Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 10th, 2010
This past Saturday, November 6, I attended an excellent forum — announced earlier on this blog and (mainly) elsewhere — about some very troubling FBI raids on fourteen peace activists in Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan on September 24th. The raids sought evidence of their alleged support of terrorist organizations. In the course of writing about that forum, I’ve decided I need to back up and record some of the basics I’ve been able to learn about the raids, their subjects, and the subsequent legal process.
Many of the fourteen people who were subjects of the September 24 FBI raids are associated to varying degrees with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), an avowedly Marxist-Leninist organization that, not surprisingly, calls for the overthrow of the capitalist system in the jubilee days a-coming, but whose members also apparently engage in slightly more feasible, sometimes gutsy peace- , justice- and labor-related outreach work in the here and now in Colombia, the Middle East, and the U.S. An ad hoc, but doubtless related Committee to Stop FBI Repression has published profiles of the 14 activists to their web site; they include a PIRG activist who traveled to Palestine to meet with NGO members there, a grandmother of five, and a University of Illinois Staff Person of the Year.
Another common bond among at least some of the activists served with search warrants is that they were involved in the 2008 protests around the Republican convention in Minneapolis. The events in Minneapolis surrounding that convention, mentioned at this blog and elsewhere, seemed to me at the time a veritable negative showcase of police surveillance, infiltration, and abuses.**
An apparently typical search warrant, for Michael Kelly, looks ominous at first glance: it seeks evidence concerning the violation of 18 USC 2339B, or “Providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.” The FTO’s involved are a rogue’s gallery indeed — Colombia’s FARC, and Middle Eastern groups like Hezbollah and the PFLP.
However — as the November 6 forum-goers were to learn — bad laws and a worse Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project Supreme Court ruling have stretched the definition of ‘material support’ beyond common sense, regardless whether any of the subpoenaed activists stepped over today’s absurdly restrictive lines or more serious ones. As the excellent Defending Dissent October 2010 newsletter wrapup puts it, “The problem is, one can be found guilty of material support for interacting with a group that is not an FTO, but that the government alleges is in cahoots with an FTO. [...] In Columbia, the government deems any trade union and any group that opposes the government to be allied with FARC.”
Quite as disturbingly as the ever-widening definition of “material support,” the warrant seems to suggest that recruitment of individuals to FRSO is itself an actionable crime — and provides the FBI with a legal driftnet to sweep up Kelly’s address book, e-mail, social network contacts, so that the execution of a search warrant for person A becomes an invasion of privacy, chilling of association, and the beginning of FBI dossiers for persons B to Z. Again, Defending Dissent: “The expansive list of ‘evidence’ sought led one of the lawyers to deem them “kind of unconstitutional and hideous.””
Finally, the fourteen activists face grand jury arraignments — a standard part of the process of squeezing information out of activists engaged in civil disobedience or resistance in legal gray areas, by forcing witnesses to choose between taking the Fifth or naming names of friends and colleagues.
I’m no lawyer, and I don’t have access to the evidence the prosecutors do. But two sets of legal facts seem particularly telling to me. First, for all that “material support of terrorism” is alleged, no criminal charges have been filed despite access to voluminous personal records and the passage of more than five weeks of time to study them. Second, the grand jury subpoena process seems to give new meaning to the word ‘capricious’: first, all 14 were summoned. Then all subpoenas are withdrawn, before the election and possibly with an uncertain eye on a massive, though all but apolitical demonstration on the Mall. Then, three subpoenas were reissued late last week. Taken together, these seem more like tactics to wear down a group of private citizens than a confident, purposeful prosecution based on solid evidence.
Personally, I’m unable to muster warm feelings towards the FRSO, an apparently bottomless well of Maoist jargon and fist-clenching rhetoric — sometimes in defense of reasonable goals, e.g., “Stop Koran Burning and Racist Attacks,” but sometimes also in defense of the indefensible — e.g., a defense of the Tiananmen Square massacre as a necessary defense of China’s alleged communist revolution. The interminable treatise was apparently penned in 1989 by the same Michael Kelly whose search warrant I linked to above, and released again last year on the 20th anniversary of that reprehensible event.
But my warm feelings, FRSO’s politics, or the unpleasant meanderings of a doctrinaire Deng Xiaoping fan don’t matter here. My government’s overreach — legislatively, judicially, executively — is what matters. The rights of Americans to say what they like, associate with whom they like, and travel where they like is what matters. The redefinition of speech and association as crimes jeopardizing national security is what matters. Regardless of what one thinks of Israel or Colombia, or U.S. aid to the governments of those countries, it shouldn’t just be the FRSO saying this:
The raids and subpoenas are also an attempt to criminalize the politics of solidarity with people oppressed by U.S.-backed regimes. These activists are not terrorists; their only “weapons” are their voices and their pens.
And it isn’t, as solidarity statements from a lengthy list of groups from CODE PINK to a letter carrier union local to the Center for Constitutional Rights to the Green Party makes clear.
If we decide who can exercise a right – to free speech, to free assembly, to privacy — or who may enjoy freedom from surveillance or prosecutorial harassment, then those aren’t rights, they’re merely privileges.
And where does it end? Does our support constitute “material support of material support,” or will it someday? Will anyone dare to visit the West Bank, or try to find out why FARC is popular in parts of Colombia? We begin by denying these kinds of rights to others, but will soon enough find we are blindfolding ourselves by doing so — and soon after that will find we can’t count on them ourselves.
* Some have held formal positions in the organization, others have written for its publication, and I was not able to find any association at all for several.
** One of the most memorable incidents was the arrest of Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman — wearing journalist credentials — as she was covering the protests. A case against some protest organizers and participants — the so-called “RNC 8″– has concluded with what seems like underwhelming success for the prosecution.