The Crackdown on Dissent
by Abby Sher
The Nation magazine, Feb. 5, 2001
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
One activist who has had experience with how me DC police
handle demonstrators is Rob Fish, a cheerful young man with me
Student Environmental Action Coalition profiled in a recent Sierra
magazine cover story on me new generation of environmentalists.
If you were watching CNN during me 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 me American
Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and me Partnership
for Civil Justice against me DC police and a long list of federal
agencies including me FBI. This suit- along with others in Philadelphia
and Los Angeles, where me 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 me FBI deployed
its dirty tricks against the Central American solidarity movement
during me 1980s.
Among police agencies themselves this is something of an open
secret. In me spring me US Attorney's office bestowed an award
on members of me Washington, DC, police department for their "unparalleled"
coordination with other police agencies during me IMF protests.
"The FBI provided valuable background on me individuals who
were intent on committing criminal acts and were able to impart
the valuable lessons learned from Seattle," me US Attorney
Civil liberties lawyers say me level of repression-in me form
of unwarranted searches and surveillance, unprovoked shootings
and beatings, and preemptive mass arrests criminalizing peaceful
demonstrators-violates protesters' rights of free-speech and association.
"It's political profiling," said Jim Lafferty, director
of me National Lawyers Guild's Los Angeles office, which is backing
lawsuits coming out of me Los Angeles protests. "They target
organizers. It's a new level of crackdown on dissent."
In Washington in April and at me Republican National Convention
protest in Philadelphia last summer, the police rounded up hundreds
of activists in preemptive 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 me judge they were withdrawing all fourteen
misdemeanor charges against
Coordination among local and federal police agencies 'becomes
a problem when it's being used to chill people's political speech.'
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-mat 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 me 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 me 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
me height of the municipal Red Squads, renamed "intelligence
units" in me postwar period. During me 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 me information and its own agents provocateurs
to disrupt me 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
me country in me seventies and eighties after scandals revealed
political surveillance of me 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 me activists were making puppets and otherwise preparing
for demonstrations against me Republican convention. State police
(who also monitored activists' Internet organizing) initially
said they were working with me 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.
Wt' e 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 me neighboring Florham Park, New Jersey,
police handle a small protest against a Brookings Institution
session with the World Bank on April I, where Fish had assisted
in a dramatic banner hanging. At me 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
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
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 US. Activists and What We Can Do About It.
Among me police actions that worry civil libertarians:
* Police raids of demonstrators' gathering spaces. In DC,
saying mere was a fire threat, the police, fire department and
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms kicked everyone out of
me convergence space, arrested the "leaders" and seized
puppets and political materials. The ACLU prevented a similar
raid on me convergence center in Los Angeles during me Democratic
convention by winning an injunction from a federal judge, who
warned the police mat 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, me
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 I, police arrested seventy activists working in me convergence
space called me puppet warehouse on conspiracy and obstruction-of-traffic
charges. They justified me r aid, which the ACLU called one of
me largest instances of preventive detention in US history, in
a warrant mat drew on an obscure far-right newsletter funded by
millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife claiming mat the young people
were funded by communist groups and therefore dangerous. On April
15, Washington police rounded up 600 demonstrators marching against
me prison-industrial complex, picking up tourists in me process.
Police held them on buses for sixteen hours.
* List-making. The BBC reported that me Czech government received
from me FBI a list of activists mat 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 me 1999 anti-WTO protests. MacDonald Scott, a Canadian
paralegal doing legal support, estimates from border-crossing
records mat Canada turned away about 500 people during me OAS
meetings last June.
* Political profiling. On May I 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 me $1 million bail against John Sellers of me 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 me streets.
Whether and how me Justice Department or me FBI plotted strategies
for cracking down on protesters is me type of information mat
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
me government's recent attempts to suppress dissent has just begun.
An FBI agent told me Philadelphia Inquirer me government was
focusing on me antiglobalization activists in much me same way
they pursued Christian antiabortion bombers "after me Atlanta
Olympics." By expressing such urgent concern, federal agencies
may provide tacit permission to local police to use heavy-handed
tactics stored in me institutional memories of police departments
from me most active days of me Red Squads. Philadelphia police
are notorious for preventively detaining black activists, illegal
raids and me bombing of me MOVE house in 1985. They spied on some
600 groups well into me 1970s, and with me collusion of judges,
set astronomical bails to detain people on charges mat later proved
Indeed, me 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, me increasing us-versus-them attitude,"
says Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild in LA. The treatment
of protesters is an extension of me way many police treat those
in poor neighborhoods, stopping pedestrians who are young, black
and male without probable cause, harassing and even shooting with
"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 man a thousand people outside
me Democratic convention center in August, "there were a
few people throwing garbage over me fence," Takadji said.
"Instead of dealing with these few people, me police swept
in and fired on a crowd with rubber bullets" without giving
concert-goers time to file out of me small entry the police kept
open. This had shades of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago,
when me 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 me
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 me NYPD raided me Bronx apartment of members
of me 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 mat allow covert tracing
of phone calls and obtaining of documents. The Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, meanwhile, increased me authority
of me FBI to investigate First Amendment activity, like donations
to nonviolent political organizations deemed "terrorist"
by me government. This would have criminalized those who gave
money to the African National Congress during apartheid, says
Kit Gage of me National Committee Against Repressive Legislation.
And Clinton in his last days created the post of counterintelligence
czar, whose mission, me 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 me 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 me Palestinian organization Hamas.
More man fifty years ago President Truman unleashed a crackdown
on me left mat 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 me Center
for Constitutional Rights. "What lies behind the decision
is more disturbing. The purpose of it is to prevent me public
from hearing the message of me protesters."
Abby Scher is a sociologist and writer who has researched
women s politics of the McCarthy period.