It is no secret that the state has tried to thwart activists for decades. From the Palmer Raids to COINTELPRO to the corralling of demonstrators into so-called “free speech zones” the state has quite the bag of dirty tricks. One of the state’s favorite tricks is conflating activism with terrorism.
Attempting to turn activism into terrorism is not a new trick. In the 1980s, the FBI used unsubstantiated allegations of material support for terrorism to investigate, harass, and intimidate those working to change US foreign policy in Central America. Starting in the early 1990s, the FBI and others started clamoring about “eco-terrorism,” a label often applied to non-violent civil disobedience. In this century the FBI used “domestic terrorism” as an excuse to investigate non-violent civil disobedience committed by pacifists and the material support for terrorism statute to raid the homes of anti-war activists.
The Activism is Not Terrorism campaign focuses on protecting the rights of activists with an emphasis on the increased use of anti-terrorism legislation against non-violent activists, terrorism as a pretext for the surveillance of First Amendment protected activities, and attempts to limit the First Amendment rights of protestors at public events like national political conventions.
Investigate the FBI
While the issue of mass surveillance by the NSA and FBI has received considerable attention, the continued targeted surveillance of political activist groups has not. After the outrage of COINTELPRO was exposed, reforms were adopted to limit the FBI’s ability to engage in political spying. Those reforms were short-lived, and the FBI quickly found new authorities under which to conduct their political spying: counterterrorism.
In the 1980s, the FBI used unsubstantiated allegations of material support for terrorism to investigate, harass, and intimidate those working to change US foreign policy in Central America. Starting in the early 1990s, the FBI and others started clamoring about “eco-terrorism,” a label often applied to non-violent civil disobedience. In this century the FBI used “domestic terrorism” as an excuse to investigate non-violent civil disobedience committed by pacifists and the material support for terrorism statute to raid the homes of anti-war activists.
The FBI’s capacity to monitor innocent people in the United States has steadily expanded, particularly in the post 9/11 era. Technological advances combined with new authorities and relaxed rules found in the PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendments Act and new, less restrictive Attorney General Guidelines have been a boon to surveillance. So has the expansion of agency personnel. The FBI has a network of 15,000 paid informants at 15,000, a tenfold increase over the number reportedly active during COINTELPRO. The FBI budget is $8.3 billion, the agency employs 35,000 people, including 13,000 agents and 300 intelligence analysts. In 1970, the budget was $257 million, there were 7,600 FBI agents, and no category of ‘intelligence analyst.’
The targets of surveillance and infiltration have often been peaceful political groups. In 2010, the DOJ Inspector General issued a scathing report on the FBI’s inappropriate monitoring of six different political groups including Greenpeace, PETA, and the Thomas Merton Center from 2001 through 2006. More recently, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security have used counterterrorism authorities to target the School of the Americas Watch(SOAW), Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Keystone XL Pipeline activists.
Animal Rights and Environmentalism
Defending Rights & Dissent is building a coalition of national and local organizations to repeal the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), one of the most blatant examples of Congress expanding the definition of terrorism to crush powerful social movements.
At the state level, we are monitoring Ag-Gag legislation, laws that are aimed at preventing whistleblowers from exposing poor treatment of animals at factory farms or meat processing plants. Generally, the laws make it a crime to lie on a job application and/or to take pictures or film at an agriculture facility. In 2015, Ag-Gag laws were expanded in two states: in North Carolina, every industry is covered, including nursing homes and day care providers; Wyoming’s law criminalizes taking water samples in public waterways.
Both AETA and ag-gag have undergone an escalation in recent years. In spite of years of dormancy federal prosecutors have pursued AETA indictments twice in the last year. Twenty-two states have considered ag-gag laws since 2012.
Activism is being equated with terrorism with deleterious effects on the First Amendment rights of all Americans.
National Political Conventions
Elections are supposed to be the hallmark of American democracy and every electoral season includes political conventions. Yet, instead of embodying the spirit of democracy conventions are tightly controlled made-for-TV spectacles that trample on dissent. Political protestors from nearly every cause, from anti-death penalty and anti-war to AIDS awareness, make their way to conventions to protest in the streets outside. Hosting cities, however, often over react to such protests.
Trampling of dissent at conventions is quite the norm. The police violence against protestors at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention has come to symbolize in American history the violent repression of protests. But suppression of dissent at conventions did not end in Chicago.
- During the 2000 Los Angeles Democratic Convention, the city consistently tried to prevent Rage Against the Machine from playing a concert in protest against the two-party system. A federal judge forced the city to allow Rage Against the Machine to hold its concert across the street from the DNC. The night ended with police attacking protesters with rubber bullets and pepper spray as Hillary and Bill Clinton spoke inside.
- Things were not much better in 2000 in Philadelphia, where the Republican Convention was held. Police infiltrated protest groups and even raided a warehouse containing puppets made by the protesters. Per the police affidavit supporting the puppet raid police were concerned that activists were being funded by “communists” and even international trade union with ties to the “former Soviet union.”
- The 2004 New York Republican National Convention holds the record for number of protesters arrested—1,800. However, 90% of those arrested had their charges dropped.
- Before the 2008 St. Paul Republican Convention police raided an anarchist group, “RNC Welcoming Committee.” Eight individuals associated with the RNC Welcoming Committee were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism.” Setting the tone for what would come; during the first three days of the convention 300 people were arrested. Among those arrested were several journalists, including Amy Goodman—who latter successfully sued the city.
These are, of course, not the only examples of political repression at political conventions. Sadly, if history is any indicator of the future we can expect political oppression to accompany the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Undercover officers with the New York Police Department (NYPD) not only infiltrated Black Lives Matter protesters, they become so embedded within the group as to have access to text communications available only to a limited number of organizers. And, they continued their undercover operations despite a lack of any evidence of criminal wrongdoing
It is bad enough that there are corporations that wish to protect their profit margins by muzzling their critics, it is even worse though, that there are elected officials who are willing to violate their constituents constitutional rights in order to appease them.
Anti-protest bills, whether they target boycotts against Israel or the mythical (and non-existent) paid rioter, are designed to silence social movements by sowing confusion and spreading fear. These pernicious bills are popping up in statehouses across the nation. To defend dissent, it is incumbent for activists to push back against these bills.
As civil and human rights advocates face the challenges of the new administration, it is imperative to not be demoralized or frightened into ceding the streets in the face of legislative attempts to curb mass protest. We must instead continue to organize and to keep a close watch on these bills as they emerge in state and federal legislatures, and to push back at every level.
For the third time in four years, the Maryland General Assembly is considering an anti-free speech, anti-boycott bill specifically designed to silence supporters of Palestinian human rights. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation worked with grassroots partner Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition and other local groups to fight back against the bill.