Standing up to police spying by Ben Dalbey

Dandelion Salad

by Ben Dalbey
July 25, 2008

Ben Dalbey reports on a meeting to protest Maryland’s police spying operation against the anti-death penalty and antiwar movements.

BALTIMORE–About 100 people gathered July 24 for a public forum and press conference in support of four activists named by the Maryland State Police in 43 pages of surveillance reports recently released to the ACLU.

The reports reveal a long-term, statewide spying operation conducted by the state police against the anti-death penalty and antiwar movements.

The forum, “We Will Not Be Silenced: Maryland Anti-Death Penalty Activists Speak Out!” was sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. It took place just four days before a special commission appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley is scheduled to hold the first in a series of public hearings on the state’s use of the death penalty.

Now, state and federal lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and state Sen. Brian Frosh, the chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, are calling for hearings of another type–to investigate the state police and members of former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration for spying on Marylanders who were doing nothing more than exercise their constitutional rights.

On July 17, the ACLU publicized the state police documents obtained through a lawsuit filed on behalf of Baltimore activist Max Obuszewski. As described by ACLU of Maryland staff attorney David Rocah, they are “the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”

The reports are comprised of page after page of detailed notes taken at organizing meetings, picket lines and educational forums, held in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park; in Baltimore; and in Annapolis, outside the state capitol building. Some of the meetings took place inside the offices of the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee.

The police reports contain no mention of any illegal activity, yet the surveillance continued for months on end.

Terrence Sheridan, the current superintendent of the Maryland State Police, last week released a statement denying that the police ever engaged in unlawful surveillance and claiming his force “does not inappropriately curtail the expression or demonstration of the civil liberties of protestors or organizations acting lawfully.”

O’Malley said that his administration “does not and will not use public resources to target or monitor peaceful activities where Maryland citizens are exercising their First Amendment rights.”

However, neither the police nor O’Malley have said that the anti-death penalty and antiwar movements are no longer under state surveillance, and both have yet to commit to a full and public investigation, including the release of all documents and prosecution of all responsible parties.

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AT THE July 24 forum, Obuszewski, a member of the peace group Pledge of Resistance and the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty; Baltimore Coalition member Dr. Terry Fitzgerald; Campaign to End the Death Penalty national board member Mike Stark; and activist and sportswriter Dave Zirin–all individually named in the police reports released so far–spoke out about their experiences, conveying their outrage and their commitment to see justice done.

The four were joined by John Duda of the Red Emma’s Collective, which runs a left-wing bookstore in Baltimore also mentioned in the police reports, the ACLU’s David Rocah, who said that his group is prepared to file legal actions on behalf of all organizations and individuals in Maryland who may be have been subject to surveillance, and Amy Fusting of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

Obuszewski, a well-known activist in Baltimore, described his years-long struggle to obtain the police records. Obuszewski said he believes he became a target of police surveillance because of his involvement in planning annual peaceful protests outside of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade in Maryland.

Obuszewki urged all those present to get involved, come to organizing meetings and join the struggle to change these policies and the priorities of a system that needs repression to survive.

Fitzgerald highlighted the hypocrisy inherent in a police agency spying on political activists in the name of protecting democracy.

The Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty is “bringing life to democracy,” he said. “This is the heart of democracy: citizens coming together to challenge policies of the government and organizing fellow citizens to change those policies. These actions by the police state of Maryland are an attack on the fundamentals of democracy.”

Stark pointed out that during the same period the state police were spying on anti-death penalty activists, the state executed two men: Steven Oken and Wesley Baker.

He said that Ehrlich’s spokespeople at the time had “one thin argument left [in defense of the death penalty], which is that in Maryland, a majority of people support the death penalty. They are so frightened of what might happen if activists get out there and talk to people…to change public opinion…They were willing to use their ‘hit men.’ They were using it as a way of furthering their agenda, to prop up the death penalty.”

Zirin reiterated his commitment to continuing the struggle to abolish the death penalty in Maryland and encouraged local activists to not give in to a culture of paranoia as a result of the spying scandal.

“One of the aims of this kind of illegal state harassment is to divide us, to keep us separated and silenced,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important we are here together tonight–out of the chill, and into the warmth that comes with struggle and solidarity. That’s why it’s so important to not let them crawl inside our heads and make us jump at shadows. That’s why it’s so very important that we continue to foster an atmosphere that is not suspicious of new faces, voices and ideas.”

Zirin also described his view that the Maryland police spying is not–as some have said–a “misappropriation” of Homeland Security funding.

“We are victims of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security,” Zirin said. “But we are not the ones who have suffered the most. They are in Gitmo. They have been the victims of rendition. They are having their mosques and homes bugged. They are our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters.

“The problem is not that DHS were surveilling the wrong people. It’s that they are surveilling anybody. This culture of fear that says some people should be watched is driven by the Islamophobia that grips our country–fed by the need of the Bush administration to create an enemy at home, even where none exists.”

Activists vowed to continue to the struggle for democracy and justice, with the Baltimore CEDP chapter holding an organizing meeting August 2 to plan future actions.


COINTELPRO Comes to My Town: My First-Hand Experience With Government Spies by Dave Zirin

Kucinich to Investigate Police Surveillance of Peace Groups

Domestic Spying

Police State