The Crackdown on Dissent
by Abby Scher
The Nation magazine, January 19, 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 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
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
§ 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
"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
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."