IT'S QUIZ time.
The American Friends Service Committee (you know, the Quakers) and Amnesty International are best described as:
a) fine exemplars of civic virtue
b) annoying, self-righteous liberals
c) criminal extremists
If you answered c), an exciting and rewarding career in law enforcement awaits you in Denver, Colo.
It seems Denver police believe that our security is threatened by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organizations named in today's pop quiz. And to better protect and serve us, they've been snooping on members of these groups and creating files on them that are classified "criminal extremist."
Since 1999, Denver cops have produced spy files on 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations. On one occasion, they raided the offices of the Denver Justice and Peace Committee and made off with lists that contained the names of 984 people.
"It's not the department's intent to dampen either free speech or lawful political activity," a Denver police spokesperson said. "This is raw data. It is not data that implies criminal activity."
But let's be honest: What are people really supposed to think when the local police department files this "data" in a category called "criminal extremist"? (By the way, in case you're keeping score, the official Nobel Peace Prize tally in the Mile High City is this: criminal extremists, 2; Denver police, 0.)
It's worth emphasizing that Denver cops began their imitation of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI well before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It's also worth pointing out that they weren't alone.
Just before the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania state police, in cahoots with the City of Brotherly Love's finest, infiltrated a group of activists making giant papier-mache puppets for street protests. Dozens of the young puppet-makers were arrested on dubious charges that failed to hold up in court.
In a fit of Cold War nostalgia, Philly cops alleged that "communists" were helping fund the mad puppeteers--an assertion that was based on "intelligence" they had received from an obscure group called the Maldon Institute, which is funded by Pittsburgh-based billionaire and reactionary conspiracy-monger extraordinaire Richard Mellon Scaife. (In the interests of fairness, perhaps Philly police should consider turning to the Communist Party USA for the lowdown on dangerous subversives inside the Young Republicans.)
Police shenanigans such as what has gone on in Philadelphia and Denver may become even more common. That's because the Bush-Ashcroft USA Patriot Act grants law enforcement far greater freedom to do things like read our e-mail, tap our phones, and break into our homes without a warrant--or our knowledge. All of this, moreover, can be done to us despite a lack of evidence.
This vast expansion of police powers occurs as the feds are compiling multiple terrorist lists that are susceptible to the taint of political bias, especially given the leeway that authorities have in defining terrorism. According to the Patriot Act, an individual or group may be considered engaging in "the crime of domestic terrorism ifactsappear to be intended toinfluence the policy of government by intimidation" (emphasis added).
It's anybody's guess how that might be interpreted by law enforcement, but we may have already begun seeing the politicization of homeland security.
In November, a Green Party official was flagged as a security risk by an American Airlines computer at the Bangor, Maine, airport. She was detained by National Guardsmen, who prevented her from boarding her flight to Chicago to attend a Green Party conference. (Someone also canceled her hotel reservation in Chicago.)
That same month, a woman in Durham, N.C., had Secret Service agents show up at her door because they'd received reports that she had "anti-American material." Said material, the woman believes, was an anti-death penalty poster that depicted George W. Bush and included the text "We hang on your every word."
Of course, we don't know for certain why the Secret Service paid this woman a visit, or why the Green Party activist was detained. But we do know that police and federal authorities sometimes have targeted people because of their political views, and that they now have a much freer hand to harass, spy on, and possibly arrest any of us simply because of our politics.
And because we know these things, civil libertarians on both the left and right had better be ready to man the barricades.
Speaking of Amnesty International, the student chapter of that criminal-extremist group at Fredericksburg's James Monroe High School recently had a hand in springing a man from jail.
Last month, the students' adopted prisoner of conscience, Mexican Brig. Gen. Jose Gallardo, was freed largely because of letter-writing campaigns and protests organized by concerned people such as the young human-rights activists at James Monroe.
Our hometown idealists deserve hearty congratulations. They've chased away the usual cynicism and given substance to the claim made by that band of idealists from Gen. Gallardo's country, the Zapatistas, who like to remind us that "another world is possible."
Um, maybe we'd better amend those words of hope, just to be safe. How about this: "Another world is possible--as long as John Ashcroft and your local police department say it's OK."
RICK MERCIER is a copy editor and columnist for The Free Lance-Star.
Copyright 2002, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co. of Fredericksburg, Va.