In the days before the holiday break the news was filled with stories about current US government spying. Some reactions were critical, while others, like Representative Pete Hoekstra, defended the President’s decision to spy on US citizens, even without the FISA court’s approval. On December 23, the Press editorial basically supported the governments’ policy to spy on its own people, as long as the “law was followed.” The Press also framed its support of government spying with the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. While I disagree with that assertion I will not argue that point here as I am not an expert on international terrorism any more than the Press editors.
What I would like to address is the issue of the US governments’ current practice of spying on its own people. I do know something about this as my personal activities and those of some of the organizations I work with have been targeted by this state-sponsored surveillance. With the help of the local branch of the ACLU we were able to get some 400 pages of documentation on local police monitoring of our anti-war activities from early 2003 through 2004. Several of us sifted through the documents and posted what was thought to be most relevant at the local Indy media online source Mediamouse.org.
We found that from the time that Bush came to Grand Rapids in late January of 2003 through the November 2004 elections the GRPD was monitoring and in some cases infiltrating efforts to oppose the US war in Iraq. Several organizations’ web sites were monitored as well as e-mail list serves that were communicating anti-war updates and plans. In more than one of the declassified documents it states that some of protesters were planning “more violent type of demonstrations,” even though there is no evidence that anything more than meetings, marches and civil disobedience was planned. The groups that were planning “peaceful events” were also being monitored by the police as is reflected in the declassified documents. So even the groups that went out of their way to let the police know what their plans entailed, were still subjected to state-sponsored spying.
At this point one is tempted to just shake their head in disbelief or disgust over these documented instances, but that may be due to the fact that there exists a historical amnesia when it comes to US government spying on its own citizens. US government spying on its own citizens is not an anomaly, but a part of our country’s history. Nearly one hundred years ago several thousand US citizens and residents were targeted for harassment, surveillance, being thrown in jail, and in many cases even deported. In what were known as the Palmer raids many people were targeted either because they spoke out against the US entry into World War I or because they were associated with international labor groups, particularly the International Workers of the World (IWW).
Most of us are familiar with the McCarthy “Red Scare” years, but US government spying on its citizens doesn’t as easily bring to mind the round up of Japanese-Americans during WWII or the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign of the late 1950s through the 1970s. One reason for this indifference is because while the McCarthy hearings focused on White liberals, the FBI’s campaign focused on the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Puerto Rican Independence movement and the American Indian Movement. When minorities are targeted as subjects of government spying or harassment, it seems to garner less indignation, even when this COINTELPRO campaign involved the wiretapping of Dr. Martin Luther King and the assassination of Black Panther organizers like Fred Hampton. The same seems to be the case today, where the monitoring of White anti-war organizers in Grand Rapids by the police raised some eyebrows, (even a feature story by Salon.com in February of 2004), but the profiling and government monitoring of Arab, South Asian, and Muslims doesn’t seem to rally sufficient public opposition.
Back to my own case of government monitoring. The anti-war activities of the past few years are not the only time I have been subject to such spying. When the household I live in, the Koinonia House, became a sanctuary for political refugees from Central America in 1987, the authorities showed up at our door. My household was part of the Sanctuary Movement, which consisted mostly of faith-based groups who were willing give safe haven to refugees who were fleeing political violence. Within two weeks of refugees coming to live with us, federal officers were at our front door asking questions. This too was a nation-wide campaign that particularly targeted religious groups in the Southwest and the US-based solidarity group The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).
Several questions come to mind at this point. Maybe the most obvious is “how can our government do this?” Well, as I mentioned it is neither new nor surprising if you understand the difference between paper agreements (legal) and policy. We are all taught that we have certain rights, the right to free speech and the right to assemble, but these are meaningless, particularly in times of war. Spying on dissident voices is what governments do. This is exactly why I am not surprised or bothered by the recent admission of the Bush administration about spying on US citizens. What bothers me more than the spying is the amount of resources and energy expended to monitor the behavior of people like me. How much money did the GRPD spend of taxpayer money to monitor anti-war groups? How many police hours were spent trying to monitor our behavior instead of tracking down sex offenders? Let’s face it I am not a threat to the system, nor the organizations that I belong to, so why did the police spend so much time and money on us?
Last month we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., so we could reflect on the fact that King was being monitored as early as 1958. Just after the 1963 march on Washington the head of the FBI’s counter-intelligence program William Sullivan sent a memo stating:
We must mark King now, if we have not before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security….it may be unrealistic to limit our actions against King to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees.
Again, I ask you why would our government do this? Why would they spy on a man who was a firm believer in nonviolence? I would submit it was because he was a threat to power. So government monitoring seems to be the norm for when people are publicly critical of their actions. If King were alive today he would most certainly be a subject of government spying. If we are to take seriously his example in the struggle for justice we too should expect to find ourselves amongst those whom the government considers a threat.
Jeff Smith is the director of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) and has been a 21 year resident of Koinonia House. firstname.lastname@example.org