Cleveland won't renew Occupy group's permit

May 2, 2012 - 9:35 PM
APTOPIX Cleveland Arrests

Photos provided by the FBI show five men arrested Monday, April 30, 2012, and accused of plotting to blow up a bridge near Cleveland, Ohio, the FBI announced Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Top row, from left, are Douglas Wright, Brandon Baxter and Anthony Hayne. Bottom row, from left, are Joshua Stafford and Connor Stevens. There was no danger to the public because the explosives were inoperable and were controlled by an undercover FBI employee, the agency said Tuesday in announcing the men's arrests. The target of the plot was a bridge that carries a four-lane state highway over part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the Brecksville area, about 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland, the FBI said. (AP Photo/FBI)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Occupy protesters must ask serious questions about their open-arms policy in light of charges brought against five members accused of trying to blow up an Ohio bridge, a top Cleveland official said Wednesday.

The city declined to renew the group's downtown encampment permit on Wednesday, a denial planned before the bridge plot arrests were announced Monday, said Ken Silliman, chief of staff to Mayor Frank Jackson. The group, which remained by its encampment tent Wednesday night despite a 5 p.m. deadline to leave, can still gather at a spot across the street day or night. Police are monitoring, but no arrests have been made.

The decision was made with the allegations as a backdrop, Silliman added.

"I think a fair question to ask of Occupy Cleveland, is, if you have portrayed your organization up till now as welcome to all-comers — the tent will accommodate anyone and everyone — how does that change when something like the events of yesterday happen?" Silliman said.

"How does that change when some of the people you've welcomed into your decision-making are now accused of such serious felonies?"

That question must be asked even if the city accepts the organization's statements that it is nonviolent and was distancing itself from those charged in the plot, Silliman said.

Occupy members, who received an encampment permit in October, planned to sit in protest of the tent's dismantling by police, but don't plan to be arrested, Occupy Cleveland spokesman Joseph Zitt said. The group has said the men didn't represent Occupy Cleveland and were not acting on its behalf.

Silliman's statements are something the group must discuss, he said.

"When things like this happen, we discover there might be factors that we had not necessarily thought of before," Zitt said. "Questions arise, they get discussed in assembly, we come to consensus on it. We're learning."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio questioned the timing of the permit revocation, saying it was concerned Jackson's announcement was an attempt to connect the entire Occupy movement to the bomb plot.

"Individuals are responsible for their own actions, not the groups they affiliate with," ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman said in a statement. "City officials should not be in the business of condemning an entire group of people based on the actions of others."

Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for Occupy in New York, also said the arrests have nothing to do with the Occupy movement that began last fall.

"This incident has nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street, which explicitly stands for non-violence," he said. "Before there's a rush to judgment, facts need to come out. Those charged are entitled to a fair trial and due process."

The five were charged Tuesday with plotting to bomb a bridge linking two wealthy Cleveland suburbs by placing what they thought were real explosives at the site and repeatedly trying to detonate them using text messages from cellphones, according to the FBI affidavit.

On Wednesday, an attorney representing one of the defendants questioned the role of an undercover informant, saying the ex-con hired by the FBI appeared to have played an active role in the plot.

Cleveland defense lawyer John Pyle said his client, Brandon Baxter, will plead not guilty in the case, which is set for a preliminary hearing next week.

An attorney for a second defendant, Douglas Wright, said his client also will plead not guilty. The attorney for a third defendant, Anthony Hayne, said his only information came from the 22-page affidavit.

"I have no idea who it is at this point," Michael O'Shea said Wednesday of the informant. "I imagine they will work pretty hard to keep that from us as long as they can."

Federal authorities described the men as anarchists who are angry with corporate America and the government and unknowingly worked with an FBI informant for months as they crafted and carried out their plan.

The FBI said the suspects bought the explosives — actually fake — from an undercover employee and put them at the base of a highway bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, about 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland, on Monday. After leaving the park, they tried to initiate the explosives using a text-message detonation code, and they called the person who provided the bombs to check the code when it failed, according to the FBI affidavit.

The affidavit also discussed the suspects' desire to destroy signs on banks as a protest against corporate America but said they didn't want to be seen as terrorists.

Christopher Banks, an associate professor at Kent State University who has written on terrorism, said Wednesday that anarchists have targeted research and development centers, car dealerships, timber resources and storefronts over issues including corporate policies and the environment.

"I think the so-called anarchists are getting a lot more notoriety because of economic summits and things like that, which tie into the Occupy Now movement a little bit," he said. "I think that's why it's part of the discussion today."

Court documents detail conversations the FBI secretly recorded in which its informant discussed bomb plans with some of the suspects. In one, Baxter, 20, of Lakewood, allegedly said, "Taking out a bridge in the business district would cost the ... corporate big wigs a lot of money" because it would cause structural damage and prevent people from going to work.

The alleged conversations depict Wright, 26, of Indianapolis, as a sort of group leader who recruited others, scouted out the bridge site and participated in buying the fake explosives.

The other suspects were identified as Joshua S. Stafford, 23, and Hayne, 35, both of Cleveland, and Connor Stevens, 20, of suburban Berea.

All five are charged with conspiracy and trying to bomb property used in interstate commerce. They appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court and were ordered jailed without bond pending a hearing Monday.

The charges carry possible penalties of more than 20 years in prison.

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Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press writers Kantele Franko and Barbara Rodriguez in Columbus and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.