In a front page article in the Grand Rapids Press, Harry Dolan, Chief of the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD), admitted to sending undercover officers to infiltrate meetings of groups opposed to the invasion of Iraq as part of a campaign of surveillance of the antiwar movement beginning with the protest against George W. Bush on January 29, 2003. The Press article built on previous reports of police surveillance including an article published on the Michigan Independent Media Center by Media Mouse in March of 2003 and an article on the internet news magazine salon.com in February of 2004.
Given the history of state-sponsored surveillance and disruption of popular movements for social change in the United States, specifically the FBI’s COINTELPRO during the 1960s and 1970s, it is not surprising that the state would engage in surveillance of the antiwar movement on some level. However, it is surprising that the GRPD would expend money and resources on a movement that has a history of using rallies, educational efforts, and a few symbolic acts of civil disobedience to show opposition to the war–nothing that could be perceived as a threat and certainly nothing like the property destruction Dolan cites during the Seattle WTO protests in 1999.
In the GR Press article, Dolan claims that the infiltration began after he received reports that activists were planning to block Michigan Avenue. However, the action proposal he is referring to was only mentioned at the first meeting the GRPD sent an undercover officer to and therefore could not have provided the basis for infiltration. The GRPD has admitted to using undercover officers, monitoring internet sites, and videotaping people attending antiwar rallies.
Many questions remain about the GRPD’s surveillance of antiwar protestors in Grand Rapids–who ordered it, how much inter-agency cooperation was there, was it terminated, and most importantly, what was done with the video and other information gathered during surveillance.
It is also worth noting that surveillance of antiwar protestors in Grand Rapids did not occur in a vaccuum and was only one of many cities where this occurred. Moreover, the state is not limiting itself to surveillance, rather it is increasingly moving towards the criminalization of dissent. Protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in November of 2003 in the city of Miami epitomize this new criminalization–there was an intense media campaign to equate all protestors with criminals (and in many cases, terrorists), people were arrested and harassed for simply looking like “activists” in the weeks leading up to the protests, and once the protests began, they were suppressed with extensive force. This new approach has been described as “the Miami Model” and may be indicative of how future protests will be handled.