Aided by informants planted in protest groups, authorities raided at least six buildings across St. Paul and Minneapolis to stop an "anarchist" plan to disrupt this week's Republican National Convention.
From Friday night through Saturday afternoon, officers surrounded houses, broke down doors, handcuffed scores of people and confiscated suspected tools of civil disobedience.
The show of force was led by the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office in collaboration with the FBI, Minneapolis and St. Paul police, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and other agencies.
But a St. Paul City Council member described it as excessive, while activists, many of whom were detained and then released without charges, called it intimidation designed to quash free speech.
At least five suspected leaders of the RNC Welcoming Committee, a self-described anarchist group, were taken to the Hennepin County jail, and another was being sought, said Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
On Saturday afternoon, he displayed a number of the confiscated items: a gun, throwing knives, a bow and arrows, flammable liquids, paint, slingshots, rocks and buckets of urine.
"We know these things were going to be used as weapons," Fletcher said, a charge protesters and their advocates vigorously disputed.
Fletcher however, stressed that he and other agencies had informants planted inside this and other groups for "a long period of time."
He described the raids as a strike against the RNC Welcoming Committee, which has vowed to block delegate buses at the convention, among other disruptive actions.
The raids began Friday night when Ramsey County sheriff's deputies, guns drawn, used a battering ram to get through a door and into the former Smith Theater on St. Paul's West Side that was being used as a gathering space by a protest group. About 60 people were inside 627 Smith Av. S. watching a movie and eating when the raid began. No one was arrested, but everyone inside was handcuffed and interviewed.
"This is not the way to start things off," St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune said Saturday morning. "This is sending the wrong message. Regardless of how you feel about these people ... they had a right to be there."
At a news conference Saturday, Cheri Honkala of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, one of the protest groups, described the Friday raid as "terrorism" intended to divert attention from issues the groups are raising.
As Honkala spoke, Ramsey County deputies were raiding three homes in south Minneapolis. The search warrants, signed Friday by a judge, sought multiple items, including electronics and MP3 players, rags, jars, Molotov cocktails, communication between RNC Welcoming Committee members, urine and feces, said Bruce Nestor, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, a group that represents the demonstrators.
"This is a charge that police use for preventive detention," Nestor said about the charge filed against the suspects, conspiracy to commit a riot. "It requires that no actual criminal act be committed and borders on criminalizing political advocacy."
The alleged urine, Nestor maintained, was actually three buckets, two of which contained dirty water used to flush toilets while conserving water. The third was seized from an illegal apartment occupied by someone not connected to the RNC protests. There was no bathroom in the illegal apartment and urine was collected in a bucket, Nestor said.
Randi McClure, 23, said she was one of about 10 people handcuffed and made to lie face down at gunpoint by police at 3240 17th Av. S. She was not arrested.
"Everybody I know who's protesting is going to be peaceful," she said. "I think the violence is caused by the cops."
More raids followed Saturday afternoon in St. Paul, including at a duplex at 949-51 Iglehart Av. The owner, Michael Whalen, said he was letting members of a New York-based group called I-Witness Video, known for videotaping police conduct during protests, stay in the house.
Whalen and the I-Witness videographers were handcuffed and seated on a picnic table and chairs in the backyard during the two-hour police search.
Their warrant specified that they were authorized to look for weapons, evidence of involvement with terrorism, and various electronics, but they took nothing.
"Why should that be inviting trouble?" Whalen said when asked why he had rented space to the journalists. "They're here to support freedom of speech. Last I looked, that was still in the Bill of Rights."
Fletcher said the RNC Welcoming Committee is "a criminal enterprise made up of 35 self-described anarchists ... intent on committing criminal acts before and during the Republican National Convention.
"These acts include tactics to blockade and disable delegate buses, breaching venue security and injuring police officers," Fletcher said.
In a statement read Saturday by member Tony Jones, the RNC Welcoming Committee denied criminal intent and described the police actions as "violence" that is a sign of more extreme police measures to come.
"We will not be intimidated," Jones said.