The Crackdown on Dissent
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The Nation, Friday, January 19, 2001.
The Crackdown on Dissent
by Abby Scher
Over the past year, the US government has intensified its crackdown on
political dissidents opposing corporate globalization, and it is using
the same intimidating and probably unconstitutional tactics against
demonstrators at the presidential inauguration. With the Secret Service
taking on extraordinary powers designed to combat terrorism, undercover
operatives are spying on protesters' planning meetings, while police are
restricting who is allowed on the parade route and are planning a
massive search effort of visitors.
One activist who has had experience with how the DC police handle
demonstrators is Rob Fish, a cheerful young man with the Student
Environmental Action Coalition profiled in a recent Sierra magazine
cover story on the new generation of environmentalists. If you were
watching CNN during the protests against the International Monetary Fund
and World Bank in Washington, DC, in April, you would have seen Fish,
22, beaten, bloody and bandaged after an attack by an enraged
plainclothes officer who also tried to destroy the camera with which
Fish was documenting police harassment. Fish is a plaintiff in a
class-action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the
National Lawyers Guild and the Partnership for Civil Justice against the
DC police and a long list of federal agencies including the FBI. This
suit--along with others in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where the party
conventions were held in
August; in Detroit, which declared a civil emergency during the June
Organization of American States meeting across the border in Windsor,
Ontario; and in Seattle--is exposing a level of surveillance and
disruption of political activities not seen on the left since the FBI
deployed its dirty tricks against the Central American solidarity
movement during the 1980s.
Among police agencies themselves this is something of an open secret. In
the spring the US Attorney's office bestowed an award on members of the
Washington, DC, police department for their "unparalleled" coordination
with other police agencies during the IMF protests. "The FBI provided
valuable background on the individuals who were intent on committing
criminal acts and were able to impart the valuable lessons learned from
Seattle," the US Attorney declared.
Civil liberties lawyers say the level of repression--in the form of
unwarranted searches and surveillance, unprovoked shootings and
beatings, and pre-emptive mass arrests criminalizing peaceful
demonstrators--violates protesters' rights of free-speech and
association. "It's political profiling," said Jim Lafferty, director of
the National Lawyers Guild's Los Angeles office, which is backing
lawsuits coming out of the Los Angeles protests. "They target
organizers. It's a new level of crackdown on dissent."
In Washington in April and at the Republican National Convention protest
in Philadelphia last summer, the police rounded up hundreds of activists
in pre-emptive arrests and targeted and arrested on trumped-up charges
those they had identified as leaders. Once many of those cases appeared
in Philadelphia court, they were dismissed because the police could
no reason for the arrests. In December the courts dismissed all charges
against sixty-four puppet-making activists arrested at a warehouse. A
month before, prosecutors had told the judge they were withdrawing all
fourteen misdemeanor charges against Ruckus Society head John Sellers
for lack of evidence. These were the same charges--including possession
an instrument of a crime, his cell phone--that police leveled against
Sellers to argue for his imprisonment on $1 million bail this past
A major question posed by the lawsuits is whether the federal government
trained local police to violate the free-speech rights of protesters
like Sellers and Fish. The FBI held seminars for local police in the
protest cities on the lessons of the Seattle disorders to help them
prepare for the demonstrations. It has also formed "joint terrorism task
forces" in twenty-seven of its fifty-six divisions, composed of local,
state and federal law-enforcement officers, aimed at suppressing what it
sees as domestic terrorism on the left and on the right. "We want to be
proactive and keep these things from happening," Gordon Compton, an FBI
spokesman, told the Oregonian in early December after public-interest
groups called for the city to withdraw from that region's task force.
The collaboration of federal and local police harks back to the height
of the municipal Red Squads, renamed "intelligence units" in the postwar
period. During the heyday of J. Edgar Hoover and his illegal
Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the FBI relied on these local
police units and even private right-wing spy groups for information
about antiwar and other activists. The FBI then used the information and
its own agents provocateurs to disrupt the Black Panthers, Students for
Democratic Society, Puerto Rican nationalists and others during the dark
days of COINTELPRO and after that program was exposed in 1971.
