Spying Worried Groups
Protesters often wondered about surveillance of gatherings
BALTIMORE - Max Obuszewski is a graying veteran of war protests. In his life, he estimated yesterday, he's been arrested about 70 times for struggling to make a point about critical issues, including the Vietnam War, homelessness in Baltimore and the war in Iraq.
He also is one who knows history - and he believes in the potential for an unchecked government to spy on people, particularly during times of war. He and others in a local, loose-knit network of peace activists and advocates had often wondered if their open gatherings had been infiltrated by law enforcement.
Documents that he and others obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act erased any doubt, the activists declared yesterday.
Over a 14-month period, the Maryland State Police had been "covertly monitoring" a group of peaceful anti-death penalty advocates, according to the documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state to gain access to files that documented the tracking of death penalty opponents and others.
Obuszewski is a fixture in a group of middle-aged men and women who have spent all or part of their lives passionately protesting issues and defending their right to organize peacefully without the fear of being spied upon by the government. They look more likely to frequent Baltimore's farmers' markets than behave as fanatical plotters of terrorist acts.
They don't refer to their efforts as "civil disobedience."
Rather, Obuszewski and others describe what they do as "civil resistance" - active protesting that provokes a response. Many knew and worked with Philip Berrigan, a well-known Baltimore peace activist who was one of the "Catonsville Nine" - a group of protesters who were arrested for burning the draft cards of hundreds of Vietnam War draftees in 1968.
Obuszewski was among a group of five people who were arrested three years ago for protesting the Iraq war at the National Security Agency. Some of the people involved in war protesting in Maryland are also connected to the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group; the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty; and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans - a convicted killer who was on death row at the time of the surveillance.
Terry Fitzgerald, a member of the Coalition to End the Death Penalty, is a 59-year-old physician who treats drug addiction. He said he's been protesting in Baltimore against the death penalty for the past decade. He grew up in Nebraska, where he protested with farmers in the 1960s, and later protested against the Vietnam War. He's been arrested about 10 times, he said.
Ellen Barfield, 52, was one of several people arrested in a protest at the National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade in 2004, which was also monitored by local law enforcement agencies. She said she now wonders about whom she bumps into at protests.
"It makes you go, 'Wow, who was that standing next to me?'"
Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun