Is it just us, or are these scary stories about anarchists plotting mayhem at the Republican convention starting to read like a preemptive hit? Just today the Daily News led with “Police Intelligence Warning: Anarchy Inc. Hardcore troublemakers a threat to the Republican Convention.”
This kind of coverage sets the stage for brutal treatment of even peaceful activists. At last fall’s Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami, police fed media hysteria about the ugly hordes descending on the city to justify their Rambo-like assault on union members and nonviolent demonstrators with rubber bullets and taser guns.
And during the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, police used trumped-up intelligence to preemptively arrest 70 puppeteers and to hold suspected “ringleaders” on $1 million bonds.
Now reports floated by police that anarchists might hurl nail-studded potatoes are starting to have that familiar taint.
Today’s Daily News report trumpeted “police intelligence sources” who claim that 5O of the “country’s leading anarchists” are headed this way, including a handful of “hard-core extremists with histories of violent and disruptive tactics.” Among them, the paper wrote, are former members of the Black Panthers and even a “one-time member of the Fred Hampton Unit of the People’s Army”—a group that hasn’t operated since the 1970s.
Back on August 15, the metaphorically challenged New York Post reported that protesters were planning to release live mice to frighten GOP delegates, evidently misreading a more playful call by activists for a “Mouse bloc” to barrage delegates attending Broadway shows with guerrilla theater and marching bands.
The Post followed that on August 16 with a story called “Finest Prep for Anarchy,” in which police claimed “radical” activists were holding a “war council” to strategize ways to shut down the convention by disrupting subways and blockading delegate buses or slashing their tires.
The article was illustrated with mini rap sheets of three so-called “career protesters”: pagan antiglobalization campaigner Starhawk; Lisa Fithian, one of the founders of the Direct Action Network; and Canadian anticapitalist Jaggi Singh.
Fithian, who has been working with the activists planning a day of direct action protests on August 31, called Post allegations “outright lies and distortion: There’s no ‘war council.’ No one’s been talking about anything like that,” she said of the alleged schemes to scuttle bus and subway service.
She said her group was planning “creative rather than confrontational” actions and accused the police of using the media to paint a caricature of violent protesters in order to justify a “crackdown on the protests and dissent generally.”
The Post was clearly playing to terror stereotypes by running a photo of a man it identified as Singh, who is of Indian descent, shooting a handgun on a firing range. Citing “security experts,” the paper ominously reported that Singh “is regarded by some as a key anarchist leader who has become increasingly militant,” and noted that he was jailed during the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec for possession of a catapult. Never mind that the catapult in question was used by activists to pelt stuffed animals over the fence erected to wall off trade negotiators during the summit—or that Singh was nabbed while merely standing next to the homemade contraption. (He was cleared of all charges.)
“The photo is a fake,” Singh told the Voice. “It’s not me.” The activist says he isn’t coming to New York and hasn’t been involved in planning demonstrations here.
The Post also noted that Starhawk “calls herself a witch,” and that Fithian had been arrested nearly 30 times for such scary stunts as helping blockade a bridge on behalf of “Justice for Janitors.”
And it only gets worse.
Just this Monday, the Post reported that aging radicals from the 1970s group the Weather Underground “have recently been released from prison and are in New York preparing to wreak havoc during the Republican National Convention” by “orchestrating” young militants in nefarious acts.
“These people are trained in kidnapping techniques, bombmaking, and building improvised munitions. They’re very bad people,” the newpaper quoted a “top-level source with knowledge of police plans” as saying.
(That was news to Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the NYPD’s top spokesperson, who told the Observer he knows nothing about any effort by the department to track down old Weathermen.)
The Post is not alone in its comic book portrayals. A July 12 front-page Daily News headline screamed: “Anarchy Threat to City: Cops fear hard-core lunatics plotting convention chaos.” The story trumpeted police claims that anarchists were hoping to trigger an evacuation of Madison Square Garden by coating themselves in gunpowder to decoy bomb-sniffing dogs or leaving traces of ammonium nitrate on trains bound for Penn Station.
While the News sourced the threats to “Internet using anarchists,” they turned out to be the rantings of a lone poster in a chatroom, whose outlandish schemes were immediately criticized by the activists he was chatting with, and have since been removed from the site.
Meanwhile, on Friday, The New York Times had this to say: “Anarchists Emerge as Convention’s Wild Card.” And Newsday has reported details of a 35-page police training manual that warns of activists attacking officers with nail-filled potatoes and hockey pucks. Other potential weapons include golf balls, flaming “frisbee-like devices,” and balloons filled with metal shavings, which police say activists may hurl at electrical power lines in hopes of causing a blackout (evidently ignoring the fact that there are no above-ground power lines in central Manhattan).
“It’s ludicrous. It’s the kind of stuff that gets published in Soldier of Fortune magazine,” says Eric Laursen, of the A31 Coalition. “What’s really going on is the police are trying to create a cover for decisions they make during the protest, like justifying preemptive arrests against ‘violent’ activists or confining people blocks away from the convention.”
Police Inspector Michael Coan denied any willful fear mongering and maintained the police warnings were based on “past history of protests in New York and other cities, and people we know who are coming here and have a history of multiple arrests,” as well as information culled from “open sources” including protest websites, discussion boards, and leaflets.
“If something is open source info that’s out there, we should at least be aware of it and be able to prevent it,” added Coan.
Coan declined to comment on how or why the NYPD had singled out the reported “50 leading anarchists” for scrutiny, and insisted that police officers were not “infiltrating” activist groups, as news articles have claimed. But he added: “If people are meeting in an open, public place where anyone can attend, we’ve done that.”
Whatever the source of these overblown threats and warnings, the effect may be to instill in peaceful protesters a fear of turning out for demonstrations, and in cops an animosity toward demonstrators—making confrontations on the street all the more inevitable.