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Protesters with violent past plan to attend DNC

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. The YouTube video is blurry, the voice on the recording intentionally distorted. A person sits behind a desk wearing a smiling Guy Fawkes mask, holds papers in a mock newscast, and issues a call for action.

The video encourages militias, computer hackers and activists to descend on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., next week.

“We hope to see a large amount of freedom fighters, Occupy protesters, militias and other groups that are against the tyrannical rule of our current so-called government,” the voice says.

When the Democratic National Convention hits Charlotte in less than two weeks, police and protesters expect most demonstrations to be peaceful as up to 10,000 protesters try to direct the international media spotlight to an array of issues.

But organizers of groups who plan to demonstrate here say activists who have a history of antagonizing police and damaging property plan to come to Charlotte. Those peaceful groups fear that violent protesters, and publicity about them, detract from their messages or incite police aggression.

At least one group has asked antagonists to keep their distance during events.

While the video does not encourage violence specifically and its author is unknown, authorities take such calls to action seriously.

Tampa police are trying to see whether there is a link between the recent video – which claims to be from the hacker collective known as Anonymous – and last weekend’s discovery of pipes and bricks on a downtown rooftop beneath a spray-painted image of Guy Fawkes two days later, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Protest movements have adopted masks and images of Fawkes as a symbol of revolution.

The threat of violence hangs over both conventions.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have issued an intelligence bulletin warning of possible violence by anarchist extremists at upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions, CNN reported Wednesday.

According to CNN, the document says the FBI in March had information that extremists planned to try to close all of the Tampa Bay-area bridges and use improvised explosive devices. Such bulletins are routine prior to major events.

Groups that use violence as a means of protest aren’t keeping their aims secret.

The Resist the Charlotte DNC Facebook page, which focuses on anarchists who use “Black Bloc” tactics, features people wearing masks and dark sweatshirts with hoodies destroying cameras and fighting police officers. It offers tips for erecting barriers. One picture shows a camera covered in silly string. Another shows men jumping on police cars.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police won’t discuss how they plan to deal with protesters who get violent or whether they’re worried about any particular groups, but they’ve watched the Tampa video.

“Our people are aware of the items found in Tampa and the information included in the link,” said police spokesman Rob Tufano in an emailed reply. “We’re not going to publicly discuss our tactics for security purposes.”

Prior violence

During the NATO summit in Chicago in May, police there say three men described as self-proclaimed anarchists and members of the “Black Bloc” movement that has disrupted international gatherings in the past were charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism, providing material support for terrorism, and possession of an explosive incendiary device.

Police believe they were trying to make Molotov cocktails and throw them at high-profile targets.

And in San Francisco, a crowd of more than 100 “Black Bloc” activists stormed through the Mission District after a peaceful Occupy rally in May, vandalizing 30 businesses, a police station and several cars with hammers, crowbars, paint and eggs.

Protesters reached by the Observer had mixed feelings about groups that are accused of using such methods.

Some feel they are unfairly painted by police and the media, and that “Black Bloc” protesters often protect nonviolent protesters from police aggression.

“The Black Bloc is committed to not perpetuating violence against people, but they also separate violence against people from violence against property,” said Laurel Brooks, an Occupy Charlotte protester who said she knows and has protested alongside “Black Bloc” protesters, though she doesn’t use their tactics. Brooks refused to leave her tent and allowed herself to be arrested when police broke up the Occupy Charlotte camp. She was recently found not guilty of resisting and obstructing police officers.

“What they are doing is what they consider self-defense of activists. Primarily, they are on the front line, grabbing people back from police, and also defending journalists from police violence. From my perspective, I’m not seeing them instigating violence.”

Still, other protesters wish groups that engage in violence would keep their distance.

“They’re not unwelcome to come out with us,” said John Penley, who’s organizing a nonviolent protest in Frazier Park. “I’ll invite them to come over and eat free food with us. I just don’t want them coming out, giving the police an excuse to beat us up. … I think they use the Black Bloc as a way of saying we need to come out with those bean bag guns, tear gas, serious crowd control stuff and use that against people who aren’t Black Bloc.”

The Coalition to March on Wall Street South – an umbrella organization encompassing some 80 groups that plan to demonstrate during the DNC – wants violent or aggressive protesters to stay away from peaceful protests.

Ben Carroll, a spokesman for the coalition, said he does not expect trouble.

“A lot of times when there’s these large national demonstrations, there’s this fear, this threat that’s kind of propped up by the police and by the media about these violent demonstrators is a means of trying to get people to stay away, to not express themselves or exercise their free speech rights.” Staff writer Ely Portillo and The San Francisco Chronicle contributed.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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