Feds Target Peace Activists at Drake University


It looks like Ann Coulter may get her way.

Like many on the extreme right, Ms. Coulter considers those of us engaged in dissident against the actions of the government to be “either traitors or idiots.” Coulter said as much in her screed, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror. “The myth of ‘McCarthyism’ is the greatest Orwellian fraud of our times,” writes Coulter. “McCarthy was not tilting at windmills. Soviet spies in the government were not a figment of right-wing imaginations.”
No doubt Coulter believes AG Ashcroft and the Bush federal judiciary is not “tilting at windmills,” either. It is not communists in the State Department they are going after, but antiwar and environmental activists. In this particular instance, antiwar activists attending a forum held at a private university in Iowa.

Imagine Ms. Coulter’s ear-to-ear smirk.

Last week a federal judge ordered Drake University to turn over “all documents indicating the purpose and intended participants in the meeting, and all documents or recordings which would identify persons that actually attended the meeting,” according to the Associated Press. In addition to documents listing attendance at the forum, the subpoena orders the university to cough up all records relating to the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The leader of the Catholic Peace Ministry, the former coordinator of the Iowa Peace Network, a member of the Catholic Worker House, and an antiwar activist who visited Iraq in 2002, was also served a subpoena.

If not for the fact the Associated Press received a copy of the Drake subpoena, news of this inquisition would have remained secret. The judge has issued a gag order forbidding school officials from discussing the subpoena. “Several officials of Drake, a private university with about 5,000 students, refused to comment Friday, including school spokeswoman Andrea McDonough,” reports Ryan J. Foley of the Associated Press. “She referred questions to a lawyer representing the school, Steve Serck, who also would not comment.”

“This is exactly what people feared would happen,” remarked Brian Terrell of the Catholic Peace Ministry. “The civil liberties of everyone in this country are in danger. How we handle that here in Iowa is very important on how things are going to happen in this country from now on.”

So, what illegality precipitated the intervention of a federal judge, the formation of a grand jury, and the issuance of subpoenas? An isolated instance of non-violent civil disobedience during a rally following the forum. A Grinnell College librarian went limp upon arrest. She was charged with misdemeanor assault on a peace officer. How passively resisting arrest may be considered “assault” remains unexplained. Why a grand jury needs to be convened and a gag order issued in response also remains unexplained. And secret.

Mark Smith, a lobbyist for the Washington-based American Association of University Professors, told the Associated Press he believes the case heralds a return of the infamous red squads used against antiwar activists during the Vietnam War.

In May 2002, AG Ashcroft set the stage for a return of red squads and the abuses of the COINTELPRO era. Ashcroft removed the “competitive advantage” he claimed terrorists enjoyed. In other words, the “competitive advantage” of Americans exercising their constitutional rights under the First Amendment.

According to Ashcroft, the First Amendment throws “bureaucratic, organizational, and operational restrictions and structures” in the way of FBI agents attempting to do “their jobs effectively.”

More specifically, Ashcroft’s removal of “operational restrictions” may allow the FBI to once again use agents-provocateurs, foment violence between dissident groups, ruin the lives of individual activists, and frame people for serious crimes, the sort of things the FBI did under COINTELPRO. Since the Patriot Act allows for unprecedented secrecy, we have no way of knowing what the FBI is doing. If history is any indication, they are going after Bush’s enemies.

Last November, however, evidence of COINTELPRO-like activity on the part of the FBI surfaced when a memorandum was publicized indicating the FBI had urged local law enforcement to snoop on the organizational efforts of antiwar groups in Washington and San Francisco prior to demonstrations in opposition to Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq.

“The FBI is dangerously targeting Americans who are engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, warned at the time. “The line between terrorism and legitimate civil disobedience is blurred, and I have a serious concern about whether we’re going back to the days of Hoover [and COINTELPRO]…What the FBI regards as potential terrorism strikes me as civil disobedience.”

Civil disobedience is now vigorously prosecuted and severely punished by Ashcroft’s Justice Department.

For instance, last July the Justice Department filed criminal charges in Miami federal court against the entire Greenpeace organization under an obscure 1872 law originally intended to end the practice of “sailor-mongering.” Greenpeace activists had boarded a commercial ship off the coast of Florida in April 2002. The ship was transporting mahogany illegally exported from Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The activists unfurled a banner stating: “President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging.” It was an act of civil disobedience — trespassing on private property — but so outraged was Ashcroft and the Justice Department they reached into the distant past to find an unrelated and absurd law and used it against Greenpeace. “If the prosecution succeeds, peaceful public protest — an essential American tradition from colonial times to the civil rights movement and beyond — may become yet another casualty of Mr. Ashcroft’s attack on civil liberties,” writes John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

The Ashcroft and Justice Department plan is to prosecute an entire organization. “Arrested by federal authorities, the individuals involved took their lumps; they pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge,” Passacantando explains. “But now, prosecutors want much more. Instead of thanking Greenpeace for work that promotes President Bush’s stated goal of stopping illegal logging, and instead of prosecuting the smugglers, the Justice Department wants to brand Greenpeace a criminal operation.” In December, a Federal District Court in Miami slated the case to be tried in May 2004, unless a Greenpeace motion to dismiss is granted.

