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Red Squads Redux: Portland Activists Mobilize Against the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force

Red Squads Redux

by DESIREE HELLEGERS And LAURIE MERCIER

The September 19 renewal hearing for the Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force (PJTTF) marked another important skirmish in the national struggle to resist the Bush administration’s assaults on civil liberties. The renewal of the formal agreement between the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and the FBI came within days of a headline story by the Portland Tribune, which unearthed thousands of “red squad” style police files on progressive activists, some compiled as recently as 1986. After four-and-a-half hours of testimony, overwhelmingly by groups opposed to the partnership, Mayor Vera Katz and city commissioners unanimously rubberstamped the agreement in the face of unassailable evidence of PPB-and FBI–abuses. The hearing threw into relief the willingness of this liberal city government to collaborate with corporate interests and the Bush administration’s domestic war on dissent. It also demonstrated the strength and persistence of an ad hoc coalition of local activists that played a little known role in the Portland city government’s well-publicized refusal last year to cooperate in the interrogation of thousands of Middle Easterners.

The recent disclosures of decades of police surveillance in Portland mirror developments in Denver, where the ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of several groups–including the American Friends Service Committee and the Chiapas Coalition–which were among more than two hundred groups and thousands of individuals investigated by the Denver police. The parallel struggles highlight the importance of inter-city strategizing among activists concerned about police spying and the growing reach of the joint terrorism task forces, which now exist in 56 cities.

Denver and Portland were among a handful of cities that drew media attention last year for their resistance to post-September 11 “national security” measures. Within days of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Portland activists persuaded one of four city commissioners to vote against the renewal of the PJTTF. Although the task force agreement was ultimately renewed, arguments against it compelled city officials to uphold state law, even in the face of Justice Department pressures. Since 1981, Oregon law has barred police-INS collaboration and police surveillance in the absence of criminal activity. In March 2002 Denver activists got their city council to pass a non-binding resolution to limit the enforcement of the USA Patriot Act. Sabin Portillo of Denver Copwatch noted that Portland’s resistance to Ashcroft’s dragnet of Middle Eastern men buoyed Denver activists. “It gave people a little bit of courage-of hope,” said Portillo.

The Portland city council first formalized the FBI-PPB Joint Terrorism Task Force partnership in 2000, on the heels of the WTO protests in neighboring Seattle. In a September e-mail to concerned activists, Katz claimed its genesis in the 1997 collaboration between the PPB and FBI “investigating and preventing criminal threats to the Nike World Master Games,” in the city where the multinational corporation is headquartered. However, the task force first came to public light when Dan Handelman, of Portland Copwatch, happened to be present at a September 2000 city council meeting. Handelman was surprised to learn that the PJTTF agreement, which broadly targeted “right” and “left wing” activists for investigation, was slated for routine renewal as an emergency measure. Ultimately Commissioner Charlie Hales convinced the council to temper the original language before it sanctioned the FBI-PPB arrangement.

The following September, as activists geared up for the first public PJTTF renewal hearing, the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center. One city commissioner advised activists in a lobbying meeting that they would be committing political suicide by contesting the PJTTF agreement. But by the September 26 hearing, a broad coalition, including the Oregon ACLU, had emerged to resist the renewal. Activists jammed the chambers of the city council, offering a collective course in the FBI’s historical role in repressing political dissent.

At last month’s renewal hearing, the mayor, commissioners, and Police Chief Mark Kroeker again faced a roomful of angry citizens, still recoiling from the police paramilitary response to protesters during Bush’s August visit, and many waving copies of the Portland Tribune expose of police spying. Kroeker’s power point presentation before the packed council chambers provided strong evidence of the role that corporate interests are playing in shaping the PJTTF agenda. Under the heading “community supporters,” almost all of which were forest products corporations, he quoted an Oregon industry spokesperson who lauded the PJTTF as “a perfect example of the corporate approach to information sharing that needs to occur across agency jurisdictions to bring all terrorist activities to justice.” Listing “terror crimes in our region,” Kroeker highlighted nine environmentally-related property crimes going back to 1996 and encompassing both Washington and Oregon. Numbering among the “terror crimes,” none of which involved human injuries, were the destruction of “experimental grass seeds at Pure-Seed Testing facility,” an arson fire that destroyed a lumber company office, and a nationally publicized arson fire that destroyed 37 SUVs at a Eugene dealership. Tim Crocker, of the Portland Business Alliance, testified in favor of the PJTTF claiming that Oregon faces a higher threat of “ecoterrorism” than any other state.

