"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

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Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

Right-To-Life Party, Christian, Anti-War, Pro-Life, Bible Fundamentalist, Egalitarian, Libertarian Left

Monday, April 17, 2006

Protesting Is Not Terrorism

So Why Is The FBI Policing Democracy As If It Is?

Terrorism is defined as the use of violence against civilian targets for political aims: the Oklahoma federal building bombing of 1995, the 9/11 attacks, suicide bombings against civilian targets in Israel and Iraq. Protesting is not terrorism, thinking about protesting even less so. In fact, protesting is recognized in the First Amendment as "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The FBI must not be reading that far down into the 45-word amendment.

Even before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI changed its definition of terrorism to include the violent potential of protesters in the United States, and not just any kind of protester: Mainly, those who oppose government policy -- on globalism, on the war in Iraq -- or the government itself: anti-Bush protesters are barred from voicing their opinion within a half mile of the president, ostensibly as a security measure. The implicit message to those protesters is that they could be violent, therefore they could be terrorists, therefore they can be barred from expressing their First Amendment rights. How that explains the FBI's eye for gay activists, too, isn't clear, although agency files pried open in the 1990s showed consistent surveillance of gay groups petitioning for attention during the AIDS epidemic.

The FBI's more expansive definition of terrorism hasn't given it the rationale only to police protesters beyond reason during actual demonstrations. It has given the agency the rationale to spy on and infiltrate protest and advocacy groups in their meeting rooms, in their online discussion groups, in their organizational sessions as well as during demonstrations. The breadth of the spying and surveillance operations is such that the FBI has monitored even such harmless organizations as Food Not Bombs, which feeds the homeless.

FBI surveillance files partially opened through a Freedom of Information request by the American Civil Liberties Union show a pattern of overzealous spying that raises serious concerns with the agency's purpose. The FBI does not have a stellar record of protecting the peace in the last few years. Whether through the 9/11 commission or the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 9/11 bomber, the picture still being drawn is that of an agency that has

honed a talent for missing the big picture while targeting the small fry. Infiltrating protest groups and monitoring demonstrations to the point of taking snapshots of demonstrators' license plates points to an agency still wasting its resources while undermining legitimate democratic expression.

This isn't to defend outbreaks of violence that occasionally have occurred at demonstrations. But such outbreaks call for local enforcement getting involved at the time of the outbreak -- not federal surveillance and infiltration tracing would-be protesters on an assumption of guilt. FBI officials say they're doing nothing wrong by attending a meeting or a demonstration. But files show that they're not there to protect the peace, but to clamp down on legitimate political expression that happens to run afoul of the regime.

In the FBI's defense, the change in the definition of terrorism wasn't entirely its own. Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act has redefined domestic terrorism so broadly as to include acts that "intimidate or coerce a civilian population" or "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." From there to defining a mass anti-war demonstration as "intimidation" or "coercion" is a small step, which the FBI has been all too glad to take. We're back to the ways of the 1960s, when FBI and CIA tentacles extended, illegally, into student protest groups, with this difference: This time, the tentacles are backed by law, according to the FBI's interpretations. If that's the case, it isn't just the FBI that's misguided. It's what passes for law.