Monday, July 18, 2005

Protecting us from terrorism--by keeping an eye on the ACLU

The New York Times has a story today on FBI surveillance of civil rights and anti-war groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U. asked "Why would the F.B.I. collect almost 1,200 pages on a civil rights organization engaged in lawful activity? What justification could there be, other than political surveillance of lawful First Amendment activities?"

What, indeed?

A lot of younger anti-war and environmental activists are probably shocked at the FBI investigating them as if they were terror threats. Those of us old enough to remember Cointelpro are not.

Cointelpro, or something like it, was thought to exist by those of us in the anti-Vietnam war movement long before it was finally revealed that it really did exist, and what its name was.

In the late sixties, we had tumultuous meetings during the terminal stages of the SDS when the SDS had become riddled with factions, each with an uncompromising ideology and an equally uncompromising agenda. Maoists would sit in one section of the auditorium, Trots in another (actually there were several flavors of Trotskyites, who hated each other with the special hatred the orthodox have for heretics), anarchists in a clump (you'd think they'd be spread out throughout the room, and you'd be wrong), a few forlorn Stalinist down in front, and the rest of us throughout the room, though the left side of the room was always more packed than the right.

We always speculated, after meetings, as to who the FBI agents were. Usually they were 10 years too old, we often hadn't seen them before, and often suggested actions of dubious legality.

Anyway, by the late sixties, it was hard to plan even a march or demonstration because of internal friction in the meetings--name-calling, provocative proposals, and endless ideological posturing. We (my friends and I) assumed that the FBI was fomenting this. We were about 50 percent right. The rest of it was genuine ideological craziness.

In 1968 the SDS blew apart completely. The Weather Faction went underground, the Maoists kept the name of the organization, which in fact was after 1968 essentially defunct, and the rest of us went on with our lives.

In my case, my life at one point involved being part of a small group, all of them my friends, who decided to buy space on a billboard on I-35 in Austin, opposing the war. We needed what in our world was a lot of money, which we were trying ineffectually to raise. One day a big guy about 40 years old showed up at our meetings, saying he was interested in helping out. Fine. So he came to a couple of brainstorming sessions, which consisted of our beating our heads against the unyielding wall of our poverty, and he seemed to be part of the discussion. But then he came up with a great idea. Sabotage.

There was a billboard which we had been thinking of buying space on which had an army recruiting message on it. If we can't raise money to put our message on it, he reasoned, why not burn down their message.

We didn't tell him the time or place of our future meetings.

We got a commitment of enough money to create the graphics and rent space on a small billboard outside of Austin. But the owners of the billboard would not sell us space.

I have no way of knowing if our agent-provocateur was working for the FBI or not. But it certainly fit right in with what was eventually learned about Cointelpro.

I guess we're going that direction again.

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