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Life Arts    H2'ed 11/27/11

Investigative Journalist Who Blew Whistle on CT Cops Looks at Occupy Movement from Exile in Sweden

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My guest today is Ritt Goldstein, investigative political journalist Ritt Goldstein. Welcome to OpEdNews, Ritt. You've been in  Sweden since 1997. How did you end up over there? 

Ritt at Swedish Parliament, 2008

How I got here is a rather long story, but we can try the 'CliffNotes' version.

Events began for me in Norwalk, Connecticut, during the 1980s.  I was a Democratic committeeman and justice of the peace then, and I did things for people in the area that needed help with the city.  These were simple things, things like getting a municipal waste basket placed somewhere, speaking to state authorities about putting a traffic light on a corner, things like that.

I also began to hear of problems with the police, and read about some in the local paper as well.  Like many who had come of age in the sixties, I was also aware that things were not always what they should be.  One thing led to another, and I found myself involved in police accountability questions.

The local police often made such questions tough to ignore, i.e., they used a young boy as a human shield, they shot a man with a shotgun who was on the ground and helpless; they had a raid where virtually all the officers involved wore ski masks and had their badges hidden, and then took those they 'collared' to a waterfront warehouse for 'questioning', not police headquarters.  Of course, they also vandalized the Mayor's home when he challenged them, doing so in his role as head of the city's police commission.

I faced harassment too, and one day was arrested when two people unknown to me came to my door and attacked me.  I called the police, but I was arrested, though the case was eventually dropped.

As you might gather, there were very real police issues in Connecticut, and I would be surprised if they had not worsened since 9-11.

I left Norwalk in the early 1990s, moving to Danbury, and left police questions alone until another Norwalk incident occurred, a bad one involving the death of a young man there.  I then picked things up again, was soon being harassed again, but formed a coalition to address misconduct and began writing legislation to provide redress from it.

One thing led to another, and my idea for a 'State Level' elected Civilian Police Oversight Board began picking up support.  My idea was to have an elected commissioner from every county in the State, and two commissioners plus staff counsel would hear cases of alleged misconduct; but, with innovations no one had earlier considered.

My idea was to go after not the alleged perpetrator of an act against an individual, but rather those in authority over that officer which failed to hold the officer accountable.  The penalties were not criminal but job related - do your job, or lose your job.

By forcing the internal affairs and command and control people to actually do what they were supposed to or be fired, not only was the actual act of misconduct addressed, but the whole accountability structure which allowed such acts to happen.  Further, by having the Board at the state level, and with no commissioner able to sit on a case involving their own county, an 'objective distance' from the 'local considerations' that allowed misconduct to continue would end a 'level of bias', and hopefully the misconduct as well.     

Folks thought it a brilliant and effective idea, and so one might say the bad guys that liked things as they were eliminated me.  I was attacked sometimes over twenty times a day with pepper spray, my home and office were trashed with it, the steering unscrewed on my car, and since I had already received an anonymous explicit death threat and been shot at, it seemed I had a real problem.

Unfortunately, rights groups, the US Justice Department, and almost everyone I could think of that should have helped didn't.  Some did, but it wasn't enough, and I had a choice - flee or die.

On July 4th, 1997, I landed at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm.  

I knew I had to flee the US, as I was attacked in assorted states -- a private detective found my car emitting tracking signals -- and Sweden's Immigration Minister had recently told the media that the country would give equal consideration to all political asylum applications, no matter from where they came.  Sweden is also a country where English is widely spoken, and it has a history with taking in Americans dating from the sixties.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize what the Minister said wasn't quite accurate, and I spent nine years here living underground before being given permanent residency, simultaneously being thrust into a highly toxic apartment, but that's another question.

Wow. This has so much relevance to what's going on now, Ritt. You sure stirred up a hornet's nest!  I'm sure the powers that be were delighted when you left town. So you arrived in Sweden and got semi, quasi political asylum.  So what do you mean exactly when you say that you had to live underground for nine years? Weren't you safe over there?

I absolutely agree that my circumstances indeed have a bit of relevance to what we're seeing with police today, but at least I nearly died trying to stop this, and pay a price for my efforts every day still.

