When the FBI Comes Calling: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday August 17, 2004

The New York Times reported on Monday that “the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning political demonstrators across the country, and in rare cases even subpoenaing them, in an aggressive effort to forestall what officials say could be violent and disruptive protests at the Republican National Convention in New York.” The report went on to say that “FBI officials are urging agents to canvass their communities for information about planned disruptions aimed at the convention and other coming political events, and they say they have developed a list of people who they think may have information about possible violence.”  

This is the kind of news that worries those of us who are concerned about protecting whatever civil liberties we still have left. Of course, it’s no surprise to Berkeley people who grew up in circles which were “monitored” by the FBI. One friend tells about a childhood with a car with two men in business suits, conspicuous in a working class neighborhood, parked at the end of her block most of the time. Another, the daughter of one of the legendary Petaluma chicken farmers, tells a story of the time an FBI agent came to question her father as he was shoveling out the chicken house. As the story, perhaps now apocryphally embroidered, goes, he handed the agent a shovel and exaggerated his already substantial Slavic accent until the job was done. Then he went into the house, got out his shotgun, and ordered the agent off his property.  

During the Vietnam War we sent out invitations to a party at our Ann Arbor house for the benefit of the Winter Soldier anti-war project, with special guest Jane Fonda. The male member of the household got a call from the FBI saying that they wanted to show him a few pictures of wanted fugitives. Curiosity overcame caution, and he told them they could come over. They were scrupulously careful to find a time when they would not be alone with the woman of the house, but two of them finally showed up when both of us were home. I made a great show of minding the babies, and they ignored me in favor of showing him a pile of blurry Xeroxes of faces of famous fugitives, including H. Rap Brown. “You know, they don’t all look alike,” one of them said. But he’s never been one for remembering faces, so he was able to say with complete honesty that he didn’t recognize anyone. The clear intent, not successful, was to frighten us out of having the party. We held it anyhow, and our small seedy house was deluged with 300 Fonda fans, but that’s another story. 

FBI visits can still be intimidating. The Times quoted someone who was interviewed recently: 

“The message I took from it,” said Sarah Bardwell, 21, an intern at a Denver anti-war group who was visited by six investigators a few weeks ago, “was that they were trying to intimidate us into not going to any protests and to let us know that, ‘hey, we’re watching you.’”  

It’s likely that a good number of Planet readers are planning to go to New York for the Republican convention. Three lively (not violent, occasionally disruptive) ones (Osha Neumann, Jane Stillwater, Patti Dacey) have offered to send us dispatches from the action. It’s a pretty good bet that none of them will be reporting from inside the hall, though you never know. We’d like to hear from anyone else who’s going who is contacted by “investigators” of any kind regarding their participation. E-mail us at news@berkeleydailyplanet.com, or call the front desk (841-5600) and tell us what’s happening. Same old refrain: Sunshine is still the best way to make sure that democracy flourishes despite a climate of fear. 

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One more historic footnote: Federal personnel in the past have also functioned as agents provocateurs, people who mingle with legitimate protesters and goad them into counter-productive behavior. Exactly what in New York will turn out to be counter-productive remains to be seen, but anyone who goes should be careful not to be provoked into doing something that helps the Bush re-election effort. Please.