On Native Ground
FREEDOM OF THOUGHT? NOT IN USE'S AMERICA
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- President Bush has many character flaws, but chief among them is his inability to accept criticism of his actions.
This willingness to ignore his critics is exemplified by the extraordinary lengths that his staff and the Secret Service go to in making sure that no dissenting opinion is either seen or heard during any of the President's public appearances.
But the Bush administration's desire to stifle dissent is going beyond herding protesters into fenced-off and distant "free speech zones" during presidential visits. They apparently view any and all opponents of President Bush as criminals at best and terrorists at worst.
Last year, the federal Homeland Security Department advised local law enforcement agencies to start viewing critics of "the war on terror" as potential terrorists and to keep an eye on anyone who, in HSD's words, "expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government."
That might explain the recent dispute in Des Moines, Iowa, where a federal judge ordered Drake University to turn over records about a Nov. 15, 2003 gathering of anti-war activists. He also issued subpoenas for four of the activists to appear before a grand jury.
Only after the investigation drew widespread condemnation from civil libertarians, peace activists and politicians did the judge back off on his request. But according to The Des Moines Register, the U.S. Attorney's office in Des Moines apparently still has the matter under investigation.
The reason for this outrageous attack on constitutionally-allowed dissent is that the feds allege that the Nov. 15 forum at Drake was allegedly used to plan an attempt to enter the fenced-off perimeter of Camp Dodge, the home of the Iowa National Guard.
The Register said the peace activists' conference and nonviolence training session - held at Drake after police and the media were notified - was called "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" and was held to oppose the deployment of the Iowa guardsmen to Iraq.
The next day, activists went to Camp Dodge, where 12 people were arrested for trespassing. None of them attempted to scale a fence. The Register said the only arrest that appeared to come close to fitting the U.S. Attorney's claims was that of Elton Davis, one of the subpoenaed activists who was charged with trespassing.
Davis's attempt to enter was more comical than criminal. He said that he simply walked up to a gate at Camp Dodge and asked to speak to a commanding officer.
"I told him I was there to establish an ongoing presence at the base," Davis told the Register. "I would like to occupy the base. I would like his help with accommodations, would like an office ... to work with the command authority to bring home people who were trapped in Iraq by a failure of foreign policy. At which point he almost fell down laughing."
The U.S. Attorney's office has a different version of events. According to the Register, it claims Davis was arrested after he "entered onto federal property and remained there after being ordered to leave" by federal officials. Davis pleaded no contest to the trespass charge and served three days in jail.
The other interesting part of this whole case is that the federal court in Des Moines was also seeking all records relating to the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. "If this was just a trespassing investigation, then why seek the records of the National Lawyers Guild?" asked Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union.
Drake law professor Sally Frank, the university's local contact for the National Lawyers Guild, was blunter in her assessment of the case. She said after the subpoenas were dropped that "what we've had here for the last week in Des Moines is an intense effort to stifle dissent."
We'll see more cases like this one in the coming months. Most of the safeguards enacted in the mid-1970s to prevent the FBI from spying on individuals or groups that oppose government policies have been abolished since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. And the FBI seems to have regressed into the mindset that it had in the 1950s and 1960s - that dissent equals criminal behavior.
"Even the most peaceful [protest] techniques can create a climate of disorder, block access to a site, draw large numbers of police officers to a specific location in order to weaken security at other locations, obstruct traffic, and possibly intimidate people from attending the events being protested," according to a FBI Intelligence Bureau memo issued on Oct. 15, 2003 that was later obtained by The New York Times.
That memo asked local law enforcement agencies to be alert to "possible indicators of protest activity" - such as people using cell phones at events or using video cameras "for documenting potential cases of police brutality and for distribution of information over the Internet" - and to "report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force."
If using a cell phone or a video camera at a protest event is considered a "potentially illegal act" by the FBI, it's not that much of a leap for them to consider a meeting of peace activists held on an university campus to be considered a "potentially illegal act."
Combine this with the violent (and often illegal) tactics used by police in dealing with protests around the country, and the message to potential dissenters is crystal clear: If you disagree with what your government is doing in your name, keep it to yourself. If you wish to be vocal and visible in your opposition, the cops will do whatever is necessary to shut you up.
This is what a police state looks like, and it is not the sort of country I wish to live in. If our leaders are so afraid of criticism that they seek to make dissent a crime, it's time to get a new set of leaders.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.