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 visitors.

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 declared.

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 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 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 activists.

* 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 without warrant.

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 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 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.

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