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(en) US, Capitalist Media and Law Enforcement

From Brendan P Crill <bpc@ugcs.caltech.edu>
Date Tue, 20 Mar 2001 05:26:38 -0500 (EST)


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Capitalist Media and Law Enforcement
Thoughts from the North American Anarchist Conference (2000)
by Brendan Crill

The North American Anarchist Conference (NAAC) took place in Los Angeles
August 14-17, 2000, immediately before the Democratic National Convention
(DNC).  The authorities assumed that the conference would involve the
planning of property damage ("terrorism" as they call it) to be carried
out during protests against the DNC, and therefore heavily monitored the
activities of the August Collective as we prepared for the NAAC.

Hoping to report on the upcoming spectacle, the capitalist media in Los
Angeles and around North America also took a strong interest in the
conference and in anarchism in general during the summer of 2000.  Here
I'll discuss the experiences of the August Collective with the media and
with law enforcement and how we attempted to use the capitalist media to
protect ourselves from authorities and to spread our message.

Under the Microscope

A pattern of harassment and surveillance by law enforcement was evident
from early in the planning stages of the NAAC and intensified as August
approached.  Here are some of the many incidents we experienced before the
conference:

* Two collective members were arrested shortly after a collective
meeting for observing some Fullerton police harass teenagers.  The case
went to trial and is ongoing.  The political beliefs of the defendants are
being used against them.
* A collective member twice found her car broken into and papers
searched, but no items were taken, including some valuable items that had
been left in the car.
* The F.B.I. answered the phone at a house where two of the
collective members lived and where meetings regularly occurred.  It seems
that it was a malfunction of the phone tap; it is unlikely that they were
actually in the house.
* The same house was regularly monitored by a variety of suspicious
cars. Some were vans; others were cars with Department of Defense
stickers.  In all cases, a single driver would sit in the front seat of
the car or van for hours in front of the house, especially during
meetings.  When the driver realized he was being observed, he would
immediately leave.
* One collective member was directly approached and questioned by an
off-duty police officer.
* The same collective member was addressed by name by a random pair
of cops on the street, during the DNC protests.
* The LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) warned downtown business owners
to watch out for anyone wearing black, sporting a circle-A, or even
wearing a backpack!

During the conference itself, two suspicious boxes were noticed on a
nearby telephone pole.  Closer inspection revealed one of them to have a
lens and another to have a grating, so they presumably contained a camera
and a microphone.  Local residents saw the boxes put up the day before the
conference started.  Two days after the conference was over, the boxes had
been removed.

We had been very careful with keeping the location of the conference a
secret.  Only two members of the collective knew the address and location
of the space in advance of us moving in.  All business relating to the
space (arranging port-o-potties, negotiating with the owners, etc.) was
conducted from random pay phones around the city.  However, because of the
boxes, it is obvious that some law enforcement agency knew the location. I
suspect that very early in the organizing, at least one call to the owners
of the space was done from an insecure phone, and that authorities were
able to tap the phones of the owner.  Fortunately, law enforcement put no
pressure on the owner of the space, and we were able to move into the
space without any direct confrontation.

This harassment had consequences on the collective members.  It genuinely
worried a lot of us; as we were organizing the conference, many of us felt
it was only a matter of time before the police began arresting the August
Collective one by one, raided the conference, or shut it down from the
very beginning.  A great deal of meeting time was taken to speculate about
which law enforcement agencies were following us and what they were
planning.  The intimidation didn't get to us in that no one quit the
collective and we did accomplish our goal, but it did divert some of our
attention and resources.

It was very important that all of us were very open about any form of
suspected surveillance or harassment, immediately discussing any incident
with other collective members, no matter how paranoid or fanciful it might
seem.  The feeling of solidarity gave us all strength.