The conflation of ecotage with national terrorist threats is significant in this region where environmental activists seemed poised to become heroes to mainstream Oregonians for their landmark success in effecting the cancellation of the controversial Eagle Creek timber sale. Spearheaded by the Cascadia Forest Alliance (CFA), the campaign to save Eagle Creek included three years of coordinated tree sits, road blockades and periodic demonstrations. It drew national attention when local activist Michael Scarpitti, aka Tre Arrow, scaled the U.S. Forest Service building in downtown Portland and spent eleven days on the building ledge to protest the timber sale.

In the weeks immediately preceding the 2002 renewal hearing, the PJTTF made a series of highly publicized arrests, including three members of Portland State University’s Students for Unity, who were charged in connection with the almost year-old arson of Eagle Creek logging trucks. At the time of the arson, support for the tree sit was mounting. Wyatt Wildewoode of CFA noted that the fire “hurt the cause more than it helped it.” “It’s not unlike the FBI to do something like this,” observed Wildewoode, invoking the car bombing of activist Judi Bari. With the accused activists still awaiting trial, and each facing up to eighty years in prison, Kroeker showcased the arrests as evidence of the effectiveness of–and need for–the task force.

Labor organizer Bob Marshall was among the first to analyze the chilling effect that the PJTTF would have on organizing efforts. Citing repeated incidents of police surveillance of Powell’s Books workers during their organizing drive in 2000, Marshall remarked before the 2001 renewal hearing that unions viewed the PJTTF as “another gauntlet thrown by corporate America.” At the 2002 hearing, Leal Sundet, of ILWU Local 8, testified that Bush had already threatened to label and prosecute western longshore workers as “economic terrorists” if they called a strike.

If Chief Kroeker’s power point presentation provided strong indications of the role that the PJTTF will increasingly play in protecting corporate interests from activists’ challenges, it also raised the specter of terrorists among members of the local Muslim community. Along with the Eagle Creek arrests, Kroeker touted the recent high-profile arrest of Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, the religious leader of Portland’s largest mosque, the Islamic Center of Portland. An electronic device at Portland International Airport detected trace amounts of TNT on Kariye’s luggage. When Kroeker highlighted the arrest to justify the task force renewal, some activists shouted “innocent until proven guilty.” Indeed, on the Monday following the Thursday council hearing–and the renewal of the PJTTF agreement and budget–Assistant U.S. Attorney Kent Robinson announced that the FBI’s tests of Kariye’s bags had come back negative for the presence of TNT. Kariye, however, remains in custody on Social Security fraud charges with no indication that the PJTTF will discontinue its involvement in the “case.”

In his testimony before the City Council, Kayse Jama, himself a member of the Islamic Center of Portland, spoke to the heightened fears of members of the Muslim community in the face of Kariye’s arrest. Jama voiced his concerns with being targeted by the PJTTF and possible reprisal for his testimony before the City Council: “I am a Muslim. I am also a Black man. I am also an immigrant.” Jama, who fled political violence in his native Somalia, noted that people in his community now feared calling the police over any issue, believing that they could be arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or deported without due process.

The war on terrorism and threatened war against Iraq have heightened citizens’ concerns that their own security-and liberties-could disappear in the rapid advance of war hysteria. Henry Sakamoto of the Japanese American Citizens League called attention to Ashcroft’s ominous proposal to create camps to incarcerate those deemed “threatening.” Jack Tafari, a leader of Portland’s homeless tent city Dignity Village, told how the PJTTF in the last year had spied on the villagers. Dignity residents, he said, were concerned that these police files would haunt them in the future. “We don’t support terrorists,” Tafari calmly stated.

