Conflating Protests with Terrorism
Police Departments Across the Country are Spying and Compiling Dossiers on Political Activists
by Bill Berkowitz
You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that [protest]. You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act."
-- Mike Van Winkle, spokesperson, the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC)
Under the guise of President Bush's all-consuming, yet amorphous, war against terrorism, police agencies across the country are spying and compiling dossiers on citizens exercising their constitutional rights. The Bush administration -- all war against terrorism, all the time -- has consistently supported policies and legislation allowing for the collection and cataloguing of data on the political, religious, or social views of individuals and organizations regardless of whether they present any imminent threat to the nation's safety. The administration has also spent obscene amounts of money to spy on its citizens while money for education and social services is drying up.
"Right now... the FBI and other federal agencies do not have 'to show reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause,'” Village Voice columnist and longtime civil libertarian Nat Hentoff recently wrote. “They merely have to make 'the broad assertion that the request is related to an ongoing terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation.'"
In early April, equating political protest with terrorism caused the most violent incident involving police and anti-war protesters since the US launched its invasion of Iraq. On the morning of April 7, acting on warnings from the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC), the Oakland, California police department indiscriminately fired wooden slugs at and injured several non-violent anti-war protesters -- and several non-protesting Port workers as well -- at the Port of Oakland. According to a report in the Oakland Tribune, "Days before... Oakland police were warned of potential violence at the Port... by California's anti-terrorism intelligence center, which admits blurring the line between terrorism and political dissent."
A recent compendium of definitions compiled by the Tri-Valley Herald -- headlined "Terrorism is in the eye of the beholder" -- pointed out that government agencies have different takes on what constitutes terrorism and who might be considered terrorists. Here are a few:
* "Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.'' -- FBI
* "Terrorism means any activity that involves an act that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive to critical infrastructure or key resources; and is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state or other subdivision of the United States; and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.'' -- Homeland Security Act, Nov. 19, 2002.
* "Domestic terrorism means activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.'' USA PATRIOT Act, Oct. 25, 2001.
* "Terrorist Threat: A person commits an offense if he threatens to commit any offense involving violence to any person or property with intent to: cause a reaction of any type to his threat by an official or volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies; place any person in fear of imminent bodily injury; or prevent or interrupt the occupation or use of a building, room, place of assembly, place to which the public has access, place of employment or occupation, aircraft, automobile, or other form of conveyance, or other public place; or cause impairment or interruption of public communications, public transportation, public water, gas or power supply or other public service.'' Texas Penal Code.
* "Terrorism is the threat to carry out any act that would be a violation of criminal law in California for the purpose of intimidating or coercing a civilian population, its government or any of its subdivisions; retaliating against or influencing the policy of the government; or carrying out any other activities which reasonably place the residents of this state in fear for their future health, safety or welfare.'' -- California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC), Sept. 25, 2001.
"You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that [protest]," CATIC spokesperson Mike Van Winkle said. "You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act." Information provided by CATIC spurred Oakland police fire those wooden slugs at anti-war protesters in early April.
CATIC, which receives $6.7 million a year in state funds, was "touted as a national model for intelligence sharing and a centerpiece of Gov. Gray Davis and Attorney General Bill Lockyer's 2002 reelection bids," reports the Oakland Tribune. It "has quietly gathered and analyzed information on activists of various stripes almost since its creation."
In Atlanta, the city's police department "routinely places under surveillance anti-war protesters and others exercising their free-speech rights to demonstrate," reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "This use of police resources is highly questionable and can very much have a chilling effect on people's sense that they can exercise their constitutional rights without appearing in somebody's database," state Rep. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta), the House majority whip, told the newspaper. "This harkens back to some very dark times in our nation's history."
These ramped up police activities since 9/11 are not unique to Oakland or Atlanta: According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "the Los Angeles Police Department... is authorized to keep files on anti-war protesters it deems capable of 'a significant disruption of the public order.' Miami police videotape demonstrators and infiltrate rallies with plainclothes officers, said Detective Joey Giordano with the Miami-Dade Police Department. Most of the surveillance, he said, is targeted at Haitian and Cuban immigrants protesting federal policies."
Legitimate concerns about a potential terrorist attack in the US cannot be allowed to morph into open season for eviscerating the civil liberties of peaceful citizens exercising their first amendment rights. Sharper and more focused standards are needed to prevent local police departments from running amuck. As Geov Parrish reported earlier this week, "the Global Intelligence Working Group (GIWG), a committee charged with advising Congress on intelligence sharing, presented a first draft of a plan to create a uniform set of intelligence standards that would cover all types and levels of U.S. law enforcement." Final recommendations are supposed to be issued in October.
If the erosion of civil liberties doesn't freak you out and/or piss you off, consider this: In this age of humongous state deficits and massive budget cuts to social programs, police departments across the country are not only acting like J. Edgar Hoover-like spies, they are spending ungodly amounts of taxpayer money in the process.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.