In a grand bit of political theater, peace activists in Ann Arbor last Friday gathered to present federal authorities with 175 "mug shots" of people who'd openly demonstrated their opposition to the war in Iraq a few weeks earlier. Good patriots that they are, these folks were just trying to make the FBI's job a bit easier, along with saving our cash-strapped government some greenbacks that could be better spent elsewhere.
Phillis Englebert, executive director of Ann Arbor's Michigan Peaceworks, came up with the mug shot idea about a month ago. But some of her colleagues thought the plan a little too "crazy," she tells News Hits. So she gave it some more thought. In the meantime, news broke that the ACLU in Pennsylvania had obtained copies of documents revealing that the feds had compiled a dossier on the Pittsburgh-based Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice. Merton, who died in 1968, was a noted Roman Catholic monk, writer, poet and pacifist.
According to the Pennsylvania ACLU, the FBI in November 2002 produced a report noting that the Merton Center "holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh and is currently focused on its opposition to the potential war on Iraq." The FBI documents also describe the center as a "left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."
The bureau apparently had planted an informer in the group, and kept tabs on it for more than two years.
"All over the country we see the FBI monitoring and keeping files on Americans for exercising their First Amendment rights to free expression," wrote Mary Catherine Rober, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "These documents show that Americans are not safe from secret government surveillance, even when they are handing out fliers in the town square an activity clearly protected by the Constitution."
The FBI, according to news reports, claimed that it wasn't spying on the Merton Center, but instead was monitoring the activities of one of its members.
The Merton group clearly didn't buy that line. "The memo may say it's an international terrorism matter at the top, but when you read the text and the subject it's clearly an investigation of anti-war activity," the Merton Center's Jim Kleissler told the Christian Science Monitor. "They clearly tried to link terrorism to public dissent."
Michigan's ACLU found the same thing. Last August, it revealed that it had obtained an FBI document indicating that the bureau was keeping an eye on two groups in this state. One was By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which is involved with civil rights issues; the other was Lansing-based Direct Action, an anti-war group.
"This document confirms our fears that the federal and state counterterrorism officers have turned their attention to groups and individuals engaged in peaceful protest activities," ACLU staff attorney Ben Wizner said at the time.
The Merton Center revelation only adds to the evidence ACLU affiliates around the country have been accumulating, says Michael Steinberg, legal director for the organization's Michigan branch.
"There's a clear pattern of people engaged in legitimate dissent being spied upon," Steinberg says. "Groups ranging from the Quakers to Food Not Bombs, which supplies vegetarian meals to homeless people, to a Michigan civil rights group to the peace activists at the Merton Center" have been subjected to government surveillance.
"We want the government to follow up on leads of terrorist activities," explains Steinberg. "But spying on groups not engaged in illegal activities is a tremendous waste of resources that only makes finding real terrorists all the more difficult."
Which brings us back to Englebert and her wonderful mug shot stunt.
"They're trying to make war protesters out to be the enemy," she says about the feds. "We have to do something about this."
If you want to do something, a visit to the Web site www.michiganpeaceworks.org is a good place to start.Send comments to [email protected]