Accused of Intimidating Would-be-Protesters Leading Up to Political Conventions
the run up to the Republican National Convention in New York City, local and national
law enforcement are investigating people they say may be planning violent acts;
protesters say that police are going too far and infringing on free speech rights.
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the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the debate between the needs of the nation
to protect its citizens from harm and the rights of citizens to express their
thoughts and opinions has intensified.
debate has taken on a new energy recently. Leading up to the Republican National
Convention in New York City starting Aug. 30, civil rights groups and members
of Congress have accused the FBI of using intimidation tactics on known activists
to prevent protests outside the event.
"The FBI's intimidation
and interrogation of peaceful protesters brings back eerie echoes of the days
of J. Edgar Hoover," said Anthony Romero, ACLU executive director, in a Web
site statement. "Resources and funds established to fight terrorism should
not be misused to target innocent Americans who have done nothing more than engage
in lawful protest and dissent."
The FBI, however, says because it has
no evidence of a "specific plot," it must be vigilant in preventing
violence at all events of this scale.
security for the convention|
York City police have been preparing for the protests by shoring up their arsenal
of peace-keeping paraphernalia including bomb-defending devices, bullet-proof
armed personnel carriers and high-tech helicopters. The department also has infiltrated
protest organizing meetings by sending police officers, disguised as young, scruffy
protesters, to gather information.
the city government won a federal court battle with protesters from United for
Peace and Justice over the route of protest marches on Aug. 29. Protesters wanted
to use Central Park's Great Lawn for the occasion. The city has argued that the
250,000 people expected on the lawn would damage the grass and make the park unusable
through the fall.
On the national level the FBI has been questioning would-be-demonstrators
from around the country about potential violence at the Republican convention
as the agency did before the Democratic convention held in Boston in July.
of those contacted and questioned are known to the FBI for having participated
in past political demonstrations in at least six states: Colorado, Illinois, Kansas,
Massachusetts, Missouri and New York.
Hoffman, a 21-year-old economics student at the University of Missouri-Kansas
City, told the Associated Press that FBI agents first approached him and another
student on July 23. Hoffman, who said he used to consider himself an anarchist,
agreed to meet with agents at a coffee shop but wouldn't answer any questions
without a lawyer.
"They told me that in their experience that when
somebody didn't want to talk to them that meant they probably had something to
hide," he said.
"You always hear that when you become politically
active, you're put on some list. But it doesn't become real until you get a visit
from the FBI," Hoffman added.
of these tactics, including Democratic members of Congress and the American Civil
Liberties Union, argue that questioning would-be demonstrators may violate the
First Amendment right to free speech.
"Political interrogation without
suspicion of criminal activity hearkens back to the bad old days of the McCarthy
era," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties
Union. "The FBI does not have a right to intimidate people for criticizing
to Lieberman, three Missouri activists were given subpoenas to testify before
a grand jury for a domestic terrorism investigation held on the day they planned
to travel to Boston to protest, preventing them from protesting.
17 three Democratic members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to
the Justice Department asking that it investigate the FBI's actions, writing that
the inquiries seemed to represent "systematic political harassment and intimidation
of legitimate antiwar protesters"
Many activists say that the mere
presence of an FBI agent is intimidating.
"Just a visit by the FBI
has overtones," said 68-year-old activist John Young who claims the government
has been monitoring his Web site since last year. "Whether you've done anything
wrong or not, you think, 'Oh no.'"
Department and FBI officials defended their efforts to question potential protesters,
saying they are trying to detect and
prevent violence at the Republican convention and other important political events.
acts are not protected by the U.S. Constitution," Cassandra Chandler, an
assistant director of the bureau, said in statement on Aug. 16. "The FBI
has a duty to prevent such acts and to identify and bring to justice those who
commit them," she added.
Annie Schleicher, Online NewsHour