Feds keep tabs on protesters
Days before a protest organized to greet President Bush during his short pre-Thanksgiving fundraising stop in Las Vegas, Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, called the metro police department to “give them a heads-up.”
“I told them that I wanted them to know how many people would be there, that we’d follow the law and not block the streets,” Johnson said. Not long after she hung up with the police, the phone rang. A caller began quizzing Johnson about the event, wanting to know details about the groups involved. Johnson grew curious about the intense questioning.
When Johnson asked, the caller said she was with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Johnson was given a number to call with more details as they came in. She was amazed at the audacity of this request, at the infringements of liberty seemingly pushed into place by the Bush administration.
“This is the same president who tells us, ‘Freedom is beautiful,’ and ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you can express freedom?’ ”
Days before the Vegas protest, the New York Times reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is collecting info on anti-war demonstrators across the United States. In mid-October, before an anti-war march in Washington, D.C., that drew about 100,000 protesters, an internal FBI memo circulated, detailing an info-gathering campaign directed toward anti-war activists.
The memo discusses tactics and organization of anti-war protesters—and even talks about how activists use “training camps” to rehearse for demonstrations, a fact that’s certainly true for Reno activists who’ve held training sessions for “peacekeepers” at protests. These “camps” train activists how to talk respectfully with law enforcement officials and counter-protesters and how to keep fights from breaking out.
The FBI memo also advised local law enforcement agencies to report suspicious activity at protests to counter-terrorism squads.
The feds put political activism in the same category as terrorism?
Local anti-war activists say that’s not surprising to them.
“For months, peace and justice activists have been finding out that they were on ‘no fly’ lists, where they would be detained at airports and many times not allowed to get on their flights, apparently for no other reason than they had been active in opposing Bush’s endless wars,” said Stewart Stout of the Reno Anti-War Coalition. “So you had elderly nuns being held at airports with the excuse that they might be terrorists.”
It’s disturbing, Stout said, that the Bush administration is using its new counter-terrorism powers to target political opponents. That’s reminiscent, he said, of the Counter Intelligence Program carried out in the 1960s and 1970s against those protesting the Vietnam War and such individuals as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Since then, there have been protections put in place to prevent the government from acting in such a fascist manner,” Stout said. “Apparently, Bush and [Attorney General John] Ashcroft want to take us back 30 years by eradicating these protections, and in fact the Patriot Act does just that. It allows the federal government to act in this way, all in the name of fighting terrorism.”
Reno activist Lisa Stiller took part in some of those anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. She recalled joining a group of Quakers from New York who spent an entire summer in the nation’s capital, protesting in front of the White House. She said the group was infiltrated by a member of the CIA. She’s always wondered: “What information were they collecting about us? Did they secretly take our pictures?”
Now, all these fears have resurfaced for Stiller. She questioned what kinds of files are being created and for what purpose.
“The worst part is that this can make us suspicious of each other,” she said. “Who at our meetings are informants? Who on our e-mail list is an informant?”
While Stout isn’t worried about begin carried off in the middle of the night, the actions of the FBI do invoke enough fear to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech for many, especially immigrants from other countries.
“What this kind of action will do is intimidate some people who are particularly vulnerable to government repression into silence,” Stout said. “For two years now, immigrants have been terrorized in this country. We have seen widespread racial profiling and the suspension of thousands of people’s constitutional rights. … Immigrants and people of Middle Eastern descent have been rounded up, indefinitely detained without charges or representation and deported.”