Released Files Indicate FBI Spying on Activists
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the FBI on May 18 in an attempt to force the release of files on the anarchist group Food Not Bombs and dozens of other left-leaning activist groups around the country believed to be the targets of surveillance and harassment by the federal agency.
An FBI file released by the agency on Sarah Bardwell, an anti-war organizer and member of the Denver chapter of Food Not Bombs, indicates the agency’s interest in the group’s connection with various protests and other activist groups, along with a suspicion that the group might be connected with plans to disrupt the Republican and Democratic conventions and the 2004 presidential election. Bardwell obtained the file through a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request.
Eight Food Not Bombs chapters operate in North Carolina. While members of the Raleigh chapter seem to have attracted some attention from federal law enforcement, the Greensboro chapter has served food for 10 years without incident.
A report transmitted between the FBI’s Denver and St. Louis offices noted that a Joint Terrorism Task Force composed of FBI agents and members of the Denver Police Department visited Bardwell’s residence on Aug. 2, 2004 ‘“to conduct pretext interviews to gain general information concerning possible criminal activity at the upcoming political conventions and presidential election.’”
The FBI defines a pretext interview as a technique for eliciting information from individuals without disclosing the actual purpose of the investigation.
The synopsis for a subsequent report filed on Dec. 7, 2004 is stated as: ‘“to document information regarding Sarah Bardwell and Food Not Bombs.’” The report notes that Colorado has four Food Not Bombs groups, that three individuals were arrested at an anti-war protest at which Bardwell was listed as ‘a point of contact,’ and that her home address was associated with Food Not Bombs and Derailer Bicycle Collective.
Bardwell could not be reached for comment on May 19. A person who answered the phone at her home in Denver said told YES! Weekly that Bardwell was possibly visiting family in the Asheville area of North Carolina. Contact persons at the Asheville and Boone chapters of Food Not Bombs said they were not aware that she was in the state.
Food Not Bombs describes itself as ‘“part of a larger, growing revolutionary movement’” and an organization whose ‘“hundreds of autonomous chapters share free vegetarian food with hungry people and protest war and poverty.’” The organization is opposed to economic globalization, restrictions on immigration and ecological destruction.
The ACLU lawsuit caps a months-long campaign by the organization to coordinate FOIA requests by 29 groups and 48 individuals in 10 states, including North Carolina, to obtain FBI files on them. According to ACLU documents, many of the groups and individuals have been visited at home by agents or called in for interviews, and have experienced heightened police presence at their events. An ACLU press release charges that ‘“the FBI and local police are engaging in intimidation based on political association and are improperly investigating law-abiding human rights and advocacy groups.’”
The FBI declined to respond to the broad allegations of harassment, but issued a statement defending its investigation of Bardwell.
‘“The interviews reflected in these isolated documents were based on a specific and credible threat received by the FBI regarding potential violent criminal activity that could have caused death or serious bodily injury and was to occur during the Democratic National Convention,’” the statement says.
Three North Carolina activist groups, all based in Raleigh and which have overlapping memberships, are included in the ACLU’s efforts to determine the extent of FBI spying. Two are campus groups affiliated with NC State University ‘— Student Peace Action Network and Campus Greens ‘— and the third is the Raleigh chapter of Food Not Bombs.
The two activities that seem to have drawn the attention of an apparent collaborative effort between the FBI and the Raleigh Police Department ‘— an arrangement typically formalized as a Joint Terrorism Task Force ‘—were a weekly ‘Honk For Peace’ demonstration held on campus and a vandalism incident at the state Republican headquarters on Nov. 5, 2004.
‘“Some kids vandalized the GOP office, and the Raleigh Police Department and the Joint Terrorism Task Force decided to target the Campus Greens and Student Peace Action Network,’” said Elena Everett, a student who chairs the NC Green Party and co-chairs the Campus Greens. ‘“Members of both those groups also participate in Food Not Bombs every Thursday.’”
Everett said the FBI asked Brad Goodnight, her Campus Greens co-chair, to come in for an interview after the vandalism incident. Police knocked on dorm room doors, called students’ parents, turned out in multiple cars for the ‘Honk For Peace’ demonstration and repeatedly asked to see the students’ protest permit even after they explained that the event had been permitted months in advance, Everett said.
‘“Definitely what they were doing was having a chilling effect on activists,’” she said. ‘“Students told us they didn’t want to be put in a position where they were being spied on. Everything we do is legal and permitted, on the up and up, so why are they targeting us?’”
Everett and Campus Greens faculty advisor Gerald Surh said the student activists were uncertain why suspicion was cast on the campus groups and Food Not Bombs for the vandalism incident. They said three people arrested in connection with the incident came from out of state.
