It’s well established that the FBI surveilled civil rights and other activists from Martin Luther King Jr. to leaders of the National Lawyers Guild as part of its wide ranging COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) during the 1960s and early 70s. The use of planted news stories, faked communications to create dissension within activist groups, informants to make dubious cases and even assassinations was revealed by a group of activists called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, who broke into a bureau office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and found ample evidence of the agency’s misdeeds. This is generally seen as an era of terrible government overreach in the name of fighting “communism.”
The problem is that the use of similar tactics has been discovered again and again in the years since. Following the anti-globalization protests of 1999, the 9/11 attacks, and the Occupy protests of 2011, similar strategies, enhanced by modern technology, have been ratcheted up and deployed against an ever-increasing number of activists and political groups of all ideological stripes as part of the even more dubious “wars” on drugs and terrorism.
Part of this is due to the fact that there simply aren’t enough real threats of terrorism to justify all the money and toys that have been given to U.S. law enforcement. Add to this the fact that police at all levels seem eager to see potential terrorism in even the mildest forms of dissent and you have a recipe for disaster. In one of the most recent instances, it was revealed that the FBI has been coordinating with local law enforcement to target the Black Lives Matter movement.
Another story, unrelated to current anti-racist organizing, is a bizarre case out of Minneapolis in the lead up to the Republican national convention in 2008. According to the City Pages, a Univ. of Minnesota police officer who was the department’s only officer on the local Joint Counter Terrorism Task Force worked with an FBI Special Agent to recruit college students who acted as paid informants at “vegan potlucks” hoping they’d discover activist plans to disrupt the city’s upcoming convention.
Extending the Long Arm of the Law
Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), of which there are currently 104 located in cities and towns across the United States, were created in the 1980s and greatly expanded in the aftermath of 9/11. They were set up to coordinate between diverse federal agencies and local law enforcement, and often work in tandem with “Fusion Centers” that are supposed to collect and analyze data related to potential terrorism.
To see how these task forces can overstep their bounds, take the case of Eric Linsker, who police tried to arrest for allegedly trying to throw a trash can over the side of a walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge during the large, mostly peaceful protests that erupted in New York City following the failure to indict the officer whose choke-hold led to the death of Eric Garner. Other protesters intervened to stop the arrest but Linkser left his bag behind which, according to authorities, contained “his passport, three hammers, and a small amount of marijuana.”
While police may have been well within their rights to track down Linsker and charge him if the vandalism allegations were true, it’s who did the arresting that is problematic: rather than the NYPD, it was the New York JTTF that brought Linkser in, perhaps believing that the hammers were potential instruments of terror. This should be a cause for worry, since it means either law enforcement’s definition of terrorism has become far too broad, or they are targeting more than just terrorism.