“I was in a cell by myself; the whole time I was only released for an hour to walk along this short hallway and make a few phone calls,” he said. “I felt powerless, but I didn’t feel threatened.”
After three days, he was released after being charged with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism.
Bruce Nestor, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild said the terrorism charges trivialize real acts of violence and potentially violate the First Amendment.
“This is an attempt to criminalize political dissent,” he said. “It has a chilling effect on anybody planning political activities.”
However, University law professor Dale Carpenter said if the state can prove the RNC 8 had intent to commit violence, the state has a pretty good chance of winning the case.
The state doesn’t have to wait for people to riot or endanger lives in order to make arrests, Carpenter said.
“If someone is threatening to punch you, a police officer doesn’t have to wait until he actually punches you to arrest him,” Carpenter said.
After lawyers obtained copies of search warrants, Welcoming Committee members discovered that the group had been infiltrated by law enforcement and paid informants for about a year.
Information obtained by paid police informants is often inaccurate or made up, Nestor said.
“There’s a history of paid informants actually being provocateurs,” Nestor said. “Meaning they commit illegal acts or encourage illegal acts to increase the value of their information.”
During a raid on an unrelated house during the RNC, information provided by one of the FBI’s informants was inaccurate, Nestor said.
The informant said there would be boxes of weapons delivered to a house in St. Paul, but the boxes turned out to contain literature instead, Nestor said.
“If that’s one of the informers that the FBI is relying on, I have no more reason to trust the informers being used by the Ramsey County Sheriff,” he said
Specktor said it was strange to realize people he’d worked with for more than a year were being paid by police.
“We went through all this organizing aware that we might be surveilled,” he said. “It’s kind of creepy when you find out who those people were.”
Specktor said his friends, family and neighbors have been nothing but supportive.
“You might read blogs that say we’re terrorists and people comment and say we should be hung up,” Specktor said, “but my friends and everyone I’ve talked to since these events have gone down have had nothing but positive things to say.”
Mordecai Specktor , Max Specktor’s father and the editor of American Jewish World said he and Specktor’s mother are proud of their son’s activism.
“My wife and I are worried about Max; of course we don’t want to see our son go to prison,” he said. “We’re glad that he’s idealistic and that he has ideas about social betterment and uplifting people.”
As a journalist, Mordecai Specktor said the media mostly failed to critically examine police claims about activists.
“In the case of the RNC 8, there’s all these wild claims [in the police’s complaint] of kidnapping delegates,” he said. “Journalists should be investigating the case and finding where the truth lies; we’re not just like the record and playback buttons on the tape recorder.”
The arrests and charges facing the RNC 8 are designed to intimidate people from demonstrating, Mordecai Specktor said.
“We saw this dress rehearsal for the police state during the RNC,” he said. “[It’s] designed to make people nervous about articulating their views.”
Gus Ganley , a University film student who was found innocent during his own trial for an arrest at a protest last year, said facing prison time for activism can interfere with relationships and self-esteem.
“The nature of this crime, it’s a thought crime,” Ganley said. “You’re constantly thinking about it, constantly looking over your shoulder.”
Ganley, a friend of Specktor’s, said Specktor tries not to let the charges affect his life.
“With Max, I’ve noticed if anything he’s more energized,” Ganley said. “That just speaks to his character, that he’s somebody with such a vast reserve of energy that he’s able to tap into.”
Specktor said he’s trying to focus on the importance of his case as an educational tool.
“It might inspire people if we win. It might inspire people if we lose,” he said. “If people see we’re going to jail for their belief it’s going to inspire people.”
The price of losing the case would be balanced by this educational benefit, Specktor said.
“I’m not saying I want to go to jail,” he said. “If you stand up for your beliefs and they arrest you for it, I don’t think you should stop standing up for your beliefs.”