Also, since we were technically doing something legal, we decided there
really wasn't much point in going over the top with "security culture."
In any case, the collective was composed of many people who had never
worked together before and security had already been "violated" from the
beginning by allowing a lot of people with minimal references into the
August collective.  It was to our advantage to be very open with what we
were planning and not isolate ourselves from the rest of the world.

Another way we fought intimidation was by going on the offensive. Once we
realized we were being harassed, we all educated ourselves in our rights
under the US government.  All of us carried cameras, pads, and pencil and
some of us carried tape recording devices.  This way we felt we could
fight off any kind of intimidation by appearing well versed in the law and
ready to document any incidents.  In many cases, officers will back down
when they realize that their usual position of authority has been
undermined.  Additionally, documenting everything well to establish a
pattern of harassment could be used in court in the future, if necessary.

At the conference itself, an incident was diffused in this very way.  Four
police cars arrived at the conference space Friday afternoon.  Several
anarchists who were at the corner were searched for weapons. A flurry of
cameras and audio recorders answered the police and our insistence that
"we do not consent to this search!" since they had no warrant eventually
scared them away.  As the police departed, one of the officers left a
parting message: "See you next week."  He was obviously referring to the
upcoming DNC protests.

Several other forms of intimidation occurred during the conference:

* At one point, a motorcade of around 30 motorcycle cops drove past
the space, revving their engines.  
* The morning after the conference was finished, a LAPD helicopter
circled the conference space at very low altitude, obviously trying to
determine if we were planning some march to downtown. Of course all they
saw was the few of us who were there cleaning up.
* The pay phone located one block from the conference was clearly
tapped.  One conference participant made a phone call, and after he hung
up and started to make a second phone call, he heard his previous phone
call played back to him.
* A police officer driving past the conference on the street
threatened to run over a participant.

Any confrontation by the police was purely an intimidation tactic.  Due to
surveillance, they must have known that everything we were planning was
technically legal and was unrelated to the DNC.  We assumed that they had
informants at the conference, and at that point they must have known that
everything was happening as we had said it was.  We were fortunate that
they didn't just go ahead and shut down the conference and then deal with
the consequences of their illegal actions later.

Agents or Wingnuts?

Here I will take a short detour and discuss infiltration. Anarchists tend
to be very accepting of individual quirks and of odd behavior, but if this
begins to lure people away from their goals, create false and damaging
division,  or violate concepts of anarchism, it should not be tolerated in
the least.  Because a person causes trouble in a group, it does not
necessarily mean he or she is a provocateur or law enforcement agent, but
the damage to a group can be the same.  The August Collective was
unfortunately too lax and the lesson was learned in a way that severely
harmed the livelihood of a trusted friend at the Independent Media Center
(IMC).

Early in May, a person using the nickname P-dog arrived in town.  He
claimed to have worked for the Midnight Special Law Collective in
Washington, DC during the protests against the International Monetary Fund
and World Bank, and been invited to Los Angeles to set up the security for
the IMC in LA.  He claimed to be an expert in security and surveillance
electronics, and quickly gained the confidence of members of the August
Collective, DAN, and the IMC.  He attended several NAAC planning meetings
and expressed great interest in overseeing security at the event.
However, upon later checking, it turned out that he had been grossly
exaggerating nearly all of his claims.  His knowledge of electronics was
very limited and his knowledge of security could have easily been obtained
by browsing the Internet.  Often his behavior seemed very unstable and he
made very violent threats behind peoples' backs.  He turned several people
in the IMC against each other by with lies.  He stole and damaged
expensive equipment.  Everything came to a head in July, when P-dog long
overstayed his welcome at the house of a friend at the IMC and was asked
to find new accommodations.  The person from the IMC is a professional
film maker, and at one point during P-dog's stay, he asked P-dog to
deliver a master tape to his producer.  However, since P-dog thought that
he had been mistreated, he maliciously kept the tape.  This had the effect
of losing his host months of work, severely affecting his livelihood.
Upon questioning, P-Dog always claimed to have delivered the tape, even
when it was clearly not true.

