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Sunday, July 27, 2008

America's Police State: Did Ya Ever Get the Feeling You Was Being Watched?

America's Police State: Did Ya Ever Get the Feeling You Was Being Watched?
Image © Austin Cline
Click for full-sized Image

If you belong to any sort of organization which exists to challenge government power to engage in any sort of violence — be it war, the death penalty, or any related matter — you need to seriously consider the possibility that some government agency has worked to monitor and even infiltrate the group. You may not think that your group is large enough to attract such attention, but if you have held public protests that's probably been enough when it comes to people who don't like having their power challenged.

It doesn't matter if you have ever engaged in or even just advocated violence or not. It doesn't seem to matter if your group is explicitly pacifist in nature. The Homeland Security and Intelligence Division of the Maryland state police have, according to documents uncovered by the ACLU, used covert agents to monitor and even infiltrate the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group with no ties to violent actions of any sort. They also monitored and infiltrated anti-death penalty groups, never known for violent actions or rhetoric.

All that seems to matter is whether someone in some government agency can claim to have "probable cause" to investigate the group, and it's never been hard for police agencies to justify such a low standard when they are challenged. Tips from anonymous witnesses, no matter how little credibility they have, have been used by anti-drug units to charge into homes and even kill completely innocent people — with little or no repercussion to the police themselves. There's no reason to think that similar "evidence" will not be enough for government officials who want to infiltrate peace and anti-death penalty groups.

It might be the federal government, a state government, or even a city government that is monitoring you — given the degree to which agencies at all levels share information, does it really matter? Like peace activist Max Obuszewski, you too might end up in a criminal database used to fight real crime like drug trafficking and terrorism. How many people are currently on terrorist watch lists simply because they had the gall to criticize or question the government and George W. Bush's War on Liberty Terrorism? We may never know unless a future government decides to come clean and open up the books...and frankly, I doubt that a President Obama would do so.

State police Secretary Col. Terrence B. Sheridan insists that there will be no further surveillance of peaceful organizations under his command. So, there is no reason to hold any sort of inquiry or investigation into what exactly happened, why, how, or who is responsible. No reason at all for the people to learn who was spied upon, when, and why. Nothing to see here, just move along. You can trust your government to do the right thing this time around, really.

There are so many ways in which state surveillance of social, political, and activists groups is wrong but no ways in which it is right. The only thing worse than this sort of behavior from the government may be the lack of general outcry from public at large. There is no constituency which benefits from government surveillance of peaceful political activists, except maybe police unions (not that there aren't plenty of police who oppose this as well), but every segment of the population which engages in political or social activism of any sort has a strong interest in preventing such behavior.

Catholic and Muslim, pro-life and pro-choice, gun control and gun rights, environmentalists and libertarians, liberals and conservatives are all people who disagree on many fundamental issues, but they all stand to lose if the government can monitor and infiltrate them at will. This should be as important to them as any of the causes they normally take up, which means that they should be able to muster enough interest to create at least a moderately sized demonstration group.

Together, the size of the demonstration should be big enough to outstrip anything seen in Maryland before, and this would send a message to the government: the people are the ones with the power and they aren't the ones who should be afraid of government surveillance. I haven't seen any indication that any of them are doing anything, though, have you? Shouldn't the mailing lists be swarming with messages about this? Shouldn't the telephone lines be burning with calls from angry voters who object to arrogant government surveillance? Shouldn't the op-ed pages of every paper be filled with denunciations of attempts to create a police state?

How can these groups really claim to care about their pet causes if they care so little about the government having the power to monitor them, infiltrate them, and even place peaceful leaders on terrorist watch lists for no good reason? A primary goal of every activist group must be the protection of their right to engage in peaceful activism, free from government monitoring, infiltration, pressure, or influence. If they cannot be free from the government, then they cannot be free to work towards any other goals in the manner that they want.

This image is based on a Soviet propaganda poster warning people about the (Nazi) wolf in sheep's clothing.

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