Activists unite over FBI raids
Peace and solidarity activists gathered outside the federal building in downtown Los Angeles yesterday to speak out against a series of recent FBI raids on peace activists in the Midwest. The Bureau says the raids are part of a terrorism investigation, but protesters argue it is an attempt to suppress free speech and political dissent.
On Sept. 24, the FBI searched eight homes belonging to anti-war activists – six in Minneapolis and two in Chicago – looking for connections to terrorist groups in Columbia and the Middle East. Computers, cell phones, documents and such were seized by agents.
The activists targeted by the FBI have been involved in the peace movement for many years, as well as solidarity movements with the people of Columbia and Palestine. Many were involved in protesting the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Just two days prior to the raids, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, National Counterterrorism Center Chief Michael E. Leiter and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III stated in written testimony that “homegrown terrorism” is a new and evolving threat to the United States.
“Homegrown extremists are increasingly more savvy, harder to detect, and able to connect with other extremists overseas,” said Mueller, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The Internet has expanded as a platform for spreading extremist propaganda, a tool for online recruiting, and a medium for social networking with like-minded violent extremists, all of which may be contributing to the pronounced state of radicalization inside the United States.”
Whether Mueller had activists in mind when he said that is debatable, but the recent FBI shakedown comes on the heels of a Justice Department Inspector General investigation that found between 2001 and 2006, the Bureau had improperly spied on several activist groups and persons. In one instance, Greenpeace members were put on a terrorism watch list after their nonviolent acts of civil disobedience were erroneously labeled by the Bureau as “Acts of Terrorism.”
A recent report published by the National Lawyers Guild called “The Policing of Political Speech,” criticized the use of language like “domestic terrorist” when it comes to activists. According to the report, implementing such nomenclature provides an impetus for law enforcement to engage in oppressive tactics, like “issuing subpoenas, conducting surreptitious surveillance, or intimidating activists and pressuring them into informing on others.”
“As has been widely documented,” states the report, “the term ‘terrorism’ is defined so broadly in the [PATRIOT] Act that anyone who engages in traditional forms of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience may fall prey to its chilling embrace.”
Yesterday’s press conference and rally was part of a much larger two-day action that included cities across the nation. Members of several organizations expressed solidarity with their fellow activists, not just in the Midwest, but around the country.
“This is something that has united us,” said Carlos Montes of the Southern California Immigration Coalition. “We are all united on one thing: we will not tolerate FBI repression.”
Many speakers spoke within the context of U.S. history, a past that often sees activists at the wrong end of law enforcement. In many speeches, documented government oppression of political movements, such as COINTELPRO and assassinations of political leaders, were mentioned.
“It’s ironic that the Justice Department, the group that is supposed to protect us from terrorism,” said John Parker of the International Action Center, “is actually the organization that is terrorizing everyone here in this country.”
Many of the activists who were raided by the FBI were also subpoenaed to appear before federal grand juries next month. Grand juries are used to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to warrant a trial. This differs from pre-trials, where a judge decides whether or not a case should be tried.
Speakers and attendees at yesterday’s event are demanding an end to the proceedings.
Grand juries, it is argued, have often been used by the government to gather information on political dissenters. According to the National Lawyers Guild report, 1970 – 1973 was the grand jury heyday where “over 100 grand juries in 84 cities subpoenaed over 1,000 activists” associated with the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Because a person can be jailed for not testifying before a grand jury, the Guild argues it is a method of “coercive detention” used to punish people who exercise their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The Guild report cites the case of Carrie Feldman, 20, who refused to testify before a grand jury.
“[She] sat in jail for four months,” according to the report, “refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigation seeking information about a break-in at an animal testing facility that occurred when she was 15 years old and that she has stated she was not involved in.”
Standing in front of the federal building was Marc Rich, a longtime activist who has had his own encounters with the Bureau.
“The FBI tried to get me fired from my job in 1972 because I was a socialist and anti-war activist,” he said. “And by the way, I’ve haven’t done anything more illegal than speeding in my car.”
Rich said agents had gone to his place of employment to try and discredit him. It is something he describes as a “political attack.”
He said he is not surprised by the recent raids.
“It may be a sign that the more repressive parts of the government are feeling emboldened,” he said, “because of the tea party and lack of response from the labor community.”
Speaking on behalf of the Students for a Democratic Society, Eric Gardner talked about his fellow activists who were caught up in the raids.
“Three members of SDS were approached by the FBI on Friday,” said Gardner. “One member had her home broken into, had her things … confiscated. She can’t access her bank account. And all of them have been approached, have been intimidated. There are threats by agents to talk to their friends and relatives, to do whatever they can to ruin their lives.”
According to a press release issued by activists targeted in the raids, the FBI has also “attempted to intimidate activists in California and North Carolina.”
“This is a U.S. government attempt to silence those who support resistance to oppression in the Middle East and Latin America,” stated the press release.
Michael Prysner, an organizer for the ANSWER Coalition, said that such attacks from the FBI were “nothing new” and even “part of the job” as an activist who stands “against the crimes of the U.S. government.”
“We are here today,” he said, “not by ourselves, but with people all over the country who are organizing, who are standing up, who say we condemn these raids. We condemn this stifling of free speech. We condemn this illegal monitoring of people who have done nothing wrong, except say that people in Iraq and Afghanistan shouldn’t be bombed and killed.”