At this point, several members of the IMC and the August Collective got
together and decided to take action against this individual.  Some
background checking was done, and some very private information about his
past history was determined, including his real name, a secret that he
jealously guarded. P-dog was confronted and allowed the chance to argue
his case before the general body of the IMC.  If he chose not to, we gave
him some money for a bus ticket out of town.  He chose the second option,
and we helped him pack and drove him to the bus station where he departed
for an unknown destination.  Unfortunately, in a grave oversight, none of
us stayed with him as he waited for his bus.  We therefore couldn't be
sure that he left town, but fortunately he did not show up and cause any
direct trouble later that summer.  He did not ever learn any directly
"sensitive" information about any of us, at least nothing that a
infiltrator couldn't have learned.

If someone shows up, all they want to do is security, they have a macho
"cloak and dagger" attitude about everything, and have very little
interest in any kind of ideology or the movement itself, be very
suspicious!

There were two more examples of suspicious behavior that we encountered.

Several days before the NAAC, a collective member was contacted by someone
who claimed to have extensive military training ("Just got back from
Kosovo") and was "down for some crazy shit."  He expressed great interest
in sabotage and property damage, and discussed all of this over the phone.
This person was blown off and never called back.  As far as we know, he
didn't show up at the NAAC.

At the NAAC, an individual who is known to hang around activist circles
and steal lots of money and equipment tried to enter.  This person had
spent some time at the DAN convergence space and had been behaving very
suspiciously.  Fortunately, someone who had seen his picture in a journal
recognized him and he was denied access.  A photograph of this person is
featured in the magazine Litha 2000.

Are they crazy, or are they agents?  It actually doesn't matter at all, if
they are doing something which is damaging to the goals of the group, they
must be dealt with.  To paraphrase Brian Glick's The War At Home: Address
behavior, don't speculate about motives.  This book is excellent reading
for anyone interested in understanding the tactics used by law enforcement
to undermine activism in the US.  Just because you have a tiny group or
use  "legal" tactics, don't expect to be safe!  The FBI is known to attack
groups when they are small and fragile, to smash them while they are still
weak, long before they can realize their full liberatory potential.

The Capitalist Media

Another way we decided to fight the intimidation tactics of the
authorities was to talk to the mainstream media. Capitalist media can be
expected to mangle any political message which actually holds some weight,
especially a message which is so directly antagonistic to everything the
media stand for.  However, individual journalists do believe in
"journalistic integrity" and can be sympathetic and tell a small part of
our side of the story.  They respond very strongly to any accusations of
being biased, because their reputation in the eyes of other journalists is
on the line.  Many were sincerely shocked when we told them about our
harassment by law enforcement over such a simple and legal thing.
Additionally, when explained reasonably well, the ideas of anarchism
really do resonate with most people, including journalists.

At first, the August Collective decided not to talk to the media.  Any
individual member of the collective could of course speak to the media as
an individual anarchist, but plans for the NAAC and their involvement in
the August Collective was not to be discussed.  This decision was made
after a very sensationalist 3-part series called "Anarchists in LA" was
aired on a local TV station (Channel 13, a UPN affiliate).  Nowhere in the
program did they speak to any anarchists in LA, most of the program was
about anarchists from Eugene. The series had the goal of scaring people
about all these crazy anarchists who would be showing up in LA in August
and destroying our city.  Nowhere did they  mention all of the very
positive anarchist projects that are going on right here in Los Angeles.
Therefore, we felt that any contact with the capitalist media would be
distorted to serve their own ends: selling an audience to advertisers with
sensationalist lies.

