Spied on because of our ideas

December 2, 2008

Laura Lising, an anti-death penalty activist and International Socialist Organization member who was illegally spied on by Maryland police, describes how activists are standing up to this repression.

I AM very, very proud to be a socialist, although I must admit I never expected to be announcing that to the local and national media at a packed press conference.

And yet, I recently found myself doing just that--explaining that being a socialist is why I fight against the death penalty and the war, among other things, and discussing how that caused the Maryland State Police (MSP) to place myself and another International Socialist Organization (ISO) member, Shane Dillingham, in a federal database with the label of "terrorist."

The press conference was intended to highlight many of the latest revelations in the Maryland State Police spying case and to make public many of the files that the police had recently released to us. We wanted to express our continued outrage and press forward the demand for a full and transparent investigation, and accountability for this infringement of our First Amendment rights.

Although just a few weeks ago, we had forced the police to back down and release print copies of all files for the 53 activists wrongly labeled as "terrorists," the files that were delivered to us were ridiculously redacted. In some cases, they were almost completely blacked-out, with only a sentence or two remaining.

Anti-death penalty demonstrators march outside Baltimore's Supermax prison in December 2005
Anti-death penalty demonstrators march outside Baltimore's Supermax prison in December 2005 (Ben Dalbey | SW)

Still, on careful scrutiny, there were many important revelations, including: the covert infiltration of another activist group (contrary to police claims); the continuation of monitoring as late as 2007 (contrary to police claims); possible modification of the files one week after the initial revelation of the spying (which would be illegal destruction of evidence); and the monitoring of student activists.

Another important issue revealed by the files is that the surveillance covered a wide range of activist organizations and individuals, contradicting the police claims that the spying was initiated at the request of the Maryland Department of Corrections to ensure that a pending execution was carried out smoothly, and that the surveillance was limited to death penalty groups.

Clearly, this process was an attempt to intimidate the broad left in Maryland.

THE STATE police seem to think that releasing such horribly redacted files should satisfy everyone, but American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney David Rocah expressed the sentiment of the group when he called the files released "a joke."

The police claim that the redactions were only of irrelevant parts of each person's file, but like many of their claims, this is clearly contradicted by the facts.

Not only is it clear from the format of the files that relevant information was blacked out, but one of the heavily redacted files, that of activist Max Obuszewski, contained significantly more redacting than the same files released by police in July after Obuszewski filed a public information request. Comparing these files shows, for example, that the MSP redacted details about sharing information with other police agencies, information that is clearly relevant, but that is, as Rocah put it, is "politically embarrassing."

Barry Kissin, an activist from Frederick, Md., who was targeted for protesting the expansion of bioweapons research at Fort Dietrich, expressed his anger that "after engaging in this secret intrusion, which everybody knows is wrong, including [the police] by their own admission, they are now engaging in pervasive secrecy about what they did."

Although some of the journalists at the press conference seemed most interested in what kinds of lawsuits might be used to impel full police disclosure, the group made it clear that we expect Governor O'Malley to step in if the police continue to stall and obfuscate.

Although the police had claimed to be monitoring only anti-death penalty groups, the activities described in the files included monitoring of protests and organizing against environmental destruction, abuse of animals, the war in Iraq, bioweapons research, the National Security Agency and others.

Targets of the spying included both unaffiliated individuals and members of local and national organizations, including at least one individual who has never been to Maryland (except perhaps passing through on I-95).

The police had also claimed that the only "covert" infiltration they engaged in was of the three groups in the initial revelation--the Committee to Save Vernon Evans/Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the Takoma Park Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Pledge of Resistance Baltimore, an antiwar group that was connected by one member to the death penalty groups.

However, the files from the Frederick activists show that an undercover police officer also attended one of their meetings pretending to be an activist.

Another important revelation was the duration of the surveillance. After the spying first came to light, the police claimed it was limited to the period from March 2005-May 2006. However, one activist's case file was created in January 2007, revealing yet another lie from the state police.

The fact that a student group was surveilled is also alarming. Shane Dillingham and I were targeted, we believe, because our names were on file with the University of Maryland as student leader and faculty adviser for the student chapter of the ISO.

We had helped to organize a "Live from Death Row" event on campus featuring death row inmate Vernon Evans via telephone, and several of his family members in person. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the ISO were the official sponsors of the event.

The police files claim that our names were being included just in case protests became violent. However, this event was not a protest, but a speakers' forum. No protest was being planned at this event, and most notably, no Maryland death penalty protest had ever had even a hint of a disturbance at it. As Shane stated at the press conference, we were targeted, "not because of what we've done, but because of our ideas."

Information about student groups is available to the public, so there is no indication that the university knowingly gave our names to the police, but we plan to demand that they make a public statement renouncing this infringement on the rights of students and affirming students' right to organize on campus.

THERE HAVE also been new developments at the federal level. Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, along with Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, have called on federal agencies such as the NSA, Homeland Security, the FBI and the Justice Department to reveal if any of the 53 activists are now in their databases.

This is a positive step, although there is some irony considering that Mikulski signed the recent FISA bill granting immunity to telecom companies that helped these same federal agencies illegally spy on U.S. citizens at the request of the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press continues to push activists to provide concrete evidence of the harm this has done to us in terms of loan applications or flying--as if being spied on by the police isn't itself inherently harmful and invasive. Any look at the history of the FBI's counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO, and other similar instances of state repression shows clearly the chilling effect these kinds of attacks can have on the left.

Those who are targets of the Maryland police are fighting now, however, knowing that if we stand up, the activist community may become even stronger as a result.

In a way, the actions of the Maryland police have brought together many of those on the left in Maryland. Many of us are now working together, trying to figure out the most effective strategies and acting collectively. We feel a real sense of solidarity.

The continued press coverage of this scandal is being followed closely by many in Maryland, and stories have highlighted what the governor-appointed investigator has said: "The subjects of MSP's investigation are, in a particularly meaningful respect, the opposite of terrorists: they are individuals committed to changing the policies or conduct of the government through strictly non-violent means."

Many of the Maryland residents following this story probably had no idea that there was so much activism happening in their communities, and most are angry that we are being targeted, especially when there are so many other important uses for scarce public resources.

When I mention what is going on to friends and neighbors, they are universally supportive, even if they might disagree with some of my political views. It has given me even more opportunities to talk about my politics--why I fight against the death penalty and organize here in Maryland.

Now is a great time to be talking about what socialism really is, and to be building the movements that we need in order to start winning more for all of us.

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