‘The gauntlet has been thrown down.’
In anticipation of protests being planned for the upcoming Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, law enforcement agencies have spent the past year weaving a dense security net to cast over the city come late July. Philadelphia deputy police commissioner Bob Mitchell claims that activist groups, by beginning months ago to solicit protesters and coordinate actions, have brought the planned city lockdown on themselves.
Protesters who fail to obtain a permit and refuse to stay in a fenced-in ‘free speech zone’—or ‘protest pit,’ as activists have dubbed it—can expect to encounter miles of police barricades and as much of the latest in riot gear as the department’s recent, convention-specific $5 million windfall will buy. Also present will be nearly every cop on the force, their counterparts from dozens of delegate-sending states, and a battalion of FBI and Secret Service agents.
Protesters at Los Angeles’s Democratic Convention in August can expect much of the same.
Authorities argue that they are not only legally permitted but obliged to clamp down where there is potential for violations, such as civil disobedience, damage to government-owned property, and terrorism. But Michael Morrill, coordinator of a coalition march being planned for July 30 in Philadelphia, says the concept of ‘potential’ is slippery and can be invoked at whim.
Massive security preparations, however, are merely a last line of defense, according to demonstration organizers. The preliminary crackdown, they say, is aimed at keeping protesters from making it to the streets in the first place.
Longtime organizers tick off a list of what they call common tricks of law enforcement’s preemptive strike trade: online surveillance, plants in meetings, phone taps, mail tampering, stolen documents, and photo and video surveillance. What agents are looking for, activists say, is evidence to justify a predemonstration arrest. Or, they are simply looking to intimidate.
Puerto Rican human rights activist Gabriel Torres says, “Of course [such activity] affects the turnout” on protest day. Kit Gage of the National Lawyers Guild says covert investigations especially “chill immigrant communities’ ” political activity.
Activists report incidents like the concealing of a hidden camera, later admitted to by authorities, in a room where CUNY students met to organize around their grievances. At a peaceful anti-police-brutality march in Brooklyn, police singled out Lumumba Bandele, a prominent African American activist, for arrest and held him for 13 hours while, his supporters claim, they scanned video footage of past protests in search of violations. On the eve of the April anti-IMF protests in D.C., Secret Service agents frisked a man who was walking down the street; they were carrying a photograph of him and would not explain how they had obtained it.
And this is just what activists know.
The web of law enforcement agencies that regulate dissident activities includes the obvious: police departments, the FBI, and in the case of the conventions, the Secret Service. But busy behind the scenes are little-known helpers, including the national State & Local Anti-Terrorism Training program—providing “pre-incident awareness, pre-incident preparation, prevention, and interdiction training and information” about “extremist groups,” and the Justice Department-funded Regional Information Sharing Systems program, which dis- seminates intelligence and coordinates efforts on “criminal networks” that cross jurisdictional boundaries. The Pentagon has also been known to chip in with military-grade equipment and expertise.
If activists’ stories seem like a flight of anarchist fantasy, just ask the authorities. Even in seemingly ill-prepared Seattle, police “were tracking the violent groups long before this,” one ranking officer told the Seattle Weekly in the aftermath of the WTO protests, blaming the city’s legislature for ignoring intelligence reports. Philadelphia’s deputy police commissioner Mitchell admits to Internet surveillance but says, “I’m not going to tell you that” when asked to elaborate on the rest of what he implies is a comprehensive preemptive surveillance strategy. Philadelphia-based FBI special agent Linda Vizi explains, “We’d be remiss in not conducting some type of investigation.”
“I tell people who are active now—always operate under the assumption that they know who you are,” says Torres.
If this attitude smacks of retro conspiracy theory, that’s because the infamous 1960s FBI counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO—which illegally targeted nearly every sector of the diverse civil rights and antiwar movements —never really went away, according to the agency’s critics.
“[The U.S.] is probably the most developed police state in the history of the planet,” insists Ward Churchill, University of Colorado at Boulder professor and coauthor of The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents From the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States. He argues that the congressional investigations that followed the 1971 public revelation of the FBI’s operations merely scapegoated a few individuals for a systemic policy and convinced the public that promised reforms would actually be implemented and sustained.
Gage says the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act greatly loosened the concept of “criminal intent,” leaving “very little prohibition” on FBI surveillance of individuals. With local police claiming the same leeway as the FBI, Gage says, the counterpoint of the First Amendment against the Anti-Terrorism Act “is not a balancing act. It’s a fight.”
Activists do admit that state-sponsored covert operations were less, well, overt, for a couple of decades. But not because law enforcement was giving them a break. Rather, they point to a recent resurgence of popular political activity around such hot topics as police brutality, the death penalty, and the global economy as the catalyst for a reciprocally invigorated law enforcement effort.
FBI assistant special agent Thomas J. Harrington, who oversees the Philadelphia security effort, recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “After the Atlanta Olympics, it was bombings that were the main focus. . . . Now protesters have become more of a focus.”
Activists are aiming to show law enforcement that its preemptive maneuvers will not squelch the recent surge in protest enthusiasm. A slew of First Amendment lawsuits—many of which came out of the D.C. World Bank protests—is one way to hold the line on police violations, according to Gage. But activists say the real victory for political expression will come when demonstrators fill the streets.
Activist groups are advising would-be convention protesters to be attuned to possible surveillance and ignore the bait of planted agitators if they want to stay out of jail until protest day. The National Lawyers Guild says no one is required to answer FBI inquiries without legal representation or unless subpoenaed. Above all, protest coordinators urge, lone demonstrators should join an organized group in advance and attend trainings on how to deal with police.
For activists who are spooked or discouraged by police monitoring, Torres says, it is helpful to view law enforcement activity as a sign that “the other side takes you very seriously.”
Indeed, Churchill argues, activists cannot overestimate the seriousness of law enforcement’s surveillance activities. “You can only be paranoid if you have an irrational fear,” he says. But to be suspicious these days is “an objective assessment of reality.”