On January 25, 2011, people gathered in cities across America to demonstrate against the ongoing harassment of peace organizations and individual activists by law enforcement agencies. In particular, these “solidarity actions” were focused on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who had served subpoenas and raided the homes of people involved in anti-war and international solidarity work in Minneapolis and Chicago in late September 2010. From Boston to Los Angeles, activists rallied at federal buildings, collected petition signatures, distributed pamphlets, and peacefully demonstrated on street corners as part of the “National Day of Action to Stop FBI Repression and Grand Jury Witch Hunts.”
In Chicago, over 350 people assembled in front of the Dirksen Federal Building to protest U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s decision to subpoena 23 antiwar activists and order them to appear in front of a grand jury. In Minneapolis, more than 100 people swarmed the sidewalk at the downtown Federal Building, waving signs that read "Opposing war is not a crime" and "Hands off free speech," denouncing the infiltration of their groups with undercover agents, and stating that they will not cooperate with the grand juries even if it means going to jail. Actions large and small were held in over 50 cities across the nation in a show of solidarity for peace activism and against official harassment.
Perhaps the most curious – and potentially revealing – episode among these many actions played out in Memphis, Tennessee. In a bizarre twist, the small group that had assembled there on January 25th was visited by the FBI and local law enforcement, ostensibly to warn them about their own event and stating that they were there for the activists’ own safety. A local media outlet reported on the episode:
“When a police SWAT team and an FBI anti-terrorism squad showed up Tuesday at a Memphis church where peace activists were staging an event, a scene reminiscent of the turbulent 1960s ensued. The activists, members of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center who oppose the war in Afghanistan, characterized the encounter as police intimidation and a case of illegal surveillance. FBI and Memphis Police Department representatives countered it was all a misunderstanding. They said they were there to protect the activists from potential harm by extremists who might oppose their views.”
Interestingly, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center (MSPJC) had planned no public demonstration as part of its activities that day, but were merely holding a small meeting of about a dozen people to fill out forms under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to investigate the extent to which activists in their community may have been under surveillance, infiltration, or other forms of potential intimidation. The media release sent out by the MSPJC stated that the event was being held to “demand an end to FBI harassment of peace, anti-war and solidarity activists.” In response, according to the MSPJC’s Director, it appears that the agents and officers were in fact sent to the event to monitor and intimidate the group. As reported by local television station WREG:
“Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin says officers routinely patrol demonstrations. He says this time officers stayed, even though they weren't supposed to sit on the scene. Godwin blames the confusion on miscommunication, and he stresses the MPD is in no way monitoring the activities of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. Jacob Flowers has his doubts about the intentions of both the FBI and the MPD. He says he's been the director of the center for six years, has held several protests and marches, but has never seen the type of law enforcement presence he saw Tuesday. ‘We have never had the MPD TACT squad follow us along, so we find it to be a coincidence that on the night people were here filling out forms to ask for their files to be released by the MPD and the FBI, they choose to send an entire tactical squad to sit on us.’”
MSPJC’s Organizing Coordinator Brad Watkins told the local ABC News affiliate that “it’s a clear intimidation tactic. If they want to protect us and there was a threat against us, then wouldn’t a smart thing [to] do [be] to let us know from whom or if there was a threat against us? We had no communication from MPD, they just showed up and surrounded the church.” Watkins added that the scene (which was captured in a short online video) involved “a total ridiculous amount of law enforcement presence claiming that they are here for our protection -- but to protect us from who?” A subsequent blog entry noted that Watkins had posted in real-time on Facebook: “Just had a visit from the FBI … they claimed that they wanted to alert me that some Anti-war activists were planning something around my building.... I paused and tried not to laugh. When I said, ‘Uh, yes sir, these are the offices of the Mid-South PEACE and Justice Center’ … they promptly left.”
While all of this was unfolding, it was later learned that sheriffs had entered at least two homes of “progressive Memphis area activists” earlier that day, “citing (but not showing) warrants for individuals” and going “room to room with guns drawn for a ‘failure to appear’ charge in traffic court.” On his blog, Watkins observed that calls came into the center about police activities of “checking warrants at the DeCleyre Co-op near the University of Memphis … and local socialist, social justice and anarchist orgs have reported harassment and warrant checks all going down today. Yet MPD claims these events are all unrelated.” While local media have generally reported the day’s events as merely a “misunderstanding,” Watkins remains adamant that “this is about intimidation and abuse of law enforcement powers.”
I recently spoke with MSPJC Director Jacob Flowers about this episode and its aftermath. He said that the FOIA meeting on January 25th was intended as part of the national day of solidarity and to explore potential spying on local peace groups, including the MSPJC, the Progressive Student Alliance, and the Socialist Party. Flowers noted that the MSPJC had been “watched before,” primarily in the 1980s during antinuclear actions and as part of crackdowns on the Sanctuary movement. Despite this history, he said, the MSPJC actually enjoys “good relations” with local authorities, and has cultivated a reputation as a diligent and peaceful organization. “I’ve been here at Mid-South for six years, during which we’ve held street corner protests, marches with hundreds of people, and more,” said Flowers, “and we’ve never had the SWAT team show up before.”
The event that day was small, he noted, with only about a dozen people sitting in a room in a church, filling out forms, and talking about the correlation between nonviolent activism and official harassment. When the FBI showed up at the MSPJC offices with badges displayed, “they told us that they were there to inform us about an antiwar protest that was to be held near our facilities,” Flowers said. Upon being told that this actually was the headquarters of the antiwar organization, one of the FBI agents stated, “I guess this is a waste of our time, then.” Prior to this visit, there had been no notification to the MSPJC of any potential security concerns surrounding their meeting. “They said they were there to protect us, and for our own safety,” said Flowers, “but there was no one there but our group of peace activists.”
The implications are not lost on seasoned activists and organizers like those at the MSPJC. “If they do this to us – people who know how to ‘raise hell’ and get a message out – what are they doing to other, more vulnerable groups and individuals to violate people’s civil rights?” Flowers asked rhetorically. The MSPJC is still awaiting a cogent response, he said, but in the meantime they are taking affirmative steps to prevent similar intrusions in the future. In addition to consulting with local civil liberties organizations, they also went ahead and filed their FOIA forms the day after the FBI “visit” to their headquarters, and have contacted the offices of the Mayor and their congressional representative in an attempt to find answers. More broadly, Flowers sees this troubling event as an opportunity “to make a wider push for community-based policing” and other alternatives to potentially repressive forms of law enforcement.
As a member of the MSPJC posted after the episode, “the progressive community in Memphis is taking this as … a challenge to unite in earnest with struggles in our city against widespread police brutality and daily police oppression. We are determined not to be intimidated.” This echoes the national call to resist harassment of peace groups and nonviolent activists, with regional organizing conferences recently announced for February 12th in Chicago and Oakland, and on February 19th in New York and Chapel Hill. Rather than capitulating to intimidation, it seems that activists are taking this as a call to peacefully confront the attempts to break their movements. And perhaps in that, justice will be served after all.