February 10, 2004
On November 15th the Des Moines chapter of the National Lawyers Guild held a meeting at Drake University to discuss how to bring the troops home from Iraq. The meeting, by all appearances, was held in the grand tradition of hundreds or even thousands of similiar meetings that have been held throughout American history: a concerned group of citizens conspiring to change their government's policy.
The following day, on November 16th, the group held a protest. The conference and protest had the same theme: "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" This protest, probably planned at the meeting, took place at Iowa National Guard headquarters.
Twelve protesters were arrested at the protest at Guard headquarters, and authorities have told the Associated Press that a sheriff's deputy's knee was dislocated when he was kicked during a scuffle.
The National Lawyers Guild is an organization of attorneys that regularly provides legal assistance to protesters that find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Guild volunteers move through protests organized by others in bright green hats, offering their assistance to anyone in encounters with police. Guild volunteers regularly distribute fliers entitled "Know your rights!" and urge those arrested to retain an attorney (such as a volunteer from the Guild) and to use their right to remain silent.
For whatever reason, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Joint Terrorism Task Force has opened an investigation into the Des Moines branch of the National Lawyers Guild. Justice Department prosecutors have convened a grand jury and have issues four subpeonas to members of the Guild's Des Moines branch.
Prosecutors have also issued a sweeping, dangerous subpoena to Drake University itself. The subpeona, obtained secretly from a judge, asks for "all records of Drake University campus security reflecting any observations made of the November 15, 2003, meeting, including any records of persons in charge or control of the meeting, and any records of attendees to the meeting."
That's right. The government wants to know the organizational structure and membership list of the Des Moines branch of the Guild. They want a list of everyone associated with it. They want to know who's in charge. They want to build FBI files on these people. People who devote at least some of their time to change government policy are now having the weight of government power turned on them.
Interestingly, just three days before news of the subpeonas broke, the National Lawyers Guild filed suit in Florida in a matter relating to the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests held there in November 2003. The actions of federal, state and city police during the Miami protests were widely and roundly condemned by civil liberties groups and the press. The police were described by many as "brutal" in their reaction to dissent. Video shows police open fire with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray on unarmed protesters.
The Guild says in a press release that the ordinance they are challenging in court "was used to chill First Amendment activities during mass demonstrations against the FTAA."
Could the federal investigation into the National Lawyers Guild have anything to do with its lawsuit regarding the Miami protests?
People take part in legitimate political protest against their government out of principle, out of devotion to a cause. Out of a belief that America can be made better and stronger through dissent. And, research shows, dissent is essential for any organization-organizations with cultures that stifle dissent do not survive. Presumably the same is true of countries.
I, for one, would have to think long and hard about participating in protest against the government of the United States if I believed that FBI agents would investigate my involvement with the protest and build FBI files on me. I would be less inclined to exercise my right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The FBI has a long and storied history of suppressing anti-war protests through myriad means, including sweeping subpeonas like that delivered to Drake University. In the 1960s and 70s, during the Vietnam War, the FBI conducted numerous searches and investigations into protesters. They routinely built huge FBI files on protest leaders. Senator John Kerry, a war hero turned anti-war activist, ended up on President Nixon's enemy list and was a target of FBI investigation. Through programs such as COINTELPRO the FBI sought to discredit and blackmail protesters.
All of this to stifle dissent. All of this to deny Americans their right under the First Amendment of the Constitution to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Even if there is legitimate, actual criminal activity that needs to be investigated (such as sabotage at the National Guard base) there should be no need for a subpeona seeking the Des Moines Lawyers Guild membership. Twelve protesters were arrested on November 16th. Presumably these were the same twelve protesters involved in whatever illegal activity is alleged to have taken place. If they are guilty of crimes then they should be charged and tried by a jury of their peers. Further subpeonas, further investigations, serve no purpose other than intimidation.
The Associated Press reports that the subpeona of Drake University "may be the first subpeona of its kind in decades."
This country cannot survive without dissent, and dissent cannot survive under the microscope of the FBI. Protesters have legitimate reason to fear investigation and persecution at the hands of the Bureau-history, over the past half century, shows that the FBI is very interested in stifling dissent-and any move by the Bureau to investigate dissent casts a pall over entire movements.
I demand to know why the Joint Terrorism Task Force-a unit of the federal government designed to fight terrorism-is investigating a group of American peace activists. I demand to know why the FBI, in a move reminiscent equally of the Hoover-ever Bureau and the East German Stasi, demands to know the membership of an anti-war activist group. I demand to know what information the FBI is collecting and why.
More news about the National Lawyers Guild, its lawsuits and the investigation may be found from Warstories:CC.
Posted by George Paine | Comments (41) | TrackBack (1)
From the "Democracy in America" Department as of 10:06 AM
I expect there may be comments such as "Who cares about a bunch of lawyers" or similar comments.