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Terrorism and dissent: police war metaphors spell danger for democracy

Anyone who has paid any attention to the history of activism and policing in the United States knows that the FBI and local police have historically engaged in troubling, anti-democratic practices: spying on non-violent activists, beating and arresting peaceful protesters, infiltrating movements, and instigating illegal activity in order to provoke chaos or arrests.

Radical left-wing movements and justice struggles waged by people of color have long been the primary targets of this kind of state repression, though the federal government has looked at the other side on occasion. For example, DHS has recently expressed an interest in keeping an eye on right-wing radicals who call themselves Sovereign Nation activists.

The United States government has, as David Graeber observes, constructed a series of domestic wars that have been used as covers to expand police power and contract the rights of citizens and residents.

The war on poverty became the war on crime, which then became the war on drugs — and some have recently argued that the war on drugs has morphed into a war on black and brown people. September 11, 2001 birthed the war on terror, which provided an excuse for the expansion of US militarism and policing to the entire globe, leading to a rapid contraction of rights and expansion of state power, finally culminating in the Obama administration's decision to extrajudicially murder a US citizen in Yemen. The once firm barrier between democracy and totalitarianism has become a fragile line in the sand. 

As Graeber argues, all of the above wars are united by the inevitability of their "forever" quality; in other words, these are wars that, by definition, cannot be won. Wars against ideologies or thematic problems break down once we begin to ask for comprehensible understandings of what it means to be "a nation at war." As Graeber puts it: "States have a strong tendency to define their relation to their people in terms of an unwinnable war of some sort or another."

That's for good reason: it allows a never-ending war on dissent.

So what about the war on dissent? Unlike the wars cited above, this war has never been and likely will never be declared. It's a mistake to see the wars as separate, however, because all of the declared police wars (on poverty, crime, drugs, terror) have had the effect of doubling down on the war on dissent. The passage of the USA Patriot Act and subsequent contractions of basic rights in the United States go a long way to explain how the wars bleed into one another's territory. But the clearest indication of a blurring of the lines comes when we see the direct conflation of terrorism with dissent.

That connection couldn't be more clear in the minds of law enforcement in Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland, New York City, and elsewhere. 

Dissent as terrorism

Many police and FBI documents obfuscate the way connections are made between dissent and terrorism, but despite frequent protestations to the contrary, there is ample evidence to show that the categories are substantially blurred in the minds of police nationwide.

Here's a very brief survey of activist activity that police or FBI have classified as having a nexus to terrorism, when that connection is patently absurd and completely fabricated:

  • The animal rights and environmental movements have been primary targets of FBI and police "anti-terrorism" surveillance and prosecutions. Even decidedly mainstream organizations like the Green Party, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Humane Society have been targets of FBI surveillance or investigation due to their supposed connections to "eco-terrorism" groups.
  • The Maryland State Police spied on more than 30 activist groups, mostly peace groups and anti-death penalty advocates, and wrongly identified 53 individual activists and about two dozen organizations as terrorists. The Maryland State Police shared information about these cases with the Baltimore City Police Department, the Baltimore County Police Department, the Anne Arundel County Police Department, the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, a local police representative of the FBI's JTTF, a National Security Agency security official, an unnamed military intelligence officer, and DHS. DHS further disseminated e-mails from one of the peace groups.
  • FBI counterterrorism agents stalked Austin activist Scott Crow for years, following him around, watching him via surveillance cameras they installed on his street, tasking confidential informants to rat on him, digging into his tax history, infiltrating political meetings he attended, subpoenaing his personal information from banks, and more. It should go without saying that Crow is not a terrorist; he is, on the other hand, an anarchist — a group that has been FBI domestic Enemy Number One for as long as the federal police have existed.
  • A three-year long investigation into "eco-terrorists" in Portland, Oregon devolved into spying on anyone left of center who bothered to go to a demonstration, including people the FBI called "militant feminists." (Femiterrorists?) Read John Cook at Gawker for more on this story: "Seizing Thunder".

These are just a few of literally hundreds of examples — and these are only the cases we know about. Given that surveillance is by nature secret, these cases likely show just the very tip of a deep, old, chilling iceberg with overtones of COINTELPRO. 

The war on Occupy

Lawmakers nationwide are bracing for a coming "American Spring" by attempting to pass anti-speech or assembly laws — click here for a great summary of these efforts. But that's not all the government has done to interfere with occupy.

Movement participants and observers have since the very beginning of the national outpouring of dissent wondered aloud about the level of police infiltration, spying and disruption of occupy activists and camps. The question was never "if", but rather "who," "how," "where" and "when."

Slowly, details about police and federal agency spying on the occupy movement are beginning to leak to the public. What we are finding shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the government's historical response to dissent; it should, however, make us angry and inspired to change "business as usual" in the war on dissent.

Rolling Stone quotes at length a DHS "situational awareness" document distributed to law enforcement nationwide (the document was discovered among the 5 million emails leaked from the "private CIA," STRATFOR):

The growing support for the OWS movement has expanded the protests’ impact and increased the potential for violence. While the peaceful nature of the protests has served so far to mitigate their impact, larger numbers and support from groups such as Anonymous substantially increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure (CI). The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters. As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests. Due to the location of the protests in major metropolitan areas, heightened and continuous situational awareness for security personnel across all CI sectors is encouraged.

