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xmag.com : September 2000 : Police Crackdown

Ever since the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the government has been going after the Far Left with the same ferocity it attacked the Far Right after the Oklahoma City bombing. The entire anti-globalization movement has been denounced as violent. Leaders have been arrested on trumped-up charges. Law abiding political organizations are being infiltrated by undercover operatives. Peaceful activists have been accused of stockpiling biological weapons, explosives, guns, and Molotov cocktails. And now law enforcement officials are calling the movement a conspiracy and demanding a federal investigation.
The WTO demonstrations in late 1999 caught the government by surprise. Law enforcement agencies were unprepared for the 50,000 activists who jammed Seattle’s streets, broke windows, and battled the police on international TV. But now the government has launched a counter-attack. New protests have been met with overwhelming force. Over 2,500 protesters have been arrested so far this year. The crackdown is being coordinated by the FBI, with the support of the Pentagon, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and state and local police agencies.
The new tactics were first used at the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting last April in Washington DC. Government officials repeatedly raised the specter of violence to justify spying on the protesters who came to town. Activists discovered their phones were tapped, their meetings were infiltrated, and their movements were monitored. Thousands of federal, state and local law enforcement agents were mobilized. According to the Paris-based Intelligence Newsletter, "reserve units from the US Army Intelligence and Security Command helped Washington police keep an eye on demonstrations staged at the World Bank/IMF meetings."
Much of the information collected on the protesters went into the Regional Information Sharing System (RISS) computers used by more than 5,300 law enforcement agencies across the country. Although RISS was created to track organized crime networks, the government claimed the protesters were domestic terrorists to justify adding them to the database. "Among those considered as such (domestic terrorists) at present are Global Justice (the group that organized the April 17 IMF demonstration), Earth First, Greenpeace, American Indian Movement, Zapatista National Liberation Front and Act-Up," the Intelligence Newsletter reported.
By the time the Republican National Convention began in Philadelphia, the government had its tactics worked out. Law enforcement officials warned of violence, justifying their own and massive arrests. Activists reported that unidentified people were photographing them. The Philadelphia Inquirer identified two of the cameramen in the crowds as undercover police officers. "We were watching," police spokesman David Yarnella confirmed. "We were making surveillance efforts."
Shortly before the protests started, police raided a warehouse where activists were painting signs and building large puppets for their marches. Law enforcement officials claimed the warehouse was being used to store C4 explosives and acid-filled balloons, presumably to throw at police. The police also impounded a bus which they said contained poisonous snakes and spiders. Needless to say, no explosives or weapons were found in the warehouse, and the animals in the bus turned out to be harmless.
"It was a smart move by the police," noted Free Radical editor L.A. Kauffman. "Stripped of our means of communication, we looked as if we had no message to convey."
Hundreds of people were arrested during the Republican convention. The day after it ended, Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney called a press conference and announced that he had uncovered a vast left wing conspiracy. Sounding like anti-Communist fanatic Joe McCarthy, Timoney declared that outside agitators had conspired to cause violence and damage property. He called on the federal government to investigate this subversive plot, saying, "There is a cadre, if you will, of criminal conspirators who are about the business of planning conspiracies to go in and cause mayhem and cause property damage in major cities in America that have large conventions or large numbers of people coming in for one reason or another."
One "ringleader" identified by Timoney was John Sellers, director of the non-violent Ruckus Society. Although he was arrested on a series of misdemeanor charges, District Attorney Cindy Mertelli asked that his bail be set at $1 million. Mertelli showed the court a 27 page "dossier" on Sellers, calling him "a real risk of danger to the community" and noting he had been "involved in Seattle, a situation with almost dead bodies." Mertelli’s request was granted. But a later court ruling dropped the bail to $100,000—still a hefty chunk of change for misdemeanors.
Timoney's accusations got a boost when they were embraced by Bruce Chapman, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna. Writing in the Washington Times, Chapman claimed the federal government wasn't doing enough to identify and break up the conspiracy. "The US Justice Department seems to have been lax so far. Perhaps, therefore, it is time for Congress and the media to investigate the rioters," he wrote.

Protesters faced a similar surveillance and harassment campaign in Los Angeles. On July 13, the Los Angeles Times printed a guest editorial by Mayor Richard Riordan which warned of violence by "international anarchists." Riordan claimed the protesters had attended "training camps where they have learned strategies of destruction and guerrilla tactics." Still the police didn’t cut the media any slack. Two Chicago Tribune reporters were arrested when they got too close to an anti global capitalism bike rally that turned into a mass arrest. The Tribune reporters were cited for things like blocking a public thoroughfare and other nonsense while trying to cover the event. The Tribune has publicly declared they will sue the LA Police.
The possibility of domestic terrorism at the Democratic Convention was raised on July 23 when the Secret Service warned that protesters might release anthrax or some other biological agent near the site of the convention. "We have purchased a lot of equipment, specialized masks and gowns," Dr. Robert Splawn, medical director of the California Hospital Medical Center, told the LA Times.
On August 7, the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union complained about round-the-clock police surveillance of the protesters. ACLU attorney Dan Tokaji wrote to city officials, accusing the police of videotaping activists and recording their license plate numbers. "They've crossed the line separating legitimate security preparations from unlawful harassment that violates protesters' First and Fourth amendment rights. The mere potential for a disturbance does not justify the suspension of our constitutional rights," the letter said.
When the city didn't respond, the ACLU went to federal court on August 11 and obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the police from raiding the protest headquarters without a warrant. In its complaint, ACLU lawyers cited 22 separate incidents of surveillance and harassment, including random police visits without warrants, low helicopter overflights, and people being followed and searched after leaving the building.
But the injunction didn't stop the police from infiltrating the activists. On August 12, a group met at the Luna Sol Cafe to plan for the upcoming Mumia Abu-Jamal protest march. As the meeting was breaking up, uniformed police officers rushed through the cafe's front door and threw three of the main speakers up against a wall. Several of the meeting's participants also jumped up and helped with the arrests, revealing themselves to be undercover officers.
Activist/journalist Tim Ream revealed what was happening in an August 10 dispatch from Los Angeles: "A disturbing trend is developing regarding police preemptive response to mass protest. In numerous situations since WTO protests in Seattle in late 1999, police have issued misinformation claiming unsubstantiated evidence of violent plans by protesters gathering for mass actions. The false information is then used as a pretext for unwarranted police actions. The misinformation concerning protester plans has ranged from chemical weapons to bomb-making. None of the numerous claims of violent plans have been substantiated. Nonetheless, many media outlets appear to have been predisposed to repeat information provided by police without fact-checking or seeking responses from the organizations accused. The damage to free speech and the mass protest movement has been extensive." The scenario above was self-evident in the May Day protest-turned-police debacle here in Portland.
Hundreds more protesters were arrested during the four-day Democratic National Convention, including a number who had apparently been identified as "leaders" by undercover operatives. They were all given high bail to ensure they would not be released until they had identified themselves and their names were entered into the growing computer database being compiled by the government.
By the time the convention ended, even activist Tim Ream admitted the crackdown is working: "Editorial pages and conversations on the street are full of critiques that protesters are not clear about what they stand for and seem more interested in violence than meaningful change. This is as clear a sign as any that protester voices have been effectively silenced and police positioning of protesters is carrying the day," he wrote. "In addition, activists are scared. Anyone who has been involved in the mass protest movement through a major event over the last six months has friends who have been brutalized at the hands of the system."
After staging highly-visible mass demonstrations in Seattle, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, protest organizers now face their greatest challenge—keeping the anti-globalization movement going in the face of growing police state tactics.

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