News & Politics

7 Outrageous Examples of Police Spying and Harrassment Toward Peaceful Activists

Law enforcement is using dubious justifications to spy on Americans based on nothing more than people's political beliefs.

According to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), law enforcement agencies around the country have acted as diligent Thought Police, relying on dubious justifications to spy on Americans based on little more than their political beliefs (PDF).  

The report notes our nation’s rich tradition “of spying on American citizens and infiltrating or otherwise obstructing political activist groups.” After Cold War initiatives like the FBI’s COINTELPRO and the CIA’s Operation Chaos came to light, federal agencies enacted new rules against spying on people for their politics. But in 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, leaning heavily on the attacks of 9/11, suspended those restrictions, saying, “We in the leadership of the FBI and the Department of Justice began a concerted effort to free the field agents—the brave men and women on the front lines—from the bureaucratic, organizational and operational restrictions and structures that hindered them from doing their jobs effectively.” 

Right-wingers like Ashcroft have always cited external threats to crack down on internal dissent. Those concerted efforts paid off in a cultural shift across the law enforcement community. As journalist Matthew Rothschild noted, “Equating protesters with terrorists is not confined to FBI headquarters.” Rothschild quoted Mike Van Winkle, a spokesman for the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, who explained the surveillance of peaceful protesters opposed to the war in Iraq like this: "if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest. You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act." 

With that attitude infecting the nation’s law enforcement agencies, the ACLU report tells us, “these old tendencies have once again come to the fore. Law enforcement agencies across America continue to monitor and harass groups and individuals for doing little more than peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.”  

The report adds that Americans, “have been put under surveillance … just for deciding to organize, march, protest, espouse unusual viewpoints, and engage in normal, innocuous behaviors such as writing notes or taking photographs in public.” Some of those “suspicious activities” are almost laughable, at least until you consider how dangerous the precedent is.  

Here are seven of the most ridiculous ways law enforcement has “protected" us by spying on or otherwise harassing law-abiding Americans. 

1. Los Angeles Arts Police 

A special order issued in early 2008 by the Los Angeles Police Department mandated that all officers report people engaging in a list of 65 supposedly suspicious behaviors. According to the ACLU report, “the list includes such innocuous, clearly subjective, and First Amendment-protected activities as, taking measurements, using binoculars … drawing diagrams, taking notes, and espousing extremist views.” But the best one was taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent esthetic value.” Angelenos can rest easy knowing the esthetics cops are on the case. (But beware, Hollywood: not all that stuff you folks put out is likely to make the cut.)

2. You Never Know What A Terrorist Can Do With a Piece of Tofu 

In late 2004, a lecturer who once worked for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) gave a lecture on the “benefits of a vegan diet” at Cal State, Fresno. There were 60 people in attendance. According to the ACLU, 10 percent of them were undercover police officers and county sheriff’s deputies.  

3. Bagging Groceries Could Lead to Violent Extremism

In 2003 and 2004, a series of strikes against California supermarkets drew national attention. When a delegation of "religious leaders planned a pilgrimage to the Safeway CEO's home to deliver postcards supporting the striking workers," it also drew the attention of law enforcement. Sheriff's deputies from Contra Costa County Sheriff's Homeland Security Unit went to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), and, according to the ACLU, "staff directed them to a contact number on a flyer. Despite the fact that the sheriff's department had been in contact with the pilgrimage organizers-union leaders saw the same sheriff's deputies in plainclothes attending a demonstration at a Safeway store in San Francisco." 

4. Saying Mean Things About Politicians on a Blog: a 'Potential Threat'

In Connecticut, activist Ken Krayeske isn’t terribly fond of the policies of Governor Jodi Rell. According to the ACLU report, Connecticut state police “monitored Krayeske’s blog” and “sent local police his photograph as a potential threat to the Governor.” When Krayeske took a photograph of Rell at a public event, he was promptly arrested by Hartford cops. 

5. Forget Islamic Extremism -- Quaker Terror Cells Are Hidden Among Us! 

When it was discovered that military intelligence had been spying on Americans who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a local Fort Lauderdale reporter called Peter Ackerman to ask if he was, indeed, a “credible threat,” as he’d been designated on a government watch list. Ackerman, who like all Quakers believes in non-violence, was surprised to learn he’d earned a spot on the list for distributing leaflets with “information about conscientious objection to recruiters and interested civilians” at local air shows in 2004 and 2005.

6. A Piece of Tofu Is One Thing, but an Extremist Armed With a Chunk of Tempeh … 

In Georgia, the Department of Homeland Security is also worried about the vegan/vegetarian threat (an axis of evil that presumably includes ovo-lacto vegetarians). According to the ACLU, “Caitlin Childs was arrested after a peaceful protest on public property outside the Honey Baked Ham store on Buford Highway in DeKalb County for taking down the license plate number of the car belonging to the DHS agent who had been photographing the protesters all day.”

People who eschew meat are a wily bunch, but our security agencies are hard on the case. Before the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, “the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force attempted to recruit a University of Minnesota student arrested for vandalism to go undercover at 'vegan potlucks' in order to spy on groups organizing protests.” 

7. Cops in Maryland Believe Almost Anyone Is a Potential Threat 

The Maryland State Police spied on more than 30 activist groups, “mostly peace groups and anti-death penalty advocates, and wrongly identified 53 individual activists and about two dozen organizations as terrorists.” As if that weren’t enough, they distributed the “information” to a whole slew of law enforcement agencies, including “the Baltimore City Police Department, the Baltimore County Police Department, the Anne Arundel County Police Department, the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, a local police representative of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a National Security Agency security official, an unnamed military intelligence officer, and DHS.”  

Those are your tax dollars at work. But don’t feel remorseful. As George W. Bush reminded America on his way out of the White House, we haven’t suffered a terror attack since 9/11 -- neither the meaty nor the vegetarian variety.

This article was edited after publication.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.
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