A Writers' Workshop graduate would have a hard time writing a story more Orwellian than this: A few dozen student and community peace organizers, known in Iowa City for their theatrical — if sometimes confrontational — direct-action street protests, become the subject of a nine-month criminal investigation by the FBI, and they were followed around for hundreds of hours by government agents as they went grocery shopping at the New Pioneer Co-op and boozing at the Deadwood and the Mill.
Unfortunately, the emergence of this troubling news raises more questions than it does answers — or even jokes.
This is what we know: In 2008, members of the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee and the Wild Rose Collective joined a national network of anarchist and peace groups who planned to, at least rhetorically, "shut down" the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., by clogging the streets with nonviolent "mobile blockade brigades."
The horizontal and decentralized organizing was done above ground and in the open, the basic strategy was widely disseminated on the Internet, the logistical support and protest infrastructure was coordinated by an anarchist group from the Twin Cities, and the tactical details were left to local groups to figure out.
The FBI, always quick to label nonviolent civil disobedience a domestic terrorist threat, infiltrated our organizations with an undercover paid informant. According to an analysis of more than 300 pages of FBI documents recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, we also now know that the government surveillance went far beyond the use of a sole, solitary informant.
It also included hundreds of hours of in-person surveillance by FBI special agents, the Iowa City and Coralville police, and the UI police. Government agents tapped cell phones, staked out organizers' homes and places of employment, went through discarded trash, secretly recorded public meetings, and disseminated the information gathered to law-enforcement agencies across the Midwest.
No arrests were ever made, and on Sept. 1, 2008, more than 25 people from Iowa City traveled to St. Paul and did exactly what we said we were going to do. We were joined by more than 10,000 people — including at least 1,000 who joined the nonviolent mobile blockade brigades and risked physical assaults by thousands of riot police equipped with beanbag shotguns, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray. A small group of protesters unaffiliated with the Iowa City organizers formed a "black bloc" and smashed a few windows at storefront businesses, designed to symbolize the destruction corporate capitalism has wreaked around the world.
Questions abound about the government surveillance. Are the First and Fourth Amendments worth the paper they are printed on? Could scarce societal resources have been better spent to fulfill unmet social needs? Do undercover government surveillance and riot-gear technology actually prevent crimes? What role do police provocateurs play in the ensnarement and entrapment of innocent people?
Do law-enforcement officers truly understand anarchist youth culture? Do the feds really consider small-scale peace and justice organizations to be a legitimate threat to national security? Or is all this just a convenient excuse to justify expanding the powers of the state and increase corporate profits?
The biggest unanswered question is, what role did local police play in this Orwellian saga? The public deserves to know, preferably before Iowa City acquires all its fancy new riot gear.