Published on Thursday, July 6, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia Political Activists Under A Mysterious Gaze
Men with cameras have been seen keeping tabs on protest meetings. No one is claiming responsibility.
by Thomas Ginsberg
One man held a cigarette. The other held a camera. Together they kept constant watch on the Race Street rowhouse where activists were planning their peaceful protest for the Republican convention.
Why they were there, nobody is saying.
Four weeks before the huge GOP event, the prospect of raucous protests and civil disobedience has created mini spy dramas on the streets of Philadelphia.
Unidentified men with cameras have been seen openly watching and photographing at least five protest meetings in the past month, including one last Thursday observed by The Inquirer.
Simple, unobtrusive surveillance from a public street is not illegal or unprecedented, and, unlike undercover work in a private meeting, it does not require a court order.
Still, the men doing the surveillance have refused to identify themselves or their mission. Police officials say the men are not from the Police Department. FBI officials declined to comment.
That has left activists to come up with their own answers.
Jody Dodd, an organizer at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, whose Race Street office was watched throughout June, said she believed the city police were responsible.
"It's being done to engender fear, and I find it silly," said Dodd, whose 85-year-old peace group is helping the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, an umbrella protest group brought together for the convention. "PDAG is not a forum for property destruction. . . . They should be focusing their cloak-and-dagger games on the real wing-nuts, and they're not in our meetings."
The surveillance became so open and steady last month that the American Civil Liberties Union, at the request of the league, sent a letter to city officials reminding them that former Mayor W. Wilson Goode issued a directive in 1987 prohibiting any police surveillance or infiltration without the approval of the police chief and city's managing director.
City police have stepped up preparations for dealing with possibly disruptive protests at the Republican convention in the wake of large demonstrations in Seattle last November and Washington, D.C., in April.
Lt. Susan Slawson, a spokeswoman for Police Commissioner John F. Timoney, said city police were not behind the surveillance, which has taken place from a loading dock at the Convention Center.
"Putting somebody on the roof or in a loading dock would be violating" the 1987 directive, Slawson said.
"We are in no way violating it."
"We don't confirm or deny..."
The 1987 directive does not, however, apply to other law-enforcement agencies. Dozens of agencies are now working on security for the convention, ranging from state police, to U.S. Capitol Police, to the U.S. Secret Service, to the FBI.
An FBI spokeswoman in Philadelphia, Linda Vizi, declined to comment on the possibility of federal surveillance ahead of the convention.
"We don't confirm or deny investigations, no matter what they are," Vizi said.
None of the officials would speculate on how such photographs might be used, how the targets might be picked, and what behavior could provoke surveillance.
In recent weeks, a tip sheet distributed to Philadelphia-area security officials made clear that police consider white, middle-class youths among the most likely anti-corporate protesters.
The tip sheet, provided to The Inquirer by a security firm on condition of anonymity, says the Police Department would like to be notified if there "is a significant increase in the population of predominantly young white males and females in a particular area, especially those who dress in rag-tag clothing and dye their hair in multi-colors."
"No need for this"
In the surveillance last Thursday, two men stood for at least a half-hour inside a covered loading dock at the Convention Center directly across Race Street from the Women's International League office, where activists were holding a meeting that had been widely advertised on the Internet.
Both men were dressed in T-shirts and calmly refused to answer any questions posed by an Inquirer reporter, photographer and later by several activists.
At one point, the man with the camera, when asked whether he knew what was happening inside, answered: "I got no beef with them."
He answered other questions with silence.
The group's organizer, Dodd, reported other instances - on June 7, 12, 15 and 19 - in which she said different men were seen photographing people entering the office for protest meetings that had been advertised on the Internet.
Robert Butera, president of the Convention Center, said the center had not arranged for any surveillance of the league office and had not been informed of police using its loading dock for surveillance.
Amy Kwasnicki, an organizer for the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, which has used the league office, said some members of the protest group also had reported that people dressed too well to be street people had been rifling through trash in front of their West Philadelphia homes.
"There's no need for this," Kwasnicki said. "We're not preparing for war, but it seems like the cops are."
© 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.