The Drake University subpoenas and the Greenpeace case are two examples of the Bushite war on civil liberty, particularly the exercise of the First Amendment in opposition to a growing paroxysm of neocon violence and organized mass murder.

It is certainly no mistake the Ministry of Homeland Security issued a warning in May 2003 for local police to be on the lookout for any American who has “expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government.” Local police now serve as Bush’s posse.

Is it mere happenstance the Justice Department drafted the so-called Domestic Security Enhancement Act (DSEA) of 2003, otherwise known as Patriot Act II? DSEA would automatically deny bail for persons accused of “terrorism-related crimes,” reversing the ordinary common law burden of proof principle. Such “terrorism-related crimes” include civil disobedience. DSEA was sidelined due to unfavorable reaction after a working draft was leaked, but more than a few experts believe it will eventually be adopted in one form or another.

“Patriot Act II would deem civil disobedience a felony,” writes Kevin Merickel of the Daily Trojan, a newspaper published by the University of Southern California. “Such civil disobedience would include nonviolent demonstrations or protests. The act would consider such behavior as threatening to human life, and a charge could be punishable by death.”

Execution of dissidents convicted of civil disobedience may seem a bit far-fetched. Nonetheless, last year Ashcroft wanted three elderly nuns sent to prison for 30 years for spray-painting six crosses on a concrete silo dome in their own blood at a remote Minuteman III nuclear missile site in Weld County, Colorado. In essence, Ashcroft was asking for a death sentence.

Last month a federal court sentenced Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, to prison for the egregious crime of trespassing the property of the Ft. Benning military base in November of 2003. Kelly was protesting against the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (aka the School of the Americas, or more appropriately the School of Assassins or the School of Coups). In addition to Kelly, 27 other activists — from dangerous organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteers International — were sentenced last month to federal prison for trespassing a terrorist training camp in Georgia that would make Osama bin Laden envious.

“The timing of the [Drake University] investigation may be a not-so-subtle warning to those planning to participate in the March 20, 2004 anti-war rallys,” writes Elaine Cassel for Civil Liberties Watch. “Those who do protest better be prepared to pay with their freedom.”

And that’s exactly what those on the far right such as Ann Coulter hope for — antiwar “traitors” made to “pay with their freedom” for their “hate America” subversion and pernicious, terrorist-friendly treason.

Is it possible Richard Perle, David Frum, Ann Coulter, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, and other far right types believe it was treasonous subversion when civil rights activists staged sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom rides? Was “hate America” subversion in the air when activists in the women’s movement for the right to vote in the late 1880s participated in silent vigils, mass demonstrations, and hunger strikes? Or what about the nonviolent strikers of the Industrial Workers of the World free speech confrontations, the Congress of Industrial Organizations sit-down strikes from 1935-1937 in auto plants involving 400,000 people?

If Coulter had been around in 1846, is it possible she would have called for Henry David Thoreau to spend more than one night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax in opposition to slavery? Is it possible she would have considered his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” seditious, a tract written by either a traitor or an idiot?

Coulter and crew would likely find such comparisons ludicrous. For them, the antiwar movement consists primarily of embittered “communists,” America haters from the likes of A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), or black-clad anarchists fond of breaking windows and trashing bank lobbies.

In fact, the vast majority of people opposed to the invasion of Iraq are non-violent, if occasionally civilly disobedient Americans who find the neocon plan for non-stop mass murder and invasions of perpetual conquest morally repugnant. They understand, even if Richard Perle does not, that killing thousands of Iraqi and Afghani citizens does not prevent terrorism.

For Coulter and her ideological cohorts, opposition to war is nothing short of inexcusable treason, a “reflection of the growth of a treacherous anti-American radicalism,” as the neocon proselyte David Horowitz would have it. As the Drake University and Greenpeace cases demonstrate, Bush and Ashcroft wholeheartedly agree.

In the not too distant future there will be more subpoenas, more prison terms, more FBI invasion of civil liberties, more COINTELPRO-like abuse, especially in regard to nonviolent civil disobedience.

For as Mark Ames comments on the neocon plan for America, “It can get a hell of a lot worse. And it will. Which isn’t so bad, so long as you’re part of the American right.”

If not, a subpoena may arrive at your door any day.

KURT NIMMO is a photographer and multimedia developer in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Visit his excellent no holds barred blog at www.kurtnimmo.com/blogger.html. A collection of his essays for CounterPunch, Another Day in the Empire, is now available from Dandelion Books.

He can be reached at: nimmo@zianet.com

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KURT NIMMO is a photographer and multimedia developer in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Visit his excellent no holds barred blog at www.kurtnimmo.com/ . Nimmo is a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. A collection of his essays for CounterPunch, Another Day in the Empire, is now available from Dandelion Books. He can be reached at: nimmo@zianet.com