Local citizen action won curbs on Red Squad activity throughout the
country in the seventies and eighties after scandals revealed political
surveillance of the ACLU, antiwar and civil rights activists, among
others. While Chicago police recently won a court case to resume their
spying, elsewhere police are evading restrictions by having other police
agencies spy for them. In Philadelphia four state police officers who
claimed they were construction workers from Wilkes-Barre infiltrated the
"convergence" space where the activists were making puppets and
otherwise preparing for demonstrations against the Republican
convention. State police (who also monitored activists' Internet
said they were working with the Philadelphia police department, which
barred in 1987 from political spying without special permission. And in
New York last spring, police apparently violated a 1985 ban on sharing
intelligence when it helped Philadelphia police monitor and photograph
NYC anarchists at a May Day demonstration.
"We have local Washington, DC, authorities in Philadelphia--I see no
role for them there except fingering people who were in lawful
demonstrations in DC," says Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of Partnership for
Civil Justice, who is representing the activists in the DC lawsuit.
Environmental activist Fish ran into a sergeant from the Morristown, New
Jersey, police department at demonstration after demonstration. The
sergeant had helped the neighboring Florham Park, New Jersey, police
handle a small protest against a Brookings Institution session with the
World Bank on April 1, where Fish had assisted in a dramatic banner
hanging. At the May Day protest in New York, "much to my surprise," he
ran into not just the Morristown officer but "the whole crew" he had
seen in DC a few weeks before, including officers from DC and
Philadelphia, and now even someone from the Drug Enforcement
Administration. "They knew all about me being beat up in DC and that my
camera was lost," he said. In DC they had revealed that they knew he'd
been to a Ruckus Society training in
Florida during spring break. They were very open about who they were,
handing Fish their business cards.
Capt. Peter Demitz, the Morristown police officer, explained in a recent
interview that he traveled to demonstrations using funds from a program
set up by the Justice Department after the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.
Attorney General Janet Reno "felt that civil disorder and demonstrations
would be the most active since the Vietnam War. She said police officers
should learn from each other, so there's more money for observing," said
Demitz. According to Verheyden-Hilliard, the coordination among police
agencies "becomes a problem when it's being used to chill people's
political speech--it's being used in a way to silence people."
Letting activists know they are under surveillance is also a
time-honored tactic of local intelligence units and the FBI. "I see
several different components of COINTELPRO, from conspicuous
surveillance, spreading fear of infiltration, preventive detention and
false stories to the press," says Brian Glick, a Fordham University law
professor and author of War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S.
Activists and What We Can Do About It.
Among the police actions that worry civil libertarians:
* Police raids of demonstrators' gathering spaces. In DC, saying there
was a fire threat, the police, fire department and Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms kicked everyone out of the convergence space,
arrested the "leaders" and seized puppets and political materials. The
ACLU prevented a similar raid on the convergence center in Los Angeles
during the Democratic convention by winning an injunction from a federal
judge, who warned the police that they could not even investigate
building or fire-code violations without federal court approval.
* False stories to the press. In statements later proved to be false,
police in Washington and Philadelphia said they found the makings of
dangerous weapons in convergence centers. DC police announced they had
found a Molotov cocktail but later admitted it was a plastic soda bottle
stuffed with rags. Similarly, the makings of "pepper spray," police
admitted later, were actually peppers, onions and other vegetables found
in the kitchen area, while "ammunition" seized in an activist's home
consisted of empty shells on a Mexican ornament. Philadelphia police
also reported "dangerous" items in activists' puppet-making material.
false statements were intended to discredit the protesters and
discourage people from supporting them, civil liberties lawyers argue.
* Rounding up demonstrators on trumped-up charges. In Philadelphia on
August 1, police arrested seventy activists working in the convergence
space called the puppet warehouse on conspiracy and
obstruction-of-traffic charges. They justified the raid, which the ACLU
called one of the largest instances of preventive detention in US
history, in a warrant that drew on an obscure far-right newsletter
funded by millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife claiming that the young
people were funded by communist groups and therefore dangerous. On April
15, Washington police rounded up 600 demonstrators marching against the
prison-industrial complex, picking up tourists in the process. Police
held them on buses for sixteen hours.
* List-making. The BBC reported that the Czech government received from
the FBI a list of activists that it used in stopping Americans from
entering for anti-IMF demonstrations in Prague in September. A
journalist interviewed two such Americans who said they had no criminal
record but had been briefly held and released in Seattle during the 1999
anti-WTO protests. MacDonald Scott, a Canadian paralegal doing legal
support, estimates from border-crossing records that Canada turned away
about 500 people during the OAS meetings last June.
