Retro (In)spection: The Government's Renewed Spying on Political Activists

-by Bobbie Stein

I have often lamented having been just a bit too young to have truly experienced the 60's. Woodstock was not an option for me at eleven. Though I wore an “MIA” bracelet for some tragically missing American soldier in Vietnam for years, I was too young to really participate in the political dialogue that grew out of that conflict. Thanks to our government, there is at least one thing I can experience just as my older brothers and sisters experienced it in the 60's: a heavy handed, mean-spirited approach to law enforcement.

The recent raid on the Longhaul/Infoshop, a decades old organizing center, library, and activist space, in Berkeley should be a wake up call to all who believe the now infamous, COINTELPRO, counter-intelligence program popular in the 50's and spanning into the 70's, is a relic of the past. The purpose of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize political targets.” Now we know that government harassment of the innocent, and efforts to breed paranoia among those spirited enough to question the powers that be, are alive and well in the 21st century.

The 90 minute raid at Longhaul was conducted by combined forces of the FBI, UC Berkeley Police, and Alameda County Sheriff's deputies. Bursting onto the scene, with weapons drawn, the overly zealous team broke into the space without even asking to gain entry, which workers say they would have granted had they seen a warrant.

The ostensible reason for the raid was information linking Longhaul computers to threatening animal rights emails sent to UC professors. Police, fully aware of the public nature of the space and of the organizations that utilize the computers (including the radical newspaper, Slingshot) took more than a dozen computers plus other documents and equipment in their sweep.

The government is not supposed to be able to investigate anyone they want. There are limits to its power imposed by the First and Fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Though the police acted on authority of a warrant in the raiding of Longhaul, its justification for the breadth of the police action, and the extensiveness of the search was questionable, at best.

Most worrisome, though, is the fact that this was not an isolated incident. Similar recent FBI assisted raids have taken place all around the country. Gun toting officers entered the convergence space for protesters against the Democratic National Convention in Denver. In Minneapolis, police stormed the convergence space of the RNC Welcoming Committee, an anarchist group described by the Ramsey County Sheriff as “a criminal enterprise intent on committing criminal acts,” as well as private homes of activists. FBI and Minneapolis police also targeted independent journalists in the days leading up to the Republican National Convention when they surrounded a house where members of the I-Witness Video Collective were meeting. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Law enforcement has gone on record describing its infiltration of groups and use of informants. There has been a particular focus on environmental and animal rights activists. No one engaged in challenging the status quo should feel safe, though, from the prying eyes of the government.

There is no question that we live in difficult times. Still, we should not be willing to surrender our rights in the name of war and fear. After all, the ostensible justification for this “war on terror” is freedom and democracy. It may seem a remote concern to many that “suspected terrorists” are having their phones and emails monitored, and their homes and workspaces raided. In these times of relaxed restrictions on politically motivated investigations, however, the definition of “terrorist” is an ever widening chasm. If there are no limits on governmental intrusions into our privacy, then it won't be long before you and I are caught in a web of suspicion by a government that knows no limits. We are all a bit less free today for these politically repressive and abusive measures.

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Seth P. Chazin is a San Francisco Bay Area Criminal Defense Lawyer with over 25 years experience.

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