News & Politics

The Crackdown on Dissent

Over the past year, the U.S. government has intensified its crackdown on anti-globalization and other protesters, using age-old tactics of spying, raids, intimidation, pre-emptive arrests and false information.
Over the past year, the US government has intensified its crackdown on political dissidents opposing corporate globalization, and it is used 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 spied on protesters' planning meetings, while police restricted who is allowed on the parade route and planned 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 64 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 27 of its 56 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 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. 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 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 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 $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 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."

Abby Scher is a sociologist and writer who has researched women's politics of the McCarthy period. This article originally appeared in The Nation.
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