I should add that I also introduced my legislation to a number of states -- i.e., Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, etc. -- though the only legislative hearing I chaired was in my home state, Connecticut, and while I introduced the legislation elsewhere I doubt if anything lasting came of it.  I also sought federal legislation to lever federal funds against a state having one of these Boards, and was working on getting a congressional police accountability hearing when eliminated.

If there's a leader, and the leader is eliminated, so is the group.  Occupy is absolutely brilliant in being 'leaderless'.

As to why underground in Sweden, the reality is Sweden speaks quite well of certain things, but its actions can be a far cry from its words - they wanted to ship me home.  I avoided that for nine years by living underground here.  The Guardian has this piece about it...  

I can't help but be fascinated by your account of going underground. Can you tell us what that was like? Most of us will never experience anything remotely like that. You eventually achieved some sort of compromise with the Swedish government and were able to emerge from hiding.  Why was your initial request denied? Did they not like your documentation of the harassment you faced in the States? Were they reluctant to get involved?

When I arrived at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport it was the 4th of July, 1997.  I received 'humanitarian asylum' here in October 2006, over nine years later, and those intervening years were 'interesting'.

When I arrived, I had imagined it would be a matter of going through the asylum application process, providing evidence, and then starting a new life.  I had read that the Immigration Minister, Pierre Schori, had offered political asylum to any that were legally deserving of such, regardless of from which country they came.  And, given Sweden's reputation for clean-scrubbed integrity, I took the minister at his word.

The backdrop to Schori's statement was a debate about asylum for those of European origins in another European state, and the words of Schori and Sweden took the moral high ground.  But, as it turned out, the words of too many politicians everywhere often stand in contrast to their actions, Sweden proving no exception.

I applied for asylum within a week, which turned out to be a danger for Americans in itself.  The attorney I found to handle my asylum claim informed me that most Americans are simply put on the next flight back - so much for law and equal rights to asylum.  Fortunately, I came with extremely substantive documentation of the police harassment, assaults, and murder attempts I had endured, as well as lots of media clippings about my police accountability work.

The immigration people were stumped - they weren't sure quite what to do with me.  As I later discovered, Sweden doesn't give Americans political asylum, and while it received a number of Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were given the same basic type of asylum as I received.  This is done for political reasons, namely to avoid offending the US.  And so, while I was a political 'hot potato', my documentation and circumstances meant that the issue needed to be passed to 'higher authorities', meaning I wasn't put on the next flight back.

I went to refugee camps, living there with those from primarily Afghanistan and the Middle East, a few from former Soviet republics thrown in.  I was rather unique - the only American and the only Jew.  I recall an Iranian roommate of mine was a bit dismayed when he discovered I was Jewish.  He and I were friendly, and then I told him the 'terrible truth' - he was in shock.  How could he be buddies with a Jew?  It was actually a moment with genuine humor.

The poor fellow looked at me hard for a while as we both stood there silently.  Then, he nodded his head, and with a determined look on his face he said, 'that's okay, we're still friends'.  I smiled and gave him a decidedly sarcastic 'thank you'.  He looked skyward, probably wondering how this could happen 'to him', shook his head, and we both had a good laugh.

It's amazing how prejudice can disappear when people respect each other as people, minus any labels.  Contrary to what propaganda tells everyone, people do seem pretty much the same, regardless of where they may come from.  We all want simple respect and courtesy, a decent life, and hope for a better future for our children.  There are the good, there are the bad, and while there are decided cultural differences, people are, indeed, people.

While I started off a 'curiosity', before long I was genuinely accepted as a legitimate refugee, by both my fellow refugees and the camp officials.

Unfortunately, I was soon 'unofficially' told by a camp official that I wouldn't be getting political asylum.  The fellow even offered me a cigarette before breaking the news...I wondered if a blindfold would come next.  But, it was a friendly talk by someone who it turned out had read my file and come to more than respect me...he admired what I had tried to do, what had brought me there.  However, my asylum decision was not in his hands.

