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Deja Vu: Spies Versus Activists
Published on Sunday, July 9, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Deja Vu:
Spies Versus Activists
by Tom Ferrick Jr
 
Hey, man, ready for a flashback? It's a '70s moment, brought to you by unknown spies who look and act like law-enforcement officers.

Jittery over the protests planned to coincide with the Republican National Convention, some cop-like folks have begun spying on the groups. And they've been none too subtle about it.

One target is Unity 2000, which has written Police Commissioner John F. Timoney complaining about surveillance.

The group says that two guys have been photographing Unity 2000 members for weeks as they arrive at and depart from meetings at the headquarters of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in the 1200 block of Race Street, a notorious den of suffragettes.

The two guys were also spotted there by my colleague Tom Ginsberg, who reported on the surveillance in these pages on Thursday. When asked who they were and what they were doing, they declined to comment.

For the record, the police deny they are behind the spying. As a department spokeswoman huffed at reporter Gwen Shaffer in City Paper: "What makes them think the people taking pictures are police officers?"

Let me ask this: Just who might it be - Knights of Columbus?

Rizzo's spies

Excuse me if I doubt the denial.

Philly cops have a history of spying on protesters. For years, the man behind it was Police Commissioner, later Mayor, Frank L. Rizzo – the Big Snoop himself, who had cops compile dossiers on suspected enemies of the state.

The list was vast: African American activists of every stripe; kids in Maoist collectives in Powelton Village; earnest Socialist Workers peddling their papers at antiwar rallies. There was even room for Rizzo's political opponents and pesky reporters.

Like most of us, Rizzo loved to gossip. And he did it with a knowing wink, as if he had the goods tucked away in a file. Did he? You got me. A lot of times, this "intelligence" consisted of old newspaper clips and unverified rumor. Pretty cheesy stuff.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In 1976, Rizzo became convinced bad guys were going to throng to Philadelphia to disrupt the bicentennial celebration. He fulminated over terrorists. He even asked the White House to send the 82d Airborne to help quell the disorders. Wisely, it refused - though the National Guard was alerted.

No secrets, no lies

The result: He scared away everyone. Protesters, families, street vendors, marching bands. The celebration fizzled. At a time when Philadelphia could rightly stake a claim to national attention, Rizzo made it an asterisk. God bless him, I miss him.

But that was long ago.

Want to gather intelligence on the groups planning protests at the GOP National Convention today? There's no need to spy. Go to their Web pages. Unity 2000 has one. R2K. The Mumaniacs. And they are bursting with "intelligence" - names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of organizers and coordinators. (My favorite: Philadelphia-Direct Action Group has a coordinator for Puppetry/Creative). They give schedules of their protests. They list media contacts.

These are not clandestine operations. These are not secret cabals. These groups yearn for publicity. Their goal is to get face time on the tube, to counteract the happy talk inside the First Union Center.

In short, they want to exercise - hold on, I have a copy of the Constitution somewhere on my desk - "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Philly cops say they are not spying on Unity 2000? Fine. But why settle for a simple denial?

Send a patrol car out and tell those guys to disperse. If they refuse to move along, arrest them for harassment.

© 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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