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The FBI and Civil Liberties

For the second time in my life — at least — a group that I belong to is being investigated by the FBI. The first was the Weavers. The Weavers were a recording industry phenomenon. In 1950 we recorded a couple of songs from our American/World folk music repertoire, Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and (ironically) the Israeli “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and sold millions of records for the almost-defunct record label. Folk music entered the mainstream, and the Weavers were stars.

By 1952 it was over. The record company dropped us, eager television producers stopped knocking on our door. The Weavers were on a private yet well-publicized roster of suspected entertainment industry reds. The FBI came a-calling.

This week, I just found out that Women in Black, another group of peace activists I belong to, is the subject of an FBI investigation. Women in Black is a loosely knit international network of women who vigil against violence, often silently, each group autonomous, each group focused on the particular problems of personal and state violence in its part of the world.

Because my group is composed mostly of Jewish women, we focus on the Middle East, protesting the cycle of violence and revenge in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The FBI is threatening my group with a Grand Jury investigation. Of what? That we publicly call the Israeli military’s occupation of the mandated Palestine lands illegal? So does the World Court and the United Nations.

That destroying hundreds of thousands of the Palestinians’ olive and fruit trees, blocking roads and demolishing homes promotes hatred and terrorism in the Middle East? Even President Bush and Colin Powell have gotten around to saying so. So what is to investigate? That some of us are in contact with activist Palestinian peace groups? This is bad?

The Jewish Women in Black of Jerusalem have stood vigil every Friday for 13 years in protest against the Occupation; Muslim women from Palestinian peace groups stand with them at every opportunity. We praise and honor them, these Jewish and Arab women who endure hatred and frequent abuse from extremists on both sides for what they do. We are not alone in our admiration. Jerusalem Women in Black is a nominee for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Bosnia Women in Black, now ten years old.

If the FBI cannot or will not distinguish between groups who collude in hatred and terrorism, and peace activists who struggle in the full light of day against all forms of terrorism, we are in serious trouble.

I have seen such trouble before in my lifetime. It was called McCarthyism. In the hysterical atmosphere of the early Cold War, anyone who had signed a peace petition, who had joined an organization opposing violence or racism or had tried to raise money for the refugee children of the Spanish Civil War, in other words who had openly advocated what was not popular at the time, was fair game.

In my case, the FBI visited The Weavers’ booking agent, the recording company, my neighbors, my dentist husband’s patients, my friends. In the waning of our career, the Weavers were followed down the street, accosted onstage by drunken “patriots”, warned by friendly hotel employees to keep the door open if we rehearsed in anyone’s room so as not to become targets for the vice squad. It was nasty. Every two-bit local wannabe G-man joined the dragnet searching out and identifying “communist spies.”

In all those self-debasing years how many spies were pulled in by that dragnet? Nary a one. Instead it pulled down thousands of teachers, union members, scientists, journalists, actors, entertainers like us, who saw our lives disrupted, our jobs, careers go down the drain, our standing in the community lost, even our children harassed. A scared population soon shut their mouths up tight.

Thus came the silence of the 1950s and early 60s, when no notable voice of reason was heard to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Look what we’re doing to ourselves, to the land of the free and the home of the brave,” when not one dissenting intelligence was allowed a public voice to warn against zealous foreign policies we’d later come to regret, would be regretting now, if our leaders were honest.

Today, in the wake of the worst hate crime of the millennium, a dragnet is out for “terrorists” and we are told that certain civil liberties may have to be curtailed for our own security. Which ones? I’m curious to know. The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech or of the press? The right of people peaceably to assemble? Suddenly, deja vu – haven’t I been here before? Hysterical neo-McCarthyism does not equal security, never will.

The bitter lesson September 11’s horrific tragedy should have taught us and our government is that only an honest re-evaluation of our foreign policies and careful, focused and intelligent intelligence work can hope to combat operations like the one that robbed all of us and their families of 6,000 decent working people. We owe the dead that, at least. As for Women in Black, we intend to keep on keeping on. CP

Ronnie Gilbert is a veteran of the folk music band The Weavers and a Bay Area civil rights organizer and peace activist.

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