Ramsey County authorities conducted raids across Minneapolis and St. Paul Friday and Saturday as a pre-emptive strike against disruptive protests of the Republican National Convention.
Five people were arrested and more than 100 were handcuffed, questioned and released by scores of deputies and police officers, according to police and elected officials familiar with the raids.
In a statement Saturday morning, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said the St. Paul raid targeted the RNC Welcoming Committee, a group he described as "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. Deputies seized a variety of items that they believed were tools of civil disobedience: a gas mask, bolt cutters, axes, slingshots, homemade "caltrops" for disabling buses, even buckets of urine.
But the raids drew immediate condemnation from activists and St. Paul City Councilman Dave Thune, whose district includes the former theater at 627 Smith Avenue South, which was rented by activists as a gathering space.
"This is not the way to start things off," 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."
On Saturday afternoon, law agents surrounded 951 Iglehart Av. in St. Paul where members of I-Witness Video, a New York-based group that monitors police conduct during protests, were staying. They were detained and handcuffed but eventually freed without charges.
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 and an earlier one Thursday that evicted a demonstrators' camp on Harriet Island as "terrorism" intended to divert attention from issues the protest groups are raising and cast the news as police versus protestors.
Thune was especially critical of Fletcher for taking action within St. Paul city limits.
"I'm really ticked off...the city is perfectly capable of taking care of things," Thune said. "If they had found anything that could have been used to commit a crime they would have arrested somebody."
Said Thune: "Unless they come up with anthrax or weapons of mass destruction, I think they came up short."
Later Saturday, Fletcher described in a news release the items seized during the raids, which included a variety of "edged weapons"; glass bottles, rags and flammable liquids; "Old tires (for burning)," a gas mask and "Empty plastic buckest cut and made into shields."
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.
Three people were arrested and detained for probable cause conspiracy to commit a riot following a raid at 3240 17th Ave. S. in Minneapolis.
Ten other people in the house were processed and released after about 90 minutes, said Bruce Nestor of the National Lawyers Guild.
Nestor said the warrant used to search the home was identical to two others for searches at homes at 3500 Harriet Av. S. and 2301 23rd Av. S. in Minneapolis. One man was arrested at the 23rd Avenue S. house, and a fifth arrested at an "undisclosed location," according to the Ramsey sheriff's office.
Nestor said the the warrant used to search the 17th Avenue house also matches the one used to raid the former theater in St. Paul that is the organizing site of the RNC Welcoming Committee.
Nestor said he has not seen documents that support a reason for searching any of the locations, but that the warrant, signed by a judge on Friday, seeks multiple items, including electronics and MP3 players, rags, jars, Molotov cocktails, communication between RNC Welcoming Committee members, urine and feces.
Those arrested could be held through the weekend, Nestor said. A judge will review their case within 48 hours. Nestor said the conspiracy to commit a riot charges are vague.
"This is a charge that police use for preventive detention," he said. "It requires that no actual criminal act be committed and borders on criminalizing political advocacy."
Nestor did not know whether the three were members of the RNC Welcoming Committee.
Meanwhile, the group decried the Friday night raid on their organizing site as unwarranted, as evidenced by the lack of arrests after at least 50 people were detained. The group decried law enforcement's tactics, particularly because children and the elderly were present while the group was watching films and sharing food before the doors were broken down.
"The police may claim that the raid was executed according to protocol - however, the violence inherent in this action may only be a hint of the violence to be expected on Monday and beyond, and is only a hint at the violence perpetrated daily by the police," the group's statement read.
"(By) Looking for items found in any twin cities house like jars, paint, and rags, this attempt to portray us as criminals and destroy our credibility has already backfired as evidenced by the masses who have come to support us." the RNC Welcoming Committee said in a statement late Friday.
An attorney for protesters said Ramsey County sheriff's deputies and St. Paul police officers handcuffed at least 50 people and made them lie on the ground for an extended period. The raid happened Friday night around 9 p.m. at the former Smith Theater on St. Paul's west side.
Thune estimates that about 100 people were in the theater and detained. He said deputies knocked down the door using a police battering ram and then deputies went in with guns drawn, forcing people to the ground.
The group says they are now accused of a fire code violation and the theater was boarded shut on orders of Fletcher. This last action also upset Thune, who said the sheriff had no authority to order city staff to keep people out of a building.
Thune said he would be working with city officials today to re-open the building. Demonstrators said later Saturday that the building was being re-opened.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921