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As activists prepare to protest the RNC, the FBI comes knocking

As activists prepare to protest the RNC, the FBI comes knocking
A view of downtown Cleveland. The city will host the Republican National Convention next month. (Mark Duncan/Associated Press)

About two dozen activists filled a small used-book shop on Cleveland's west side for an unusual meeting: a training session on what to do when police knock on your door.

The meeting started with a warning: assume that informants may be in the room. Jacqueline Greene and Jocelyn Rosnick of the National Lawyers Guild play-acted scenarios of the FBI standing on doorsteps, asking politely but persistently for names, for scraps of information, for full interviews.

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"Some of them have been very nice like this," Greene warned her listeners, citing reports from local activists about law enforcement visits ramping up before next month's Republican National Convention. "Other times it has been not so friendly."

In less than four weeks, Donald Trump will come to the shores of Lake Erie to wrest the presidential nomination from the nation's Republican delegates and to complete his conquest of the GOP. Given how turbulent some protests outside Trump rallies have been — and that the convention comes just weeks after the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history — finding the right balance between security and 1st Amendment rights will be a challenge.

Shivers have gone through the Cleveland activist community since law enforcement officials began knocking on their doors as tens of thousands of visitors prepare to come to town. The Cleveland FBI's office said in a statement that the visits were part of their plans with state and local law enforcement to prepare for the convention by "working collaboratively with members of the community."

"Law enforcement is reaching out to individuals known in the community who may have information that could help to ensure a safe and secure environment during the RNC," the statement said. A spokeswoman declined to comment further.

Maggie Rice, 28, an organizer with Food Not Bombs, a volunteer group that provides food at demonstrations and to the homeless, said an FBI agent and a Cleveland police officer in plainclothes had contacted two of the group's members last week.

"The FBI is calling it community outreach — nobody's buying that," said Rice, adding that her group provides food to whoever wants it at demonstrations, including police, and that she explicitly avoids trying to know anyone's protest plans. She added that it felt like "they're trying to make us nervous."

It's typical for law enforcement to monitor activist groups before such large events, and it's common for them to knock on activists' doors, said activist and author Kris Hermes, who has studied past political conventions and similar high-security events that often draw protesters. Hermes sees the tactic as something other than simple intelligence-gathering.

"It's about putting the activist community on guard. The FBI knows who you are and where you are, and that has a chilling effect on the activist community for sure," Hermes said. "Do you feel safe protesting in the streets when you know you're being targeted by law enforcement?"

Even before the door knocks, activists say, Cleveland's radical community had already been on edge — for years. Five Occupy Cleveland activists were arrested in 2012 after an FBI informant infiltrated the group and provided fake explosives to blow up a bridge. Prosecutors called it terrorism; activists called it manipulation and entrapment. Four of the men pleaded guilty and a fifth was convicted.

The FBI knows who you are and where you are, and that has a chilling effect on the activist community for sure.


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Since then, Rice said, "every room we're in, we assume there's an informant." She said activists tell each other, "'You don't have to answer the door when the FBI knocks — don't do it.'… I think this week everybody's been reminding each other."

The National Lawyers Guild monitors arrests at protests and provides legal defense for activists. At the meeting, which took place Friday night, the attorneys' biggest worries was that activists visited by law enforcement might nervously lie to federal agents — which is a crime — even about simple information. The best course of action: "Just shut the eff up," as one audience member put it.

"That's the moral of the story," said Greene, one of the guild attorneys.

Unexpectedly, LeBron James and the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers helped score a point for protesters last week.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio had sued Cleveland over proposed restrictions on parades and demonstrations for the upcoming Republican National Convention. As a city attorney argued at a Thursday hearing that the restrictions are necessary to protect the tens of thousands of visitors expected in town, U.S. District Judge James S. Gwin piped up. Didn't Cleveland just hold a much larger parade Wednesday to celebrate the Cavaliers' championship — without restrictions and without problems? "What's the difference?" he asked.

The city argued that the political convention posed a greater target for troublemakers, but Gwin ruled that the city's restrictions on the 3.3-square mile zone around downtown Cleveland were unconstitutional, and he immediately sent the city into mediation with the ACLU to create less restrictive rules.

After the ACLU's legal victory, activists Tom Burke, Larry Bresler, Mick Kelly and Bryan Hambley met with public safety officials at Cleveland City Hall to discuss plans and proposals for marches outside the convention. The city has issued permits for the single parade route it planned to allow, but activists say it has been a challenge to get permits beyond that.

Almost an hour later, the group emerged from the office empty-handed. "There's a lot of reluctance — I don't know why," said Burke, of Grand Rapids, Mich., who added that officials told him to reapply in a week.

"It's really incumbent on the city at this point to make this work," Kelly added.

City spokesman Dan Williams declined to make Mayor Frank Jackson or police officials available for an interview. He instead sent a link to a month-old news conference where officials rolled out some of the security restrictions that the judge deemed overly broad and unconstitutional.

"We're focused on preparations themselves rather than talking to media," Williams said, and stressed that "we want people to come and have a great time."

"When you're in the convention, you'll be safe and secure," he said.

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