Surveillance State Hits Home

occupy-the-fbiBy Lars Din

When several activists from Occupy Gainesville went to the Oaks Mall around Halloween 2011 to perform as radical cheerleaders, they had no idea that the FBI had already warned mall security. As ridiculous as this seems, as you’ll agree once you see their performance, the implications are less hilarious.

Documents released just before the winter holidays reveal that the FBI worked with corporations to spy on participants in the Occupy movement, including the local troupe that performed in the food court (mall security reported back that the activists politely declined to give their names).

Released over a year after a FOIA request by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund[1], the heavily-redacted reports show that – even before the occupation began of Zuccotti Park in New York City, and despite acknowledgement that the movement has consistently emphasized and practiced non-violence – the FBI considered Occupy activists a terrorist threat. They show that agency policy, coordinated nationwide with private firms, favors corporate strategies to counteract protest over the people’s right to free speech or assembly.

For example, something called the Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC) advised corporate clients to avoid political gatherings – dubbed “civil unrest” – since “even seemingly peaceful rallies can spur violent activity or be met with resistance by security forces.” Repeatedly, the documents expose what Naomi Wolf identifies as the “merger of the private sector, DHS and the FBI.”[2]

Agents allude ominously to potential for criminality and terrorism. In an important way, this classification by the FBI of an acknowledged peaceful organization as a terrorist threat unpacks this terminology: anyone who aims to protest corporate crimes, expose government collusion, or help working people to support ourselves is a threat.[3]

Despite benevolent avowals[4], this isn’t about keeping us safe. As whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points out,[5] secrecy is not about protecting us. It is about control. The aim of homeland security contractors (at home as abroad), as directed by the makers of top-secret policy, is to keep corporations in control, and the public in the dark.[6]

Some of the material suggests agency contact with persons allegedly planning to assassinate Occupy activists by sniper.[7] Scary stuff.

Of course, the proliferation of this surveillance state isn’t news.

Documenting an out-of-control industry[8], Washington Post reporters Priest and Arkin show that most of these operations are contracted to private companies (almost 2,000 of them), hence unaccountable to FOIA requests.

Consequently, although we can see some details, we can really only extrapolate about scope, directions of policy, and so on. We should be cautious in drawing conclusions, nor can the documents be used to judge our effectiveness.

Tempting as it may be to view federal interest as a measure of effectiveness, speculation about their motivations for engaging in repression, surveillance or intimidation is finally only that: speculation.
In other words, just because the Feds investigate you, visit your employer or family, and so on, doesn’t mean you are being effective, a threat to their power, etc.; it only means (maybe) that *they think* you might be a threat now, or might become one, or even just that they may soon be scheduled at a hearing to justify their budget!

We must develop our own metrics: setting and reaching goals and so on. We don’t agree with their ideas about how to organize society, so why would we agree with their fears of our effectiveness?

Over the course of eight decades since Ed Bernays[9] first began—for the benefit of the owners of large corporations— to develop what Noam Chomsky called the “manufacture of consent,” our collective political power has eroded with the deterioration and conscious dismantling of our communities. What Occupy has offered many who were never politically active before is a means to become political animals, a means to organize, to transform ourselves from passive consumers to community activists.

The dissolution of communities has had the clear political consequence that dialogue and critical thought are almost entirely now an underground phenomena.

One of the reasons for the surge of popularity of Occupy around the world was the willingness of many organizers (unlike the agents who wrote these reports) to tolerate—even celebrate—the ambiguity of diversity and inexperience.

Having internalized the prejudices of our society, mythologies of government benevolence, the impossibility of group process, and so on, what inspired me about Occupy was seeing new activists enthusiastically developing new perspectives, and new skills, like making group decisions by consensus.

This openness to self-transformation and commitment to working together are the keys to the lock that corporate security states have on our world. Change must happen in the streets and in our hearts, simultaneously.

Of course, having grown up in consumer culture, most of us are vulnerable to fear, on which the swelling surveillance state depends. The release of these reports, with their mention of assassination by sniper, and coordinated nationwide law-enforcement participation, may itself be part of the program.

And if some disunity is to be expected from a hodge-podge of movement-building efforts composed of mostly brand-new activists, how much more confusion is to be expected given the array of panicked federal coordination that has apparently been spying on or disrupting free speech and assembly for the past who-knows-how-long? Remember, these documents are only the tip of the iceberg.

With all this power against us, is there actually reason for hope, or is the work of activists a futile exercise in moral self-purification? Part of the answer is that hopelessness is a choice.

