[Hpn] The Crackdown on Dissent

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Mon, 22 Jan 2001 17:24:46 -0700

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
offer 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 of an
instrument of a crime, his cell phone, that police leveled against Sellers
to argue for his imprisonment on $1 million bail this past August.

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 a 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 organizing) initially said they were working with the
Philadelphia police department, which was 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, some 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

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. Such 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

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 activists.

 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 judge lowered to a still-high

 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 National
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 protest.
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 secret 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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