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Town Hall meeting exposes war on dissent

Published Nov 20, 2010 6:38 AM

Speaking at a Nov. 10 Town Hall meeting here on the war on dissent, Minneapolis anti-war and Colombia-solidarity activist Jess Sundin received a standing ovation after describing her experience as a target of FBI raids on Sept. 24. “We have got to push back to stop these attacks,” Sundin stated. “We can’t let them attempt to silence us.”

Panelists Jess Sundin, Michael German
and Michael Coard.

Sundin joined a panel that included former FBI agent Michael German, who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union Policy Counsel; Paul Hetznecker, a criminal defense/civil rights attorney from Philadelphia; and Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The program was hosted by activist attorney Michael Coard.

The Town Hall meeting was initiated through the joint efforts of the ACLU and the First Amendment Network. The latter coalition arose in September 2010 in response to revelations that the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security paid the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, a private Israeli-based firm, to spy on activities of more than 300 individuals and activist organizations throughout the state. The pretext was a hunt for potential “terror” risks.

Philadelphia Town Hall meeting.
WW photos: Joe Piette

Sundin, a founding member of the Twin Cities Anti-war Committee, told what she experienced when FBI agents raided her home looking for evidence to support charges against her and other activists of “material support for terrorism.” Not only did they seize computers and mailing lists, they even searched her six-year-old daughter’s belongings.

Ten years ago Sundin traveled to Colombia where she met with many people resisting the U.S. military, including some groups on Washington’s list of alleged “terrorist organizations.” She returned home and spoke out against U.S. repression of Colombians.

Sundin noted that the 1996 law banning “material support to foreign terrorist organizations,” expanded after Sept. 11, 2001, has been used to prosecute Somali women in Minnesota simply for collecting used clothing to send to their homeland.

“Anyone involved in Central American solidarity work, anti-apartheid activities or speaking out in defense of the Irish liberation movement in the 1980s would have been affected by this law if those activities were taking place today,” she said.

All the people targeted by the September FBI raids including Sundin have been subpoenaed, but so far all have refused to appear before a federal grand jury.

Mary Catherine Roper described Pennsylvania Homeland Security spying on area activists as a “wholesale attack on the right to dissent.” Roper noted that while the state cancelled its $103,000 contract with ITRR, it reassigned such spying to the Pennsylvania state police.

“Our solution is not in the courts that have only served to protect government secrecy since 9/11,” said Roper. “We need to organize public outrage.”

Having served as legal counsel for hundreds of activists arrested for protesting at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, Paul Hetznecker was all too familiar with the city’s history of political repression.

Of groups like ITRR, Hetznecker said, “Much of the time what the government gets from these right-wing groups is garbage.” Yet, he added, it leads to anti-war groups becoming targets of federal investigations and put on “terrorist watch lists.”

“In the 1950s the label of ‘communists’ was used to stifle dissent,” Hetznecker noted. “Today it’s ‘terrorist.’ Where does that leave you if you are simply opposing environmental damage from gas drilling in Pennsylvania?”

Michael German, a former FBI agent now employed by the ACLU in Washington, raised that this type of intelligence-gathering activity has always happened at the “fringe of the law,” but now it is increasingly in the open.

“The kind of spying activities that targeted activists at Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center, in Maryland and most recently Pennsylvania is only ‘new’ in the sense that it has formalized the merger of state, local, federal and now private operations. Military intelligence is also increasingly involved in domestic spying operations,” he noted.

German described the privatization of spying: “What we are afraid is happening is that when federal regulations prohibit any [spying] activity, they can pass it off to whichever entity has the most restrictive release rules, which are usually private companies and the military.

“All of us are victims of this. Once dissent is suppressed against one of us, all of us are threatened,” stressed German.

Sponsors of the event included the ACLU, Brandywine Peace Community, CAIR-PA, International Action Center, Kensington Welfare Rights Union, Granny Peace Brigade, National Lawyers Guild, Poor Peoples Economic Summit, International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, The Shalom Center, Workers World Party and the Philadelphia Branch of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Because many of the activities targeted by the office of Homeland Security involved protests of the growing natural gas industry, several environmental organizations also participated and endorsed the event.