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Supressing Dissent at Drake
W hen students, faculty, and concerned community members gathered at an anti-war conference sponsored by the Drake Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines on November 15, little did they expect that some would later become subject to a government investigation and recipients of Grand Jury subpoenas more than two months later.
The forum, titled “Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!” held workshops on U.S. foreign policy and the economic roots of terrorism. The next day a small group of protesters gathered outside the Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnson. About a dozen demonstrators were arrested, including one woman charged with assault. The woman, a librarian at nearby Grinnell College, says she merely went limp and resisted arrest.
According to the Washington Post , in early February, a federal judge ordered officials at the uiversity to turn over records about the forum, which may be the first subpoena of its kind in decades. The subpoenas were served on four of the activists who attended the forum by a local sheriff’s deputy who works on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The four activists were: Wendy Vasquez, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, who visited Iraq in 2002; Elton Davis and Patti McKee, who were arrested at the November 16 demonstration; and Brian Terrell, who lives and works with his family and friends at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa.
Records were also subpoenaed from the Drake University chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild—an organization whose national office experienced government red-baiting during the McCarthy period. “The subpoena [which sought records identifying the officers of the Drake chapter in November 2003, the current location of any local offices, as well as agendas] has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with intimidating lawful protestors and suppressing First Amendment freedom of expression and association,” Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the Guild, responded in a Guild press release issued February 6.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Des Moines also convinced U.S. District Judge Ronald Longstaff to issue an order prohibiting Drake employees from talking about a subpoena the university received, Randy Gould reported on February 9, in his always informative online newsletter, the Oread Daily .
Mark Smith, a lobbyist for the Washington-based American Association of University Professors, told the Associated Press that he was not familiar with any other similar situation where a U.S. university’s records were subpoenaed. The case, he pointed out, has echoes of the “red squads” of the 1950s and campus clampdowns on Vietnam War protesters.
After several days of refusing to comment, on Monday, February 9, U.S. Attorney Stephen O’Meara finally offered the “first official details of what the investigation is about,” TheIowaChannel.com reported. “O’Meara said reports that the case is being investigated as an ‘antiterrorism’ matter that involves the U.S. PATRIOT Act are ‘not accurate’.”
“The narrow purpose and scope of that inquiry is to determine whether there were any violations of federal law or prior agreements to violate federal law, regarding unlawful entry into military property—and specifically to include whether there were any violations as a result of an attempt to enter within the fenced, secure perimeter at Camp Dodge,” O’Meara said in a statement.
The four anti-war activists were set to appear before a Grand Jury when they received word that the subpoenas had been withdrawn by the Justice Department. Brian Terrell told a crowd of about 100 cheering people outside the federal courthouse: “We made them want to stop and we have to make sure they never want to do this again.”
“If it was just a trespassing investigation, why seek the membership records of the National Lawyers Guild,” asked Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa ACLU. “If this was an attempt to chill protests through the aggressive policing of a run-of-the-mill crime, we’ve got a serious problem in America.”
Al Overbaugh, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office, told the AP that the investigation was not over, but he didn’t issue any further comment. Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney and past president of NLG who worked on the case, said that the subpoenas were withdrawn because of the “tremendous response from across the political spectrum condemning the use of the grand jury.”
I t’s really hard to tell what this means in a broader or policy sense for the Department of Justice,” Bruce Nestor said. “Clearly the FBI memo reported by the New York Times in October directed the joint terrorism task forces to compile information about political protesters. The actions of the U.S. attorney’s office in Iowa appear to be consistent with the directive in that memo. Whether that means that the Department of Justice intends to expand the use of the grand jury to investigate political protest movements is unclear. In this instance they clearly used the grand jury for that purpose.”
Whether or not the convening of the grand jury was a DOJ trial balloon or the actions of an overzealous U.S. attorney in Iowa, Nestor believes it is part of “a pattern of events taking place across the country.” During the past year, police agencies across the country have not only been gathering information, but also have used strong- armed tactics against peaceful political demonstrators. In early April 2003, acting on warnings from the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC), the Oakland, California police department indiscriminately fired wooden slugs at and injured several non-violent anti-war protesters—and several non-protesting Port workers as well—who were demonstrating at the Port of Oakland.
In Atlanta, the city’s police department “routinely places under surveillance anti-war protesters and others exercising their free-speech rights to demonstrate,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. In Los Angeles, the police department maintains files on anti-war protesters it deems capable of “a significant disruption of the public order.” In Miami, the sight of the recent police riot during the November demonstrations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, “police routinely videotape demonstrators and infiltrate rallies with plainclothes officers,” Detective Joey Giordano of the Miami-Dade Police Department, told the Journal-Constitution .
During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Paul Weyrich, recognized as one of the “founding fathers” of the Christian Right, suggested that either Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, or Congress, launch a full-scale investigation behind the funding sources of what he termed “neo-Communist” groups organizing the anti-war movement. While no full-blown congressional ly-sanctioned investigation of the peace movement has been initiated, local police departments, in cooperation with regional FBI offices, have established anti-war investi- gative units.
“This Administration is using all sorts of tactics to marginalize dissenters,” NLG’s Avery pointed out. “They’ve used pre-emptive strikes, police violence, and have resorted to penning off demonstrators in so-called free speech zones, so that when the president travels around the country people can’t get within several blocks of him.” At this time, Avery said he wasn’t aware of other cases involving the convening of grand juries to go after dissenters.
The ACLU wrote in a February 10 press release, “The Justice Department’s decision to quash the [Iowa] subpoenas comes on the heels of reports…that U.S. Army Intelligence contacted organizers of a seminar at the University of Texas Law School at Austin on sexism and Islam.”
Local NLG members were asked by law enforcement officials to provide a list of conference attendees because persons under investigation had been present. The NLG is concerned that the University of Texas could be next in line for a Justice Department fishing expedition.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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