Before fleeing The States, I had been explicitly told I was 'a dead man', and I had no desire to let that job be finished - I couldn't go home.  Before I even booked a flight from Kennedy, some colleagues and friends had urged me to flee abroad, it being obvious what the outcome would be if I didn't.  So, I had a real problem - the camp official said everyone believed I was genuine, but I was from the wrong country.

I began to consider my options, and as it turned out, one of the Middle Eastern fellows I knew helped.  One day, when I was doing some laundry, the fellow came in and quietly gave me a phone number to those that sometimes will help a refugee 'go underground' until something can be done.

While Sweden has a reputation for dogmatically following laws, it has never quite seemed that way to me.  Here, in my opinion, politics is the law, and what is in the law books appears virtually irrelevant, and this is sadly something that seems to have ever more substantive implications, implications decidedly troubling for any that have foreign origins.  But, until just five or so years ago, it also meant that a person's cause could be politically championed, and while the assorted authorities and courts in theory are completely independent of this, it does seem the exact opposite is the case.  

The legitimacy of my asylum claim was eventually championed by five of the seven parties in the Parliament here, as well as senior members of the Swedish clergy, and a Committee of the European Parliament ( ).  But the politicking took a lot of years, most of which were not so bad.  Curiously, the five years since I received permission to stay have been my worst, dating from the time I 'surfaced' and was immediately thrust into a highly toxic apartment, one where Sweden's most influential paper, Dagens Nyheter, headlined, "They gave me a toxic waste dump" (De gav mig en giftig soptipp).

The problem I faced in finding sanctuary is the same one any Westerner will - no Western state wishes to offend another, and giving 'protection' to someone's national can be perceived as a statement.  What the Swedish authorities did was essentially acknowledge my legitimacy, but toss out reasons to refuse me protection that did seem at odds with written law.

In example, when an appeal of mine was rejected in February 1998, an Appeals Board spokesman told Reuters that: "He may have been harassed...but it was by individual police and not authorised by police authorities".  The spokesman then added that my abuse "could have happened in Sweden as well. The United States is a recognised democracy."
( )

Notably, though my appeal was turned down on this occasion, the law stated the fact of the abuse I faced was sufficient for protection, whether it emanated from state authorities or not being then irrelevant, according to the written law.  But, as seen in America's Occupy protests, there can be a substantive gap between what law says and how a court interprets it.

Regardless of where one is, it does seem politics influences law, the only question being the extent of that influence.  And fortunately for me, politics and supporters also found me places to stay while underground.

My time underground provided enough experiences to fill a book or two in itself, and I lived in a number of cities, towns, and villages during those nine years.  The places I slept ranged from a closet, to a stately compound in a small city, to an examining table in a therapist's office, to a huge old house deep in the woods.  It was interesting, as was knowing that if a police officer ever asked me for identification I would be arrested and deported.  But, in spite of this I wrote some of my most significant articles during this time.

It was the summer of 2002 when I wrote "US planning to recruit one in 24 Americans as citizen spies" , breaking the news on 'Operation TIPS', a Bush administration program to use mailmen, the UPS person, cable tv people, truckers, and almost anyone else that entered a US home or business as informants to report 'suspicious activity'.  Fortunately, the program was killed in Congress four days after my story broke ( ).  I also wrote another piece then, one warning that structures for US martial law existed, and that widespread internal dissent could trigger both these and internment camps, or concentration camps if you would.  

That article is titled "Foundations are in place for martial law in the US", and I soon had the rare honor of having it read in its entirety upon the floor of Congress, the occasion being a period when the Bush administration seemed to be considering the internment of Arab Americans, similar to what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII ( ).  I guess one might say that while I may have been forced to flee America, I never abandoned her.  

Constant state surveillance has become the norm these days. You could say that you saw it all coming, including the governmental response to the Occupy movement. Thank you for exposing Operation TIPS, Ritt! How do you cope with the fact that you've been kept from your family and friends back in the States? That must be so hard.  