Towards the middle of July, it became apparent that talking to the media
could be an asset, both in spreading anarchist ideas and as protection, so
we decided to hold a formal press conference. We had been attacked by
Mayor Riordan in an aggressive and fanciful LA Times op/ed piece, where he
warned protesters not to cause any damage and to expect having their heads
beaten whether or not they were non-violent.  He spoke of international
anarchist conspiracies and guerilla training camps in the hills.  LAPD
Chief Parks said on the air several times that he would be watching the
anarchists and the anarchist conference closely.  On the other hand, we
had received some very sympathetic and sincere-sounding queries from
journalists. The press conference had the additional advantage of allowing
us to deal with all of the reporters at one time, rather than spending all
the additional time to talk to them one by one. The Independent Media
Center was a great help in arranging the press conference.  They were able
to take care of faxing our press release to many news outlets, providing a
space for the press conference, and providing valuable advice.

Around 50 news agencies came to the press conference, including some
international ones like CSPAN and CNN.  A reporter from UPN-13 (of
"Anarchists in LA" fame) and was confronted.  We told him how unhappy we
were with the segment they aired.  The reporter was really defensive, but
apparently our accusations of bias actually got to him, because that
night, UPN-13 flashed up the web address of the NAAC for several seconds!

Five members of the collective spoke at the press conference.  One of us
was a "facilitator" and laid down the ground rules, called on reporters,
and decided when the press conference was finished.   Three of us read a
statement that we prepared in advance, and all of us fielded questions.
In the press conference, we stuck to the point that our conference was
about discussing anarchism, and it had nothing at all to do with whether
or not property destruction occurred.  We were not willing as a collective
to condone or condemn the tactic of property destruction, since it was
irrelevant to the conference itself. In doing this, we were being honest
and we distanced ourselves from the protests.  Of course this infuriated
the media, who wanted to hear about what protests we were planning.  We
were accused of being "coy" by sidestepping their questions, and they
asked us about property damage a million different ways, but we stuck to
our agreed-upon statement the whole time.

After the official press conference was over, the media who wanted
individual interviews swarmed us.  In order not to dilute the message of
the conference, we decided to put off individual interviews until a future
date.

The press were reasonably accurate in covering the press conference.  In
one exception, our message was horribly garbled by a local TV station the
night of the press conference.  One of the collective members had made the
statement: "Whether or not property destruction occurs, it is irrelevant
to our conference."  The TV news aired only the clip "Whether or not
property destruction occurs, it is irrelevant," and manipulated it into
sounding like we didn't care if property destruction ruined peoples'
livelihoods, and in fact we might even be planning it at our conference.
Fortunately, this report was an exception.  CSPAN aired the press
conference in its entirety several times and the Boston Globe, the
Washington Post, the LA Times, La Opinion, and Associated Press all wrote
decent articles.

Most importantly, the general public got a glimpse of anarchists as who we
are and got the idea that we are not to be feared.  The police would have
looked like the assholes that they are if they had tried anything at that
point. When the NAAC started a few days later, we had a lot of mainstream
reporter contacts, all of whom were willing to rush to the conference site
in the event of a police raid.

Another successful form of outreach was to directly go to the business
owners in downtown LA, to whom the police had been talking, and explain
our side of the story directly to them.  Two members of the August
collective printed up a short letter explaining our conference and took it
in person to about 20 businesses in the vicinity of Pershing Square.  Most
of the business owners were quite friendly and were honestly more worried
in opportunists taking advantage of the protest chaos to loot.  The
specter of bomb-throwing anarchists had not scared them as the police had
intended.

Hopefully the lessons we learned in dealing with being surveilled and
harassed by law enforcement and with dealing with the capitalist media can
be of help to anarchists in their future projects. We all learned that
knowledge and understanding of the existing institutions in society, such
as the law and the media can be very important in our struggles. Of course
I don't advocate working within the system.  We must create our own
media, rather than relying on the rare and tiny tidbits of good
information that we can sneak into the capitalist press on those rare
occasions when have their attention.  We must organize our own communities
and build our own anarchist institutions rather than attempting to change
society through the legal system.    However, hopefully I have shown that
it is of great importance to understand how existing institutions function
and how they will react to us as we carry on the struggle for a free
society.


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