Sorry, DHS: how exactly does growing support for the movement increase the potential for violence? And why do you see the role of the police to "control protesters"? When DHS was formed in the early years after 9/11, President Bush told us the agency would "develop all-hazards plans and capabilities, including those of greatest importance to the security of the United States homeland, such as the prevention of terrorist attacks and preparedness for the potential use of weapons of mass destruction, and ensure that state, local, and federal plans are compatible."

What does that mission have to do with interfering with or monitoring a non-violent economic and social justice movement? Anyone?

Back in October 2011, we posted a list of links elaborating the beginnings of an unraveling of police surveillance of and operations against occupy camps. Since then, camps and activists across the country have faced serious repression at the hands of police. A group that has been tallying statistics nationwide finds that as of March 12, 2012, police had made nearly 7,000 arrests of occupy participants in 112 cities. It shouldn't come as a big surprise to hear that there is no evidence that any occupy demonstrator has been charged with terrorism or convicted of serious crimes.

But nonetheless, police have responded to the movement with serious violence and repression. Occupy Oakland and Occupy Denver, among movements in other cities, have faced severe police repression. Police in Oakland have seriously injured a number of non-violent demonstrators; in the worst case, an Iraq war veteran protester suffered brain damage after police fired a tear gas cannister at his head from close range. 

These actions speak to a warlike dynamic between police and protesters. But since the protesters have been entirely non-violent, the war is totally asymmetrical. Do protesters consider themselves combatants? Perhaps some do, but likely most don't. Do police consider themselves soldiers? Increasingly, the answer appears to be 'yes'.

The militarization of the police

Mayor Bloomberg famously quipped that the NYPD is his "private army."

New York police officers have reportedly been using military "snatch and grab" tactics to rip people out of crowds at demonstrations. The NYPD's intimidation of the press carries war-zone overtones. A document reportedly passed around to NYPD officers on duty at Liberty Plaza told them to dress sharp: "A strong military appearance…is a force multiplier and a psychological advantage to us." 

The NYPD is a particularly gross example of the problem, but NYC is hardly unique with respect to the militarization of local police. A central problem, again illustrating the blending of the many domestic and foreign "forever wars" the US is waging, is the way in which federal funds have been showered upon state and local law enforcement for surveillance and military grade technologies. Federal monies often translates into a loss of local control over PDs. 

But there's also a psychological shift occurring among police departments and in police training — a shift that has profound consequences for dissent in the US in the 21st century. As federal law enforcement attempts to integrate state and local police into its "all hazards," anti-terrorism approach, local police are receiving conflicting messages about the role they play in terms of public safety.

Are they responsive to the local communities they operate in, to serve and protect the people? Or are they security agents, responsible for feeding intelligence information on those very community members to the federal government, ever vigilant that the "enemy within" could suddenly turn violent?

Let's go back to Graeber for a moment, because he illustrates a key tension in modern policing. This tension exacerbates the larger problem of defining policing in the 21st century between the competing aims of public safety and "national security":

It might be helpful here to reflect on the nature of the violence—”force”, if you like—that police represent. A former LAPD officer writing about the Rodney King case pointed out that in most of the occasions in which a citizen is severely beaten by police, it turns out that the victim was actually innocent of any crime. “Cops don’t beat up burglars”, he observed. If you want to cause a policeman to be violent, the surest way is to challenge their right to define the situation. This is not something a burglar is likely to do. This of course makes perfect sense if we remember that police are, essentially, bureaucrats with guns. Bureaucratic procedures are all about questions of definition. Or, to be more precise, they are about the imposition of a narrow range of pre-established schema to a social reality that is, usually, infinitely more complex: a crowd can be either orderly or disorderly; a citizen can be white, black, Hispanic, or an Asian/ Pacific Islander; a petitioner is or is not in possession of a valid photo ID. Such simplistic rubrics can only be maintained in the absence of dialogue; hence, the quintessential form of bureaucratic violence is the wielding of the truncheon when somebody “talks back.”

Could it be that the antagonistic relationship that has developed between the occupy movement and the police is a result of the movement's willingness to "talk back" in the face of police repression or state demands on the limits of speech? What does this mean in the context of the many "wars" the police are now tasked to fight on the streets of our cities nationwide? Given that police are much more restricted than combat soldiers in terms of their formal rules of engagement, what can we expect of these individual officers when they are tasked to fight in domestic wars?

In order to answer these vital questions, we as a nation and as a people must have a conversation about the role of the police in modern society. Do we want police to have expanded powers to spy on us and restrict our speech rights? Do we want the police to consider themselves soldiers in a war on drugs, on terrorism or on dissent? Or do we want police to serve local communities in the interest of public safety, with an emphasis on community policing instead of "predictive" policing?

These questions couldn't be more significant for the future of democratic governance in the United States. We'd better get moving if we want to reverse the trends towards militarization, federalization and securitization of local police.

After all, no police chief will willingly hand over her automatic license plate recognition technology or military grade weapons once she has them. Similarly, no police association or group of prosecutors will easily give up the substantially augmented surveillance and investigatory powers they have obtained at the expense of liberty since 9/11.

That'll be up to us. The ACLU of Massachusetts is soon embarking on a long term project to investigate, critique and fight against the loss of local control over police departments. 

It's a giant problem and it'll take a lot of work.

Want to help out? Join us, or get in touch. After all, nothing less than democracy is at stake.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.