"It's not really a Big Brother state."
Bill Fisher, commander of the Philadelphia police civil affairs unit, talking about police videotaping of demonstrations
"They decided to suffocate free speech and right of assembly and block the march. They did it to stop the one picture that would have had the most impact of any in the world, that of an immense crowd in New York walking against war."
Jimmy Breslin, Newsday columnist, on the police attack on major antiwar protest on Feb. 15, 2003
In New York City, on February 15, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets against the looming war on Iraq. They came from all over, hoping to express themselves fully and freely against what they saw as a looming atrocity. They were met with police who repeatedly moved horses into crowds, used pepper spray, and arrested people for simply trying to get to the rally. Those arrested were interrogated, without lawyers present, about their political affiliations and beliefs.
The NYPD attack on the February protest marked one of the more outrageous attempts by the authorities to suppress anti-war protest. In the course of trying to get a permit for February 15, activists' lawyers learned that the NYPD had "adopted an informal policy in the fall of 2002 of denying parade permits for all protest marches in midtown Manhattan." (NY Civil Liberties Union, "Arresting Protest.")
Such measures were not limited to New York. In dozens of cities, the authorities locked students inside the schools to keep them from walking out against the war. Truant officers picked up youth when they attempted to join protests. College students were attacked with tear gas. In the most shocking attack, protesters at a permitted demonstration in Oakland, California, were fired on by police and hit repeatedly with wooden dowels, beanbags full of birdshot, and "stingballs" fired from shotguns and rifles. It was later revealed that the police had received a provocative warning about the Oakland demonstration from a state agency called the California Terrorism Intelligence Center.
When the war on Iraq broke out and protest continued, media and politicians attempted to criminalize the protesters. Fox News anchors accused protesters of "absolutely committing sedition, or treason." Some legislators in Oregon proposed a law to label certain kinds of civil disobedience as "terrorist"--a dangerous sign of where things are headed.
Welcome to the new face of police repression vs. protest and resistance.
In the late 1960s early 1970s, a network of big city "red squads" served as the power structure's front line in carrying out surveillance, infiltration, and undermining of radical and opposition groups. Through the 1970s and '80s, red squad activity was partially curtailed by a series of court actions and consent decrees. These restrictions are now being systematically removed.
In October 2002--with little national notice--new rules for police spy operations took effect in Chicago after a judge reversed a long-standing consent decree. In February 2003, a judge in New York-- agreeing with police claims of "changed circumstances" since September 11--threw out the restrictions of a similar consent decree known as the Handschu decision.
These consent decrees had put legal restrictions on police spying activity such as videotaping demonstrations, keeping records on protesters, and infiltrating groups without "probable cause" to believe a crime was being planned. These consent decrees were limited in their scope and often violated. But even these limited restrictions on police spying have become too much for the authorities in this new era. The NYPD claimed that scrapping the agreement was necessary to combat "terrorism." Then, before most people even knew the Handschu rules had been scrapped, the NYPD promptly began filling a database with information on people protesting the war on Iraq!
Other police departments are clamoring to do the same--and they are supported by John Ashcroft's Justice Department. The Justice Department's proposal for Patriot Act II calls for doing away with all the various state consent decrees that limit spying by law enforcement.
All this has been helped along by the overwhelming pro-police propaganda campaign after 9/11, including the reversing of verdicts on police brutality and racial profiling. One result is a significant increase in police murder and brutality since 9/11, as documented by the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality (see the October 22 website at www.october22.org). Another effect of the pro-police propaganda has been to give these "heroes" and "protectors" a freer hand against protesters.
Over the past decade, new surveillance technology--including almost-omnipresent videocams, retinal scanning, facial recognition, and digitized video recorders --have invaded daily life. The combination of the post-9/11 atmosphere with the new technology has created a surveillance environment that is racing past the worst scenarios of paranoid science fiction. Studies are made on how to use facial- recognition technology to identify protesters from videotape and how to further integrate the widely variegated network of private surveillance cameras with the police. Huge events like the Super Bowl have become occasions for dry runs for the use of such technology.
And actual implementation is racing ahead. In January, 14 surveillance cameras were activated in Washington, DC, so that the police could watch the entire massive antiwar march--the maiden voyage of a tactic that the police will use at every major demonstration in DC. In San Francisco, plainclothes police videotaped the large demonstrations on Oct. 26, Jan. 18, and Feb. 16. Similar surveillance has been reported at other demonstrations--from small protests in Buffalo, NY and high school students in Vermont to massive rallies in New York City.
Along with the surveillance is the use of advanced computer technology to centralize extensive information on protesters. The NYPD database is a stark example. One man arrested on February 15 told Newsday that cops asked him, "Did you come alone? Are you a student? Are you a member of a student organization? Do you come to these often?" When people called the NYPD out on this practice, the NYPD said in the future they would limit their questions to just asking people what groups they were with. In other words, they have no plans to stop filling up their database.
It has come to light that the federal Transportation Security Administration has a list of names compiled from information supplied by the FBI, CIA, and other agencies. In addition to singling out people with Arab and/or Muslim names for special searches at airports (or banning them outright from flying), the list also includes members of such groups as the Green Party, Center for Constitutional Rights, Peace Action, and other political groups. The effect of such a list today is to make flying a humiliating and potentially dangerous experience for many people--and in some cases to make travel for political activity very difficult. The potential uses of such lists in an increasingly repressive climate is even more alarming.
Today's protesters and resisters face a triple threat: revival of police spy squads; police use of new surveillance technology; and new standards allowing extremely draconian measures to repress legal demonstrations. In the name of "protecting freedom," the government and courts are ripping away bigger chunks of even the limited freedoms that do exist. The way the authorities have gone after protest--and are positioning themselves to clamp down even more fully--presents a shocking picture. And it poses a stark challenge to those who see the need to resist it.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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