We can build sustainable communities.

There is evidence, for example, in the rapid proliferation of Occupy movements in the fall of 2011 — despite the brutal crackdown – that many folks are only looking for signs that others share our willingness to take a risk for the benefit of the community.

Many may struggle only for their own (temporary) political and financial security, and assiduously avoid the scrutiny of the burgeoning ranks of security subcontractors. Others – and this writer thinks there are many of us – are simply awaiting the opportunity to work together.

We may be born with the instinct to act collectively. In any case, the political terrain of our times reveals populations largely unaware of our own power, and most of us are as shy on organizing skills as we are inclined to avoid trouble. This makes changing social relations a practice of developing a sense of perspective about what is holding us back, as well as a healthy process of community decision-making and mutual aid. In short, what’s needed is the kind of consciousness-raising and support pioneered by feminists.

Not everyone will join us: some will be suspicious of anyone who runs afoul of the authorities. These are people so scared, so damaged, finally, by the exercise of arbitrary power in their lives, that they identify with the abusers, assuming that if the government is investigating someone, there must be a good explanation for it. In my view, as global collapse accelerates, more folks may want to retreat into the psychological safety zone of blaming the messengers, being grateful that we are being “neutralized” by the state or its contractors.
Activists can learn to use compassion and caution, and a healthy dose of security culture,[10] to protect ourselves from the badly-informed, frightened, and self-righteous, including even family and friends.
We can cultivate mutual support in our activist circles, so that no one feels isolated, or obligated to remain silent, making all of us less vulnerable to the threats and enticements of agents of repression.

Plenty of work is happening underground; we won’t expect the corporate media to cover it.

For example, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, founded in December to crowd-fund transparency journalism, aims to prevent the government from being able to “attack and suffocate an independent journalistic enterprise the way it did with WikiLeaks.”[11]

As the FBI reports help reveal, greater and greater resources are being misdirected to military, incarceration, surveillance and [selective] law enforcement solutions. These profitable endeavors—intended to take up the slack for collapsing ecosystems and their human communities—will of course make matters worse.
We should assume neither that the government is embarrassed by the revelations, nor that they released the documents deliberately (for example, to scare activists). We just don’t know. What we do know is that policy-makers in government and private industry are not tracking very well: their version of reality is paranoid, xenophobic and possibly intentionally violent. More than ever, it seems clear that people of conscience must get together to act with intelligence, calmness, courage and tenacity. And join the radical cheerleaders.

[1]    “These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity.  These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.” — Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF)

[2]    “Why the huge push for counterterrorism “fusion centers”, the DHS militarizing of police departments, and so on? It was never really about “the terrorists”. It was not even about civil unrest. It was always about this moment, when vast crimes might be uncovered by citizens – it was always, that is to say, meant to be about you. “ –Naomi Wolf, “Revealed: how the FBI coordinated the crackdown on Occupy”

[3]    This is hardly news to the many prisoners serving time for their participation in anti-imperialist, Puerto-Rican independence, New Afrikan, Native American, environmental, and animal liberation movements.

[4]    The FBI spokesperson may actually be right, though not in the way they intended: “The FBI cautions against drawing conclusions from redacted FOIA documents.” — FBI spokesperson Christopher Allen, quoted in “FBI Surveillance Of Occupy Wall Street Detailed” by Zach Carter.

[5]    “Most secrecy is not directed at keeping secrets from external nations, enemies, allies, or otherwise. It’s to keep secrets from Americans… Popular government without popular information is but the prologue to a farce or tragedy.” — Daniel Ellsberg, quoted in “Ellsberg Discusses Government Secrecy” by Monica M. Dodge

[6]    Apparently, this work is accelerating. There were three prosecutions of whistle-blowers in the 40 years since Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. There have been five during the Obama administration. Coordinating secrecy is good for big business. Ibid.

[8]    “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”
      From “Top Secret America – A Hidden World, Growing Out of Control”

[9]    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” –Ed Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

[10] These guidelines help minimize effects of—and address fears around—repression. The Ruckus Society has a good PDF primer.

[11] “Government pressure and the eager compliance of large financial corporations (such as Visa, Master Card, Bank of America, etc.) has – by design – made it extremely difficult for anyone to donate to WikiLeaks, while many people are simply afraid to directly support the group.” –Glenn Greenwald, quoted in “Group Challenges Corporate Power, Government Secrecy With Crowd-Funded Transparency”

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