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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/7/17

What is a Terrorist? The Criminalization of American Dissent in the 21st Century

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In December of 2005, Eric Lichtblau reported in the New York Times that the FBI had conducted "numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show." The piece also notes that "One FBI document indicates that agents in Indianapolis planned to conduct surveillance as part of a 'Vegan Community Project.' Another document talks of the Catholic Workers group's 'semi-communistic ideology.'" These surveillance operations were conducted after John Ashcroft, then Attorney General, lifted certain restrictions on the FBI's surveillance capabilities and "President Bush had authorized some spying without warrants in fighting terrorism." The FBI had even included anti-war groups among those being spied on as leads to terrorist threats. Lichtblau's article points out that investigations into anti-poverty, anti-war, environmental groups, and others "are routinely handled by agents within the counterterrorism division."

As the Guardian reported in 2013, "Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defense planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis - or all three." The article cites the authorization of the military to respond on American soil during times of "emergency" or "civil disturbance." (That article is highly recommended for this topic.)

Like 9/11, the financial crash of 2008 can be seen as a marker in the increase of dissent being labelled terrorism and/or crime, as issues involving the environment, poverty, the military and militarized police, and others, grew worse in the aftermath. There was probably never a time in American history when the domestic population's attempt to create security through activism was not seen as a threat to the security of centralized power. But certain events, such as 9/11 and the 2008 crash, have given this attitude more legitimacy, both behind the closed doors of the security apparatus and in the public discourse.

In 2012, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund released a report that, "FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF's Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did 'not condone the use of violence' at occupy protests." (That contradiction also appears in the 2002 FBI testimony cited above). The report, which also notes the influence of corporate America on the intelligence communities, reveals that security forces all over the country treated Occupy as a terrorist threat, often working with counterterrorism organizations to surveil and police the movement.

Similarly, much of the response to Black Lives Matter -- from officials and civilians alike -- has suggested that Black Lives Matter should be labelled a terrorist group, such as the petition to the White House, which reads: "It is time for the Pentagon to be consistent in its actions - and just as they rightfully declared ISIS a terror group, they must declare Black Lives Matter a terror group - on the grounds of principle, integrity, morality, and safety." A great deal of evidence on the surveillance of Black Lives Matter shows that they are treated as a terrorist organization. In 2015, The Intercept filed a Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and obtained hundreds of documents on the surveillance of Black Lives Matter, revealed in a first rate piece by George Joseph. Among many other observations, the article inquires: "The tracking of domestic protest groups and peaceful gatherings raises questions over whether DHS is chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights, and over whether the department, created in large part to combat terrorism, has allowed its mission to creep beyond the bounds of useful security activities as its annual budget has grown beyond $60 billion." The piece also notes, again as just one of many alarming observations, that the NYPD's counterterrorism intelligence organization was monitoring silent vigils taking place in support of Black Lives Matter, and that the silent vigils were being monitored all over the country. There has also been speculation about Black Lives Matter being targeted with drone surveillance.

It is also worth mentioning that the "law and order" rhetoric of the current Republican Party, spoken most crudely by Rudy Giuliani and Trump, has been and will be a method of introducing a language into the public discourse that allows for the further criminalization of groups opposed to mass incarceration and police brutality, Black Lives Matter being first and foremost among them.

Recent developments also show that the movement for boycott, divestment from, and sanctions on Israel has become a target for criminalizing dissent as much or more than any other group. As Max Blumenthal, one of the great writers on the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, has pointed out, a push to "destroy the mounting grassroots BDS campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel" has released warning signals to many activist groups and those concerned with the slow motion genocide of the Palestinians. Led in the congress by Congress, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and figures like Ted Cruz in the Senate, the movement to outlaw BDS has gained an increasing amount of traction. Ros-Lehtinen is quoted in Blumenthal's piece as having said, "Free speech is being used in our country to denigrate Israel and we need to actively fight against that," and the piece also cites Ted Cruz, who said to a crowd of tens of thousands of AIPAC supporters, "they [BDS] will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Blumenthal writes, "From Washington to Paris to London, Israel lobbyists are extracting ritual denunciations of BDS from its political hand puppets and authoring new laws to forbid its implementation. Repressive legislative efforts are accompanied by legal subterfuge, high-tech sabotage, McCarthy-style online blacklists and carefully orchestrated smear campaigns against anyone who resists." France and the UK have already introduced legislation outlawing BDS, and AIPAC is increasing pressure on American law-makers to introduce such legislation. It has long been known that the movement has endured enormous attempts at sabotage and surveillance.

One of the latest stories around the criminalization of dissent came from Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen, who wants protests that he defines as going "too far" labeled acts of "economic terrorism" in new proposed legislation. Mr. Ericksen claims the legislation, which would make certain protests a felony, was in the process of being drafted before the anti-Trump protests sparked by the presidential election in November, but the story around it and many of those targeted by the legislation -- including socialist Seattle elected official Kshama Sawant -- are clearly related to the "Not My President" activities. The bill is unlikely to pass but serves as a precursor of what is to come, and an example of just how far down the road of criminalizing dissent we have gone.

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Matthew Vernon Whalan is a journalist and writer from Great Barrington, MA. He has published journalism in the Red Crow News, The Berkshire Edge, Spin Education, The Brattleboro Reformer, and other newspapers. He is the author of The Little Book (more...)

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