Taking a Stand Against FBI Repression of the International Solidarity Movement

Published in the June 2011 Newsletter of Interconnect

Anti-war activist Meredith Aby, center, whose home was raided by FBI agents in Minneapolis, is surrounded by supporters as she addresses the media, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010. The FBI said raids were made in Minneapolis and Chicago as part of a terrorism investigation. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

by Meredith Aby

In September of 2010, 14 peace and international solidarity activists in the Midwest, including myself, were subpoenaed to testify at a secret grand jury investigating them for material support for terrorism.  The FBI also raided seven homes in Chicago and Minneapolis, and the Minneapolis Anti-War Committee’s office.  And in December, nine Palestine solidarity activists were subpoenaed in Chicago.  All 23 are refusing to testify because this is an attack on First Amendment rights to protest, to free speech and to assemble.  They refuse to participate in a McCarthy style witch-hunt and face potential jail time for refusing to testify against fellow activists in the U.S. and in war-torn countries like Colombia and Palestine.  Most recently in May, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department SWAT team and members of the FBI conducted an early morning raid on the home of immigrant rights leader and veteran Chicano activist Carlos Montes.  He was charged with a weapons violation but, when he was taken into custody, the FBI pressed him for information on subpoenaed activists.  Montes, like the 23, refused to cooperate.

The FBI has a history of intimidation and repression against the international solidarity movement – especially in solidarity with Latin America.  In the 1980s activists with groups like CISPES, the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America, the Nicaragua Network, and Witness for Peace were all under FBI surveillance for the “crime” of opposing US foreign policy towards Central America.  Groups like CISPES were infiltrated and countless activists were followed, harassed, and investigated. The FBI used CISPES’ stance in solidarity with the people of El Salvador and their support for the FMLN as an excuse to violate civil liberties.

Groups in solidarity with Nicaragua were also targeted in the 1980s by federal law enforcement. Activists were detained, interrogated and searched after visiting democratic socialist Nicaragua.  These activists were targeted because they supported a government the US was actively trying to overthrow and because they were trying to influence public opinion foreign policy.

According to The FBI v. the First Amendment, from 1981 to 1985, the FBI investigated 1,330 groups and 2,379 individuals who opposed U.S. policy in Central America.  The investigation involved at least 20,000 FBI employee hours and repeated violations of First Amendment-protected activities at public demonstrations and religious gatherings.  FBI surveillance included break-ins, infiltration, mail covers and wiretaps.  However, what was illegal in the 1980s is now actually legal under the PATRIOT Act and our case demonstrates how this history of government repression of the international solidarity movement is continuing.

Surveillance Started at the 2008 RNC

Leading up to the Republican National Convention in Minnesota in 2008 law enforcement sent many agents into local grassroots organizations.  After the national security event was over one agent, “Karen Sullivan”, stayed for another two years.  She participated in the Twin Cities-based Anti-War Committee (AWC) and represented them in national phone meetings for the Latin America Solidarity Conference and the Colombia Action Network and at national events like the U.S. Social Forum and the School of the Americas Watch protests.

Jess Sundin, an activist who has been subpoenaed, explained Karen Sullivan’s  infiltration of the AWC, “…she was a law enforcement officer. She was working to disrupt our political organizing. This is more than a story of personal betrayal, but one of political repression. It sickens me that, on the word of this liar, the government came into our homes, seized our property, and launched a grand jury witch hunt that has snared not only those that knew Karen Sullivan, but now so many other good people from here to Chicago.”

Why I will not testify at the grand jury

I have chosen not to testify because I have little doubt that any list of names I provide would be used to open more investigations on more activists.  In addition, people risked their lives just to meet with us in Colombia.  Some campesinos were so afraid of government retribution that they asked not to be photographed.  The campesinos asked that we not disclose their names when we got back to the US, nor even the area they are from. The right wing Colombian government considers anyone who even dares to join a trade union as an enemy of the state.

“Material support of terrorism”

The FBI has stated that this is an investigation to find evidence of material support for foreign terrorist organizations (FTO’s).  The label “terrorist” is as politically loaded today as the term communist was in the 1950s.  “Terrorists” are anyone the State Department decides should be on the FTO list.  There is no review, oversight or appeal of this decision.  The FMLN (the current party in power in El Salvador) was on this list. The African National Congress (movement in South Africa fighting apartheid in the 80’s), elected to power in 1994, was on the list until 2008.

Despite how it sounds, “material support” is not just about whether someone sends money to a designated “terrorist” organization.  A recent Supreme Court ruling, Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, opens up the possibility that free speech advocacy can be considered “material support”.  This statute has been used extensively against Arab, Muslim and Somali activists.  The National Lawyers Guild sees this case as expanding political repression to include anti-war and international solidarity activists of all sorts, and to criminalize delegations and humanitarian aid.

While the FBI spends its time investigating and repressing constitutionally-protected activism, there are people with blood on their hands in the US who face little or no scrutiny for their deeds.  In Colombia, corporations like Coca-Cola, Drummond Coal, Occidental Oil, BP Amoco and Chiquita all have hired death squads to kill people who stand in the way of their profits.

Time to Stand in Solidarity!
Heather Day, a long time El Salvador solidarity activist from the Committee to Stop FBI Repression in Seattle, explained the significance of this case for our movement,
“The FBI’s attack against Midwest anti-war activists represents an attack on all solidarity activists because it means that all people who are organizing to change US foreign policy are potentially the targets of this investigation. As a longtime CISPES activist, I know that FBI investigations threaten to destroy our movements. But when we stand together and keep organizing effective alliances, we counter the potentially chilling effect on solidarity and build even stronger movements. By working together and doing everything we can to stop this investigation and bring justice to our brothers and sisters facing repression today we send a strong message to the FBI that criminalizing dissent through charges of “terrorism” is unacceptable.”

Since September there has been an amazing outpouring of support across the nation in defense of dissent and solidarity.  More than 400 organizations have sent statements of solidarity, more than 10,000 people have signed the Pledge of Restistence or the IAC petition, and there have been hundreds of events including protests, speaking events and fundraisers across the country.  Please join the movement of people fighting back so we can turn this tide of repression!  For more information go to stopfbi.net.

[The author is with Peace with Justice(PwJ), and spoke at  the LASC V conference, which PwJ co-sponsored. She can be reached atantiwarcommittee.org.]