The Crackdown on Dissent -- Police Are Up to Old Tricks : Disrupting and Spying on Legal Political Activities

By Scher, Abby | The Nation, February 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Crackdown on Dissent -- Police Are Up to Old Tricks : Disrupting and Spying on Legal Political Activities


Scher, Abby, The Nation


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 the DC police handle demonstrators is Rob Fish, a cheerful young man with the Student Environmental Action Coalition profiled in a recent Sierra magazine cover story on the new generation of environmentalists. If you were watching CNN during the 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 the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and the Partnership for Civil Justice against the DC police and a long list of federal agencies including the FBI. This suit--along with others in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where the 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 the FBI deployed its dirty tricks against the Central American solidarity movement during the 1980s.

Among police agencies themselves this is something of an open secret. In the spring the US Attorney's office bestowed an award on members of the Washington, DC, police department for their "unparalleled" coordination with other police agencies during the IMF protests. "The FBI provided valuable background on the individuals who were intent on committing criminal acts and were able to impart the valuable lessons learned from Seattle," the US Attorney declared.

Civil liberties lawyers say the level of repression--in the form of unwarranted searches and surveillance, unprovoked shootings and beatings, and pre-emptive mass arrests criminalizing peaceful demonstrators--violates protesters' rights of free-speech and association. "It's political profiling," said Jim Lafferty, director of the National Lawyers Guild's Los Angeles office, which is backing lawsuits coming out of the Los Angeles protests. "They target organizers. It's a new level of crackdown on dissent."

In Washington in April and at the Republican National Convention protest in Philadelphia last summer, the police rounded up hundreds of activists in pre-emptive 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 the judge they were withdrawing all fourteen misdemeanor charges against 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--that 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 the 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 the demonstrations. …

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