RNC and DNC: High Surveillance Used to Crack Down on Dissent

Historically, the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC) have been times of increased surveillance, policing and attempts to close public space, chill free speech and stifle dissent. Four months before the 1968 DNC in Chicago, Congress passed the “Rap Brown Law,” which made it illegal to cross state lines with intentions to incite or organize a riot. The law was used to indict protesters during the convention, leading to the “Chicago Eight,” comprised of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner Bobby Seale, and the late Tom Hayden, who died October 24, 2016. Hayden was deemed a “rabble rouser” by the FBI, he was arrested in a Freedom Ride group in 1961, he helped author the Port Huron Statement in 1962 as a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), he wrote about the Newark Rebellion in 1967, protested against the Vietnam War, and later in life joined mainstream politics as a Democrat in California. Seale, who was the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, ended up being bound and gagged for three days in court until his case was ruled a mistrial, where he was sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court. Chicago’s 1968 DNC saw spying from the secret domestic surveillance program COINTELPRO, operated by the FBI as well as the Chicago police department’s intelligence division, the Red Squad. As noted in Frank Donner’s book Protectors of Privilege, Chicago police officer Robert Pierson acted as an agent provocateur during the convention, going undercover as a bodyguard for anarchist and the Youth International Party member Jerry Rubin.

Although the Red Squad had intelligence on 14,000 organizations and nearly 260,000 people in the 1960s, laws limiting surveillance were curtailed and suppressed following 9/11, with the passing of the Patriot Act, leading into the 2004 RNC in New York City. Mounting cameras throughout the city, the New York Police Department (NYPD) sought to monitor all protests and dramatically increased surveillance on mosques and the Muslim community. It was later revealed that the NYPD went undercover a year before the convention, infiltrating activist groups and sending covert reports on theater groups, independent journalists and peace organizations. In 2004, Michelle Goldberg of Rolling Stone detailed about the pandemonium of reporting, “The cops, who expect to make as many as 1,000 arrests a day, have been spinning wild and unsubstantiated stories about ‘Internet-using anarchists’ and ‘fringe groups’ who plan to throw marbles under the hooves of police horses and pelt the animals with slingshots.”

Up to a year before the 2008 RNC, undercover police were infiltrating activist planning meetings around the country, and the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center was compiling information from police and Defense Department databases, DMV records, court documents, and information collected from private businesses. By the end of the convention, 800 people were arrested, including David McKay and Bradley Crowder who were ostensibly entrapped.

At the 2008 DNC in Denver, Colorado, the police warned of protester violence and constructed a large warehouse where protesters could be taken in mass arrests. Prior to the 2008 DNC, The Washington Post reported, “One city councilman said anarchists had rented a house in Denver andstocked it with urine, which would be sprayed on crowds as they entered the Pepsi Center.”

Preceding the 2012 RNC in Tampa, Florida, news agencies such as CNN, The Daily Telegraph, Fox News and the New York Daily News forewarned about anarchist violence. The Tampa Bay Times reported on an FBI Homeland Security bulletin stating, “that law enforcement agencies believe most protesters at the conventions will obey laws and not commit violent acts, but that anarchists are the most likely exceptions,” adding that “extremists” could attack with “acid-filled eggs.”

The narrative of state repression continued during the 2016 RNC in Cleveland, Ohio, with reports of activists being visited by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Secret Service (USSS) to see if they had plans to protest during the RNC. According to Democracy Now!, some activists even reported that law enforcement agents had called the activists’ places of employment and relatives, seeking the whereabouts of activists and profiling them from prior participation in Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street protests. Samuel Carpenter, who works at the bookstore Guide to Kulchur in Cleveland, said an FBI agent and a police detective came to his house asking about the “anarchist bookstore” he worked at, explaining they were looking for “radical anarchists.”

A Federal Joint Threat Assessment document released by The Intercept before the 2016 RNC compiled by the FBI, DHS and USSS warned of terrorism concerns with a focus on “anarchist extremists,” while also mentioning ISIL and Al Qaeda. The report details anarchists who plan to protest and have “social media groups, pages, and events” and warns of possession of nails, fireworks, anarchist flags, people wearing clothing with anarchist symbols, use of cameras, note-taking and bulky clothing.

Rod Webber, also known as “Flower Man,” was staying in a house that was raided by the FBI, DHS, ICE and local police on July 20, 2016, in Elyria, Ohio. Webber told Truthout that he estimated there to be 18 officers, two with military gear and AR-15s. “They entered the home without warrants when they were explicitly told not to and put guns in the faces of our sleeping friends who were led out at gunpoint,” Webber said. David Grophear, who was also staying at the house, was repeatedly asked if anyone in the house was in a radical group. According to Special Agent Vicki Anderson from the FBI’s Cleveland field office, they were doing a “protective sweep” because it was reported that people in the house had thrown bottles, had “possible bottles of urine” and shoved police officers.

A member from a loose group of admins who asked to remain anonymous for the Facebook group Resist the Cleveland RNC (RCR) explained to Truthout that they had received weekly death threats from right-wing groups. This individual also acted as a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, and was not aware of any right-wing groups in Cleveland being raided or having their employers called by state entities. It is also crucial to note that in the Joint Threat Assessment, RCR is listed as a “known anarchist extremist network” that provides, “logistical support, training, and a communications platform for anarchist activities including anarchist extremist violence.”

Throughout history, there has always been a scapegoat that the finger of power points to in order to justify manufactured hysteria. Radicals and anarchists, supposedly equipped with stockpiles of urine and acid eggs, are part of this narrative used to rationalize massive surveillance apparatuses, which seek to silence dissidents. This pattern of radicals being targeted for challenging the dominant political system displays that democracy isn’t being harvested, but pasteurized. Having reached a new grim milestone of carbon dioxide rising permanently above 400 parts per million, it is evident that new ways of organizing and engaging with the world are desperately needed.

As the surveillance state continues to grow, becoming a net too big to know what it has caught, the repressive tactics do have a chilling effect on free speech. Historically, dissent and resistance have been essential to progress and the driving force behind liberation movements. As counterinsurgency expands, one of the most detrimental side effects isn’t just the fear of police on every corner and an NSA fueled by thought control, but the fear of internal police entering the hearts and minds of people seeking to organize, shutting down dissent.