The Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition (MCCRC) held a public forum on April 18 to discuss what effect "The War on Terror" has had on free expression and grassroots political organizing in Maryland and across the United States since 9/11. The forum featured four speakers whose presentations discussed a number of demonstrations of federal, state and local surveillance and their disruption of peaceful activism. The forum was opened by Kit Bonson, who explained the MCCRC's desperate formation, saying:
The Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition (MCCRC) started because in the fall of 2010, 7 activists in Minneapolis and Chicago awoke one morning to find that their houses were being raided by the FBI. Boxes and boxes of their possessions were confiscated, including computers, papers, and family photos. Although they were never charged with any crime, they were called to testify in front of a Grand Jury.
In response, activists here in our area, as well as in cities around the country, came together to protest the use of the FBI and the Grand Jury process to harass and intimidate movement organizers. Basically, we wanted to stand in solidarity with activists who had not committed crimes or advocated anything other than nonviolence action. It was from these events that MCCRC was founded.
Saqib Ali, formerly a Maryland state legislator, is now the Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Maryland chapter (CAIR-MD). Ali spoke about the overwhelming surveillance of Muslim-American communities throughout the United States, describing the three major issues facing these communities as the "No Fly" list; the FBI's infiltration of mosques and the growing presence of FBI informants in mosques; and the near-constant surveillance of Muslim communities. Ali explained that the "No Fly" list prohibits many Muslim-Americans from travel back and forth between the United States and countries abroad where family members may still be located. Ali specifically noted that the Transport Security Administration (TSA) compiles their "No Fly" list fairly arbitrarily, and lacks any legal recourse; not only is the reason for being on a "No Fly" list murky at best, but it becomes nearly impossible to remove oneself from that list.
Ali also discussed the FBI infiltration of mosques, both as a means to surveil Muslim community worshiping therein, as well as to persuade mosque members towards terrorist action and subsequently stage their arrests. He also discussed the more local development of an NYPD "Demographics" Unit, which singled out Muslim community centers of all kinds throughout New York and New Jersey for surveillance. He described the "Demographics" Unit as a "wide, indiscriminate dragnet of Muslim everyday things: barber shops, bookstores..."
Sue Udry, the Executive Director of the Defending Dissent Foundation (DDF), broadened the discussion beyond the Muslim-American community to discuss the many different examples of legitimate activism being disproportionately targeted by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. She specifically mentioned the "Ag Gag laws," which aim at preventing whistleblowers from exposing any wrongdoing within agricultural operations. Within these Ag Gag laws is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) which Udry and DDF describe as:
[Denying] equal protection to social justice activists and [restricting] our freedom of speech and assembly. [AETA] unfairly brands as terrorism any activities that cross a state line and interfere with the operation of an animal enterprise or of any entity that deals with one. Such activities may include website posts, peaceful vigils, nonviolent civil disobedience, undercover investigations, and whistle-blowing.
In addition to Ag Gag laws, Udry discussed a number of other examples of law enforcement surveilling perfectly legitimate activism, summarized by the MCCRC coverage of the forum:
Law enforcement agencies have also taken it on themselves to infiltrate and surveil all kinds of legitimate activism. Examples include the so-called “Fusion Centers” where federal, state, and local law enforcement work together on allegedly “terrorism”-related, but often simply activism-related casework, ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) maintaining a watch on peace activism(!), the DHS “Institute of Terrorism Research” monitoring right- and left-wing “extremism,” and the FBI engaging in entrapment operations against Muslim-Americans, Occupy activists, and political protesters.
Finally, the MCCRC panel heard from Max Obuszewski, a non-violent activist who engages in direct action, and has attracted the attention of the FBI, police forces, and National Security Agency (NSA) operatives and has been defined as a "terrorist" as a result. Obuszewski discussed learning in 2008 that the police had files on him - and far more than he could have imagined. He said, "As it turned out there were many, many, many more pages [that I expected]. Initially it was thought that I was the only person in this database, but it soon came out there were at least 53…” Obuszewski discussed at length the tendency (particularly in the post-9/11 climate) for perfectly peaceful activists to be profiled as dangerous, and even "terrorists."
The Takeaway: Rapid Response Network
With all the issues laid out before them, MCCRC organizers have proposed their next step: the formation of a Rapid Response Network. Using the Pledge of Resistance model, Udry explained that the community and MCCRC must prepare itself for the possibility of FBI infiltration or surveillance. MCCRC notes that the Pledge of Resistance model is most often used in preparation for specific threats like an Iran War), "the nature of the challenge for civil liberties advocates and the response to that is less easily defined: 'We don’t know what might happen, what shoe might drop, but we want to have a network that’s ready to respond if a member of our community is targeted.'"
Individuals in the Montgomery County area can read about MCCRC at its website and get in contact to be involved with upcoming MCCRC initiatives.