Activists report suspicious government activity: a forum on the FBI raids

By: Thomas Nephew

Activists convened at the Washington Friends Meeting House a week ago for education and brainstorming about the recent troubling FBI raids and grand jury subpoenas of peace and solidarity activists in Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan. Search warrants indicated the FBI was looking for evidence of “material support” for foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) in Colombia, Palestine, and elsewhere — but as forum-goers were to learn, the idea of ‘material support’ has been stretched past the breaking point. A diverse and engaged crowd of some forty people attended the forum, and peppered each of three speaker panels with questions before brainstorming together about the next directions they could take.

All three panels are displayed on an “11/6 forum videos” page together with links to news items, analyses, and documents referred to by panelists.

The first panel, “What’s Going On and What Are the Legal Rules in Place?,” was led off by Sue Udry, of the Defending Dissent Foundation, who spoke about the raids themselves, the shifting legal predicaments the activists involved are in, and the background of ever more intrusive, expanding uses of surveillance to address ‘terror threats’ allegedly emanating from nonviolent peace, animal rights, and environmental groups, to name a few. Using the Inspector General report on the FBI, and revelations from Pennsylvania, Iowa, and elsewhere, Ms. Udry made clear that the FBI raids are not isolated incidents, but an escalation of an already deteriorating situation.

Ms. Udry was followed by ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson. Like Ms. Udry, Ms. Richardson noted how the expanding surveillance undermined both the Constitution and real counterterrorism efforts by “dumping more hay” on the haystack, instead of focusing on searching for needles. She described the United States as a surveillance society “collecting 1.7 billion records and communications a day. … When you get to 1.7 billion, that’s not about the government going to a judge and saying “I have a suspected terrorist, I’d like to read his emails,” that’s about our government turning its extraordinary computer powers loose on the American people.Charity and Security Network executive director Kay Guinane focused on the recent Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project ruling, which she and others believe probably green-lighted the raids on the peace activists. John Hardenbergh of the National Lawyers Guild discussed the grand jury process, acknowledging the old saw that prosecutors could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich — though he got a laugh with the observation “it depends what the ham sandwich is accused of doing.”

Seen on the way home from the forum.

Mr. Hardenbergh opened a second panel, “What Are Our Rights?,” with the sobering statement, “If you come away with anything from this training… one: cops lie and the second lesson I’d like people to come away with is keep your mouth shut.” For instance, a law enforcement officer can commit a misdemeanor like smoking a marijuana joint — and then arrest someone who emulates him. When an audience member observed that the scenario was much more likely for a black or Hispanic citizen than a white one, Hardenbergh agreed: “…there’s a huge gulf between knowing your rights and having them respected. […] in our society, rights are granted on a scale, and that’s based on the [social] hierarchies.”

Camera and video use during protests were discussed as well. The rules and regulations can vary from state to state and are often murky — by design. One woman recounted a story of being questioned for taking pictures of federal Katrina-related activity in 2005. When she later inquired of the Homeland Security Department what things she wasn’t allowed to photograph, she was told that security reasons prevented them from sharing that information with her!

In a final panel, “How Should the Movement Respond?,” Nadine Bloch discussed the 2008 Maryland State Police spy scandal (discussed several times on this blog), while Raed Jarrar discussed several instances of entrapments of Muslim Americans such as Yassin Aref and the recent alleged Metro bomb plotter Farooq Ahmed into crimes fabricated by the FBI.

Audience members then brainstormed a number of ideas about how to push back against surveillance and for civil liberties. Among the ideas discussed:

  • developing a protocol for rapid response to incidents like the 9/24 FBI raids
  • preparing to push back against possible Metro initiatives to search bags
  • pushing the Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s Local Civil Rights Restoration Act (LCRRA)
  • supporting local political prisoner Dr. Sami Al-Arian (under house arrest)
  • pushing back against organized Islamophobia…

…and others. If you’re in the DC area and want to help with these alternatives or learn about others, contact Ms. Sue Udry at

I got the feeling these were people who didn’t just absorb information but were interested in doing something about it. So I’m hopeful we’ll be making real progress over the coming weeks and months.

[crossposted from]

4 Responses to Activists report suspicious government activity: a forum on the FBI raids

  1. Great write up on this, Thomas! Particularly happy to hear that you thought that these people “didn’t just absorb information but were interested in doing something about it.”

    For that matter, I’m especially encouraged to hear that there was discussion of pushing the Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s Local Civil Rights Restoration Act in that department.

  2. Sallijane says:

    Thanks for this information! It’s encouraging that people are talking about and standing against these policies. Is there something particular that GFR is able to do (in addition to helping BORDC with its local civil rights resolutions)?

  3. Matzpen says:

    When the homes of antiwar activists and socialists this September were raided by Obama’s FBI, it was a reminder that despite all constitutional guarantees, as far as the government is concerned our speech isn’t really free

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