Two takes on the surveillance story

Eric Ginsburg’s article, “Greensboro council to explore participatory budgeting” [Jan. 30, 2013], exemplifies excellent local journalism. Clearly written, it tells the public about the exciting emerging practice of direct democracy in the city by surveying many of those currently involved in trying to get participatory budgeting here. By contrast, the author’s cover story in the same issue, “Under surveillance: How Greensboro police monitor activists,” exemplifies the banality of much local journalism — banality trumped up by the trope of “exposure.” In other words, this is gossip posturing as “news”. So what exactly is newsworthy here? That we activists are being watched? The article is one “uncovered” detail or banal statement spewed after another, a litany of supposedly sordid details . The hidden premise here is that whatever is hidden by the police — e.g. whatever they do beyond the eye of the public — is worthy of the news. This is a fallacy, and actually, in this case the opposite is true.

Reading between Ginsburg’s overly literalistic lines, the article is about people who lead incredibly meaningless lives. It’s like someone found the diary of a person who had the most trite and boring job in the world. In the “About Steven Kory Flowers” sidebar, Eric “uncovers” an e-mail by Flowers admitting that he was “still dealing with long-term spiritual dryness and staleness.” No kidding! The characters that people this article have an overinflated and at the same time shallow sense of self-importance; it’s pathetic. These officers are running around following people (“anarchists”) who pose no real threat. By doing an article which takes their trite words so seriously, seriously enough to print and even hold up as dangerous, the author reifies the banality of their doings. These police officers and investigators about whom Ginsburg writes are the most sorry-assed by-products of a modern “democracy” I have ever seen. That’s what should have been “uncovered.”

The small amount of reasoning offered in the beginning and at the end (in a paragraph of just a few sentences) does not cut it. Details do not speak for themselves and are no subsitute for the author’s analytical thinking. In line with the content, the tone or form of the article are unsurprisingly chatty and gossipy, and in places the author’s vanity fits with the trumped-upness of the importance of the officers’ surveillance. This is not good political writing.

Good political writing probes things from different sides; it does not just rely on one primary source, such as “public-information  requests.” By the way, there was no exploration whatsoever about what kind of source this is. Good political writing deconstructs its own premises and probes its own thinking along the way.

Audrey Berlowitz, Greensboro

I write to applaud YES! Weekly and Eric Ginsburg for having the courage and democratic-mindedness to investigate, write and publish “Under surveillance.” The story revealed extensive spying on law-abiding citizens by the Greensboro Police Department and it’s criminal intelligence division. While here is not the place to restate the details, the essence of e-mails released by the city to Ginsburg is that people engaging in protected First Amendment activity are being spied on, logged into police files and reports and considered “subversive” and “criminal.” These GPD dossiers are being exchanged with the FBI and the federal, state and local “Joint Terrorism Task Force.” In our purported self-governing democracy and government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” the public has a right to know these details so as to act to stop it. YES! Weekly did a fine job publishing this information and serving in the classic journalistic ideal of furthering the public’s right to know in order to hold government accountable. Now we must act.

Many readers may know of our nation’s sordid history of suppressing the “right” to dissent. Shortly after passage of the Bill of Rights containing the First Amendment right to organize and dissent, the US Congress passed the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts making it a crime to merely criticize the government. Each period of history thereafter virtually always linked to protests against economic inequality and/or war based on profit or imperial gain, reveals the same pattern of repression and criminalizing protected speech and conduct. In 1976 a US Senate Committee on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans wrote in its Final Report: “We have seen segments of our Government, in their attitudes and action, adopt tactics unworthy of a democracy, and occasionally reminiscent of the tactics of totalitarian regimes.”

We must grasp that Ginsburg’s story did not just reveal spying and dossier creation on individuals and groups exercising the right at the core of a free country. It revealed that the GPD treats this patriotic conduct as “criminal.” In fact, the city took the extraordinary step of racing into state court secretly (ex parte — without notifying this paper) the evening before publication of the article to try and stop publication. The documents previously released by the city based on public records requests were claimed in the city’s legal papers to now be secret because they contained “criminal intelligence information” and “criminal investigative information.” These assertions were sworn to be true by Chief Ken Miller.

While spying and compiling dossiers is bad enough, we now have evidence that the GPD’s goal is to “disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the effectiveness of the protests or dissent. These quotes are from J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s infamous counterintelligence program known as “COINTELPRO.” But what about actual criminal conduct? That is a different and diversionary point. Ginsburg received a vast amount of documentation of spying on progressive activists which did NOT cross any line into criminality. What he found, and the city admitted in it’s legal papers, is that the GPD considers, and therefore labels, protected First Amendment protests and organizing as “criminal.” Such labeling is discrediting and disrupting; it is an effort to neutralize the effectiveness of the First Amendment activity.

The GPD are illegally choosing a “side” to support — always the status quo. Here’s how the FBI’s Hoover put it in a 1967 COINTELPRO document: “Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the Black Panther Party and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge [of skimming money].”

The historical pattern of the misuse of “rule of law” to uphold the 1 percent and their hand-picked-and-funded-by-election-contributions government officials is for spying, mass incarceration, repression and manipulation of public opinion to increase as the 99 percent become more disempowered, impoverished and vocal in their activism and dissent. These are incredibly hard times for the majority of people while the wealthy few are richer than ever and multi-national corporations rule the Earth. Across the spectrum of issues, the protesters and whistleblowers are being labeled, prosecuted and unjustly jailed. Right here in the city, the GPD faces many civil lawsuits by black police officers, many of whom were fired or otherwise mistreated because they reported police brutality and police discrimination in enforcement of the law. All the while, our nation’s chief executive, the president, authorizes and condones torture, drone killings and assassination with no accountability. Massive inequality and exploitation is the “subversion” of our nation and constitution, not concerned folks in Greensboro acting in the patriotic spirit of dissent by seeking social and economic justice for all.

Lewis Pitts, Greensboro