‘“I think it was just an excuse to go after people who are very vocal against the Bush administration and the GOP agenda, and intimidate us ‘— which they did, unfortunately,’” Everett said. ‘“We hope to show that this isn’t an isolated incident. This is part of a nationwide diversion of resources to the JTTF and the FBI, and an excuse to crack down on dissent. We are just one of several indigenous rights, civil rights and social justice groups that are being targeted.’”
Jim Sughrue, a spokesman with the Raleigh Police Department, said the police arrested three individuals at the Republican headquarters and charged them with causing malicious property damage. The police identified the perpetrators as anarchists based on evidence at the crime scene, he added.
‘“I believe the information we had at the time was that the group who caused the damage had come from the area of Hillsborough Street at the university,’” he said. ‘“That’s the same area where the protest takes place. People have every right to express themselves in a lawful way. What happened that night was something completely different from a normal protest.’”
Sughrue declined to say whether the police found any evidence linking the three activist groups to the vandalism, stating it would involve intelligence information he could not disclose. He said the Raleigh Police Department works cooperatively with the FBI, but he didn’t know whether a Joint Terrorism Task Force had been formally established.
A sample memorandum of agreement obtained by the ACLU in March 2004 identifies the Joint Terrorism Task Forces as a cooperative effort between the FBI and local police departments to combat terrorism. The mission of the task forces is described as to ‘“investigate terrorist organizations planning or carrying out terrorist acts’” and to ‘“apprehend individuals committing such violations.’”
Food Not Bombs has had a chapter in Greensboro since 1995. Unlike the Denver and Raleigh chapters, Greensboro members say they’ve seen no evidence of FBI surveillance or harassment, and the group has enjoyed smooth relations with the Greensboro Police Department. And while hundreds of Food Not Bombs members have been arrested over the years in San Francisco for serving food in public places without a permit, that has never been a problem for the Greensboro chapter.
‘“We’ve served several times in Center City Park without a permit and had cops ride by on bicycles, and sometimes stop and be very pleasant,’” said Liz Seymour, a 55-year old freelance writer who has volunteered with Food Not Bombs for the past five years. ‘“It speaks well for the city’s attitude toward what we’re doing.’”
The assortment of street people, students and activists who gathered around a long table stocked with baked potatoes, yams, broccoli casserole and tomato salad last Thursday evening at St. Mary’s House on Walker Avenue for a Food Not Bombs meal seemed mostly uninformed about the attention other chapters have drawn from law enforcement.
Food Not Bombs volunteers salvage food that would otherwise go to waste, prepare it at the church, and serve it there and downtown. Street people typically help with the preparation of the food and the after-meal cleanup, erasing any distinction between those who serve the food and those who eat it.
‘“Because of the vagaries of the capitalist system, it sometimes becomes more profitable to throw away perfectly good food instead of selling it,’” says Zach, a native of Greensboro who attends UNC-Chapel Hill and, like most Food Not Bombs activists, declines to reveal her last name. ‘“One of the goals Food Not Bombs has is to salvage as much food as possible and give it away. The fact that hunger can be solved without big government bureaucracies ‘— maybe that’s threatening.’”
The connection between feeding people scavenged food and protesting the war in Iraq might not be immediately apparent. Seymour said Food Not Bombs’ name reflects the convictions of its founders, a group of anti-nuclear activists in Boston, who believed US budget priorities in favor of military spending unjustly shift resources away from human needs such as hunger.
Reflecting an aversion to mainstream society and disdain for the authority of the state, many Food Not Bombs activists exhibit a wariness of having their picture taken or being identified by name.
One activist, a ruddy-complexioned stout man with blond hair who gave his name as Red 3,000 and his age as ‘“forty-four in the streets and sixteen in the sheets,’” said the FBI is right to keep Food Not Bombs under surveillance because he harbors a desire to dumpster-dive the Pentagon.
‘“I’m glad to know the FBI is finally doing some damn good work,’” he said. ‘“They should infiltrate me. If you can keep a radical like me healthy, I’m dangerous. If you can keep me on crack, you’ve got me under your thumb.’”
On a more serious note, Seymour said Food Not Bombs tends to introduce young people to other forms of activism, and in that sense government repression is a logical response.
‘“I think they’re very astute,’” she said of the FBI. ‘“I’ve gotten in trouble with people in the past for saying this, but I like to call Food Not Bombs ‘the gateway drug to activism.””
Still, the Greensboro chapter might have a way to go yet.
‘“I requested my FBI file, and I was very disappointed when they told me they didn’t have one on me,’” Seymour said. ‘“My delusions of grandeur were shattered a little bit because I realized I’m not as dangerous as I thought.’”
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