They Know When You Are Sleeping

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, January 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

They Know When You Are Sleeping


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


One of my cherished childhood memories is of my petite, polite mother closing the front door firmly on two hulking FBI agents who wanted to come in and ask her questions. "I don't have to talk to you," she informed them in a steely voice, and she didn't. Wow, Mom! I can't swear to all the details--were the agents really so big, or was I just little? and did they really wear hats and trench coats, or have I dressed them to fit the 1950s stereotype?--but I do have a distinct memory of them casually lifting the lids from our streetside garbage cans as they left and peering inside, like cooks checking the stockpot. I doubt they really expected to find secret papers tossed in with the banana peels and steak bones; they were simply making a point. After my mother died, I sent away for her FBI file, which revealed, among other more serious invasions of privacy, that every year the FBI would phone our house on a pretext to make sure we still lived there. Honestly, hadn't they noticed that the phone book has addresses too? Your government dollars at work.

But why wallow in ancient history? In the wake of September 11, spying on citizens is back in all its careless glory. Indeed, it appears it never really went away. For example, my old friend Barbara Levy Cohen and her husband, Mark Cohen, are among the many represented by an ACLU lawsuit against the Denver Police Department. The Colorado branch of the ACLU announced last March that it had learned that the DPD had conducted surveillance and maintained "criminal intelligence files" since the 1950s (!) on people engaged in constitutionally protected political activities. Soon after, Mayor Wellington Webb admitted that "the issues that have been raised by the ACLU as well as others are legitimate" and that files existed on 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations, from the Million Mom March to the "criminal extremist" American Friends Service Committee, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and NARAL.

As always seems to be the case with police files, the Denver dossiers are full of egregious misinformation and dark comedy. Barbara, a serious, mild-mannered secretary who, when not organizing around Native American and fair-trade issues, likes to read and go to the movies, is identified as having a "direct relationship" with an "outlaw biker" gang involved with "narcotics, weapons." (Not true, Barbara says, for the record.) Mark's file contains a group photograph with an arrow pointing to him--only it's not him. Margaret Taniwaki, a Japanese-American woman who spent time as a child in a World War II internment camp in California, is identified as "Caucasian" (maybe they meant to write "Asian"?); her ex-husband of twenty years has a file because she drove a car registered in his name. Sister Antonia Anthony, a 74-year-old nun who belonged to a pro-Zapatista organization called the Chiapas Coalition, was cited as supporting the overthrow of the Mexican government--which would make her more of a firebrand than the Zapatistas themselves.

But there are more serious items, too. Glenn Morris, chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado, Denver, and member of the leadership council of the Colorado American Indian Movement (AIM), had a death threat listed in his files: The police knew about it but never passed it on. …

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