* Political profiling. On May 1 the NYPD rounded up peacefully
demonstrating anarchists with covered faces under a nineteenth-century
anti-Klan law, in addition to a few other barefaced anarchist-looking
* Unconstitutional bail amounts. Philadelphia law enforcement sought
what lawyers are calling unconstitutionally high bail, most famously the
$1 million bail against John Sellers of the Ruckus Society (which a
lowered to a still-high $100,000).
* Brutal treatment. In Philadelphia and Washington, activists were held
for excessive lengths of time, not informed of their full rights or
given access to their lawyers, and were hogtied with plastic handcuffs
attaching their wrists to their ankles. Philadelphia activists in
particular reported brutal treatment while in police custody, but in
every city demonstrators suffered from police assault on the streets.
Whether and how the Justice Department or the FBI plotted strategies for
cracking down on protesters is the type of information that is often
only revealed by chance or long after the fact. COINTELPRO was famously
exposed in 1971 when activists liberated documents from an FBI office in
Media, Pennsylvania. The process of uncovering the government's recent
attempts to suppress dissent has just begun.
An FBI agent told the Philadelphia Inquirer the government was focusing
on the antiglobalization activists in much the same way they pursued
Christian antiabortion bombers "after the Atlanta Olympics." By
expressing such urgent concern, federal agencies may provide tacit
permission to local police to use heavy-handed tactics stored in the
institutional memories of police departments from the most active days
of the Red Squads. Philadelphia police are notorious for preventively
detaining black activists, illegal raids and the bombing of the MOVE
house in 1985. They spied on some 600 groups well into the 1970s, and
with the collusion of judges, set astronomical bails to detain people on
charges that later proved without warrant.
Indeed, the local police may not need encouragement from the Feds for
their use of violence against largely (though not entirely) nonviolent
demonstrators. "There's a militaristic pattern to policing these days,
the increasing us-versus-them attitude," says Jim Lafferty of the
Lawyers Guild in LA. The treatment of protesters is an extension of the
way many police treat those in poor neighborhoods, stopping pedestrians
who are young, black and male without probable cause, harassing and even
shooting with little provocation.
"In LA, apparently they decided instead of arresting people and setting
high bail like they did in Philadelphia, they'll just open fire," said
Dan Takadji, the ACLU lawyer who is suing the city for civil rights
violations. When police shot rubber bullets at a concert and rally of
more than a thousand people outside the Democratic convention center in
August, "there were a few people throwing garbage over the fence,"
Takadji said. "Instead of dealing with these few people, the police
swept in and fired on a crowd with rubber bullets" without giving
concertgoers time to file out of the small entry the police kept open.
This had shades of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, when the
National Guard blocked the
exit of a permitted demonstration in Grant Park as police charged with
tear gas and rifle butts.
Also reminiscent of '68 is harassment of those calling for police
reform. LA police officers shot rubber bullets into the crowd at an
anti-police-brutality rally on October 22. As in other demonstrations,
police also targeted a videographer who was filming. A few days earlier
the NYPD raided the Bronx apartment of members of the tiny Revolutionary
Communist Youth Brigade, which was helping to organize a similar
Recent legislation has all but encouraged repressive police tactics. A
1998 federal law, for example, gave federal intelligence agencies vast
new powers to track suspected terrorists with "roving wiretaps" and
court orders that allow covert tracing of phone calls and obtaining of
documents. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,
meanwhile, increased the authority of the FBI to investigate First
Amendment activity, like donations to nonviolent political organizations
deemed "terrorist" by the government. This would have criminalized those
who gave money to the African National Congress during apartheid, says
Kit Gage of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation. And
Clinton in his last days created the post of counterintelligence czar,
whose mission, the Wall Street Journal reports, includes working with
corporations to maintain "economic security."
It's not only antiglobalization activists who have faced crackdowns on
free-speech and free-association rights. The Immigration and
Naturalization Service is imprisoning and deporting people whose
political views the government considers unacceptable, although its
efforts to use secret evidence have suffered setbacks in the courts,
with some people freed when evidence proved spurious. Still, Muslim
Arab-Americans continue to be called before secret grand juries
investigating ties between US residents and "terrorist" groups like the
Palestinian organization Hamas.
More than fifty years ago President Truman unleashed a crackdown on the
left that was carried on by his Republican successor. We may face a
similar crisis today. "There's been a massive violation of civil rights
and constitutional rights. This decision to suspend the Constitution is
one that has been made now at one event after another. It's obvious
there was a conscious decision to do it," said Bill Goodman, legal
director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "What lies behind the
decision is more disturbing. The purpose of it is to prevent the public
from hearing the message of the protesters."
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