Activists in Washington, D.C., along with others in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit and Seattle, have filed lawsuits over recent police tactics, exposing a level of surveillance and disruption of political activities not seen since the FBI deployed its dirty tricks against the Central American solidarity movement in the '80s.
Among police agencies themselves, this is something of an open secret. Last spring, the U.S. Attorney's office bestowed an award on members of the D.C. 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 U.S. Attorney declared.
Civil-liberties lawyers say criminalizing peaceful demonstrators violates their 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 stemming from the Democratic Convention. "They target organizers. It's a new level of crackdown on dissent."
A major question posed by the lawsuits is whether the federal government trained local police to violate the rights of protesters. The FBI held seminars for local police in the protest cities on the lessons of the 1999 Seattle disorders to help them prepare for the demonstrations. It has also formed 27 "joint terrorism task forces" composed of federal, state and local law-enforcement officers, including those in Portland, aimed at suppressing what it sees as domestic terrorism on the left and on the right.
Among the police actions that worry civil libertarians:
* Police raids. In D.C., saying there was a fire threat, the police, fire department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms kicked everyone out of the convergence space, arrested the "leaders" and seized puppets and political materials.
* False stories. In D.C., police announced they had found a Molotov cocktail but later admitted it was a plastic soda bottle stuffed with rags. Similarly, the makings of "pepper spray," police admitted later, were actually peppers found in the kitchen area.
* Trumped-up charges. In Philadelphia, police arrested 70 activists on conspiracy and obstruction-of-traffic charges, prior to a demonstration, using a warrant that drew on an obscure far-right newsletter claiming that the young people were funded by communist groups and therefore dangerous. On April 15, Washington police rounded up 600 demonstrators marching against the prison-industrial complex, picking up tourists in the process, and held them on buses for 16 hours.
* List-making. The BBC reported that the FBI gave the Czech government a list of activists that it used in stopping Americans from entering for anti-IMF demonstrations in Prague in September. A journalist interviewed two such Americans, who said they had no criminal record but had been briefly held and released in Seattle during the anti-WTO protests.
The collaboration of federal and local police harks back to the height of the municipal Red Squads, renamed "intelligence units" in the postwar period. During the heyday of J. Edgar Hoover and his illegal Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, the FBI relied on these local police units for information about antiwar and other activists.
These days, the local police may not need encouragement from the feds to rein in nonviolent demonstrators. "There's a militaristic pattern to policing these days, the increasing us-vs.-them attitude," says Lafferty.
Recent legislation has all but encouraged repressive police tactics. A 1998 federal law, for example, gave federal intelligence agencies vast new powers to track suspected terrorists with "roving wiretaps" and secret court orders that allow covert tracing of phone calls and obtaining of documents.
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, meanwhile, increased the authority of the FBI to investigate donations to nonviolent political organizations deemed "terrorist" by the government. And Clinton in his last days created the post of counterintelligence czar, whose mission, The Wall Street Journal reports, includes working with corporations to maintain "economic security."
More than 50 years ago, President Truman unleashed a crackdown on the left that was carried on by his Republican successor. We may face a similar crisis today. "There's been a massive violation of civil rights and constitutional rights," says Bill Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "This decision to suspend the Constitution is one that has been made now at one event after another. The purpose is to prevent the public from hearing the message of the protesters."
Abby Scher is a sociologist and writer who has researched women's politics of the McCarthy period. A longer version of this article