The equation of property crimes, immigration violations, and labor and other political dissent with terrorism, as several activists noted in their testimony at City Hall, demonstrates even more fundamental problems with Ashcroft’s joint terrorism task force initiative. Professor Tom Hastings, on the faculty in the Conflict Resolution Program at Portland State University, noted that the FBI’s broad definition of terrorism might easily apply to disciplined non-violent civil disobedience. Barbara Dudley, a professor in Portland State University’s Mark Hatfield School of Government, observed that “Terrorism has become the new catch-all label for dissidence.”

Although the three commissioners ultimately joined the mayor in supporting the PJTTF renewal, they clearly acknowledged the power of the activist community in hedging their own justifications for renewal. In emphasizing their support of abortion providers to explain why they supported the PJTTF, commissioners ignored the testimony of Tia Plympton, representing the National Organization of Women. In opposing the task force, she insisted that a variety of law enforcement and legal remedies exist to protect abortion providers. Moreover, she argued, the PPB and FBI in the past had dismissed evidence of threats to abortion clinics, at the same time both agencies had infiltrated and investigated NOW along with a host of other pro-choice women’s groups.

While the mayor and city commissioners continue to insist, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that existing oversight of the PPB is adequate, they acknowledged during the hearing that PPB officers involved in the PJTTF are accountable only to the FBI, which is exempt from civilian review. Katz, however, attempted to assuage citizens’ concerns by suggesting that Senator Ron Wyden could review the files. She reiterated the claim at a press conference following the hearing, claiming that because Wyden serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, “The Oregon delegation has the power to review the files.” Within a few days of the hearing, the Tribune reported that Wyden does not, in fact, have direct access to investigation files, though as Wyden staffer Josh Carden noted, “The FBI briefs the committee on its activities.” In anticipation of the hearing, Commissioners Erik Sten, Dan Saltzman, and Jim Francesconi drafted a self-indicting letter to Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting some minor oversight of PJTTF files. In the letter, they note that “residents of Portlandare vigilant in their defense of civil liberties, and this vigilance poses difficulties to the wholesale reaffirmation of the work between the FBI and the Portland Police Bureau.”

Despite the compelling testimony by citizens and activists, the Council, in announcing its decision to vote in favor of the PJTTF renewal, steered the focus away from substantive arguments to chide some in the council chambers for repeatedly heckling the council. The council’s closing remarks attempted to delegitimate the testimony of dozens of groups, including the ACLU, the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and AFSCME, which represented thousands of constituents. In its coverage of the renewal hearing, The Oregonian gave Katz the last word. “I’m surprised at the fact a lot of people were talking about freedom and democracy but would not allow other people to speak, but showed rude and crude behavior.”

During the hearing, Kroeker received word that he had failed in his bid to return to Los Angeles as the Chief of Police. According to The Oregonian, Katz expressed her relief that he would be staying in Portland, and indicated that “Highest on her agenda for the chief is to figure out how best to manage the ‘escalation of protests’ in Portland.”

While the Portland city council has yet to acknowledge the significance of the Tribune’s disclosures, the Denver mayor recently convened a three-judge panel to review their city’s police spy files. Activists, however, are critical of the limited scope of the panel review, which did not include anti-terrorism investigations. Steve Nash, a plaintiff in the Denver ACLU lawsuit, confirmed that to date Denver has had no public JTTF renewal hearings. “I’ve seen nothing in the press about it. I’ve heard nothing from the police about any kind of renewal process. Sometimes they do public things that aren’t very public. They may have something like that here as well and we weren’t sitting at the right meeting.” Portland’s experience demonstrates that once made public, JTTF hearings may serve as critical forums for gauging local governments’ commitments to civil liberties in the post-9-11 era.

Desiree Hellegers and Laurie Mercier teach at Washington State University Vancouver and are working on a book about Portland social movements.

Mercier can be reached at: mercier@vancouver.wsu.edu

Hellegers can be reached at: helleger@vancouver.wsu.edu