Thank you, Joan.  And yes, I have written about the issues we face today, but what any of us write is accepted by our readers only if those readers are able to 'see', to understand and agree with, what we are saying.  When it comes to issues regarding the abuse of power by our government or its police, it's all too understandable how people's trust can be taken advantage of, with that trust blinding so many to the darker exercises of police power that have for too long occurred.  

When we see these brutally nightmarish visions of police violence against innocent protesters, we're shocked because we haven't been aware that our police have behaved this way for many years now.  We want to believe that while our police and government aren't perfect, there are certain limits as to just how wrongfully they may act, but -- as evidenced by too many videos of brutalized Occupy supporters -- sometimes we vastly underestimate the capacity for wrongdoing.

Of course, that's also why we see -- despite the video evidence -- some people blaming the Occupy supporters for their own brutalization, refusing to believe that our police could do such harm without good reason.  Even worse though, our 'authorities' are well aware of this tendency, and play upon it, i.e., the claims that the UC Davis police felt 'threatened' in an attempt to legitimize the brutal pepper spraying videotaped there.

Attempts to somehow 'demonize the victim' are an old story, and it's far easier to blame most victims than face the far harsher reality of what our society has become, how empty some of the assumptions about our police, about our own safety, are.

About a year ago I wrote in an article that "when confronted by concerns about our security, about that bubble of safety we create about ourselves and our own, it's effectively a lot more reassuring to blame the victims of misfortune for their own fate, so avoiding the unsettling thought that such tragedy could happen to us. We cling tightly to an unspoken assumption - or perhaps for many, truly a prayer - that since the world is "just', we will be fine, so long as we 'do what's right.'

For those feeling less than secure, the difficulties of looking beyond such thoughts can be readily understood. It would indeed be comforting if all 'victims' were simply wrongdoers of some sort, miscreants that got what they deserved.'"

Blaming isolated victims of police violence is all too easy, and it's only the massive, undeniable, and widespread brutality shown Occupy that has awoken so many to police problems.  Of course, while it's understandable how people could blame the victim, such conduct only served to hide the abuse and ensure its continued growth, not to mention destroying the abuse victims themselves.

I imagine the reason my own circumstances never raised much of an outcry was that I too was an isolated victim, with a combination of fear and missplaced trust muffling most of the voices that might have been raised.  But obviously, when 84 year old Dorli Rainey got a face full of pepper spray, that shocked many, with part of that shock being the utter impossibility of 'blaming the victim' here, thus forcing many to face the reality of what our society has become.  

Truly giving up the belief that one will be fine so long as one does 'what a person should' won't be easy, though an illusion is sadly all such a belief has too long been.  And since 9-11, things have gotten steadily worse.

For obvious reasons, the shock of what happened then left many with profound concern for our vulnerability, driving good numbers of such folks into the eager embrace of their 'Big Brother'.  The so-called Patriot Act, and other security legislation, predictably followed, Operation TIPS being just one part of that.  But there have long been those that sought to militarize our police, sought the power to place the kind of controls upon elements of our population that are not generally associated with democracies, with even the extremes of martial law and internment camps among these, and the actual mechanisms for doing these things were created during the Reagan administration.

As I warned in 2002 that mechanisms were already in place to declare martial law should there be "violent and widespread internal dissent", I'll add that I'm quite happy that Occupy sees non-violence is the way forward.  But while it's said the Reagan years ushered in the 'legitimation of greed', the ideals Occupy so courageously strives against, is it only our finances that began to suffer?  

We have seen the 'redistribution of wealth' in America, the upward path of what were once our assets; but, is it just our physical assets that were taken from us and 'redistributed'?  As folks see with airport security, the data mining of our phonecalls and emails, the ever increasing license of our security personnel, have certain 'rights' -- intangible though they may be -- been taken from us and passed upwards as well?  

If one looks at the brutal reactions of so many in government and law enforcement to Occupy, it would seem the rights to free speech and assembly are not what they once were.     Many today ask 'what have we become, how did we get here', and I did write about this as well .    

You raise many provocative questions that it behooves us to ponder, Ritt. I hope this will be the first of many such conversations. Good luck with your health and circumstances. I appreciate that it's rough going for you.  And thank you so much for talking with me. We need journalists like you out there.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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