Abuzuaiter denies e-mails, public decries police surveillance
Greensboro Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter denied that multiple e-mails attributed to her and originating from one of her e-mail addresses were written by her, saying she had no communication with the Greensboro police’s criminal intelligence squad. Abuzuaiter’s assertion is contradicted by an e-mail trail involving numerous officers in different divisions. The e-mails were released in a public-information request and reported in a YES! Weekly story on police surveillance.
Abuzuaiter said she was not ready to call for an investigation into whether the messages were altered, falsified or whether someone had accessed her e- mail account, saying she was focused on physical threats she had received since the article was published from “leftwing” people criticizing her relationship with the police. One e-mail from Capt. Mike Richey referred to Abuzuaiter as a “frequent CI [confidential informant]” and asked other officers to keep Abuzuaiter’s role a secret.
The police department directed all questions regarding the issue to Chief Ken Miller, who declined a telephone interview before this article went to print.
Abuzuaiter denied acting as a confidential informant, but said she had called the department confidentially.
“I don’t think I would ever, ever send something confidential about friends,” Abuzuaiter said, referring to different community organizations she participated in and that e-mails show she sent information about. Abuzuaiter said she had communicated with the police on several occasions, both personally and in connection with organized protests or vigils, out of public-safety concerns.
Before being elected to city council in 2011, Abuzuaiter served as a human relations commissioner and was active in many different community organizations ranging from candlelight vigils to being willing to commit civil disobedience to stop the White Street landfill from reopening. She continues to actively participate in an array of social movements, including the Renaissance Community Cooperative and the Greensboro Currency Project.
NC A&T University professor Michael Roberto, who spoke at the Feb. 5 city council meeting in Abuzuaiter’s defense, said in an interview that the bigger question is why the police are surveilling people engaging in protected First Amendment speech.
“Based on what I know about Marikay and what she’s said and what I’ve read to date, I believe Marikay when she says everything she did was in the interest of public safety,” Roberto said. “I also suspect that a narrative of her activities as a so-called confidential informant was fabricated, therefore making her an unwitting tool of the criminal intelligence unit’s design. If there were lapses in [her] judgment I don’t believe on the basis of what I’ve seen to date that they were intentional or malicious.”
Abuzuaiter denied that she communicated with Detective Rob Finch, saying she never exchanged e-mails with him to her knowledge, has never met him and doesn’t know anything about him besides what she has read in YES! Weekly. Numerous e-mails in the publicrecords request on Abuzuaiter’s e-mail address revealed direct correspondence between her and Finch, despite her repeated disavowals. She confirmed that the address is her account, and said it was possible she sent him mass e-mails unwittingly.
An Oct. 4, 2011 e-mail suggests otherwise — in a message that only went to Finch, Abuzuaiter forwarded information about a protest against Tony Blair and added, “not great info… but got this… this listserve goes to about 200. Just let me know you got it by text.”
Abuzuaiter denied sending the e-mail.
One June 7, 2011 message from Abuzuaiter included an attached protest flyer and a note reading “As requested” that was only sent to Finch. It was the beginning of a short e-mail exchange, and his response was signed as “Detective Rob Finch, Greensboro Police Department, Criminal Intelligence Squad” as well as his office and cell phone numbers. Abuzuaiter said she did not send the e-mails.
Donnie Turlington, the city’s communication manager, directed questions about the possibility that the publicinformation request results were altered to the police department. He said the request wasn’t flagged for review by the police department to prevent the release of information that was confidential as it should have been. The city requested a temporary restraining order to prevent the release of the article on police surveillance but was denied by a superior court judge. Turlington said city staff is still reviewing why the Abuzuaiter request didn’t receive the proper review, but confirmed that his office didn’t go over the files, acting more as “the post office” communicating the request and then turning over the files. He added that the request doesn’t pass through many hands before being released to the public.
The councilwoman said she didn’t know who could have falsified the e- mails or accessed her account, mentioning that a spammer accessed it several years ago and used it to try and solicit money, but said she hasn’t had problems since changing her password prior to the e-mails in question.
“Maybe I’ll be proven wrong some day but I don’t feel [Greensboro police] framed me,” she said.
A Sept. 5, 2011 e-mail to Finch about tea party plans to disrupt a GOP meeting couldn’t have come from her, she said.
“I wasn’t on e-mail from August until actually probably around the end of September,” Abuzuaiter said, due to knee pain and surgery. “I was out.”
Abuzuaiter also denied sending two e-mails on Feb. 25, 2012 with photos of a map for a planned protest against Bank of America in Charlotte. The messages contained no subject or text and were only sent to Finch. No response was included in the files. Abuzuaiter said she never took a picture of the map or sent it to anyone, adding that the camera on her phone was broken and said she couldn’t have taken the photos.
Brigid Flaherty, a member of the NC Coalition Against Corporate Power, helped organize the “Make Bank of America Pay” protests in Charlotte that the map was used for, was disheartened that the information was sent to police. Flaherty said the map of Charlotte was borrowed from the coalition to protest the Democratic National Convention to plan the protest against the bank’s wrongful foreclosure on homeowners, environmental policies and financial role in politics. The coalition met with Charlotte police before the protest, she said, but did not agree to communicate with Greensboro police about its actions.
“The fact that this person was not being honest around her intention in the meeting is a big blow,” she said. “It sows a lot of distrust in movements and it is a big blow to unity, so I am very disappointed to hear that.”
Flaherty added that she was concerned that police were interested in monitoring lawful organizing in the first place and that it seemed like a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Two other e-mails about the “Make Bank of America Pay” actions were forwarded from Abuzuaiter’s account to police, including one forwarded to Finch that said “The banksters in Charlotte are up for a HUGE surprise on May 9!” Abuzuaiter said she forwarded messages like this one or others from the Beloved Community Center that said “please spread the word widely” to her extensive e-mail contacts, but the Charlotte protest e-mails and others were only sent to Finch. Roxana Bendezu, a field organizer with the coalition who sent the initial e-mails, could not be reached for comment.
LaTonya Stimpson, who pushed back against the eviction from and the management of Hairston Homes, said she isn’t surprised police relied on an informant to get information about tenants’ organizing work.
“It’s always been like that and there isn’t anything people can do about that,” Stimpson said, adding that she wasn’t doing anything illegal so it didn’t really bother her. “I thought they all were there to help the situation not hurt the situation, but that’s what the police do is send people out there to dismantle things.”
Stimpson said information police receive from “snitches” is often incorrect but used anyway, and said an officer has been harassing her sister based on false intelligence from an informant.
Abuzuaiter said she formed a relationship with Capt. John Wolfe, who oversaw the department’s gang squad, through a youth-mentoring program called LYFE but said she never communicated with Wolfe about the Beloved Community Center or Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation. Latin King leader Jorge Cornell and the Beloved Community Center worked together closely to bring up allegations of repeated police harassment, and asked the US Department of Justice to investigate the police department’s treatment of the Latin Kings.
The public-information request includes several e-mails Abuzuaiter forwarded from the Beloved Community Center about its work with the Latin Kings and involving police harassment, including one to Wolfe. Abuzuaiter initially denied sending the message, saying that the signature “Mkay” was not how she signed her name and proved it wasn’t from her, later recanting her statement when other e-mails that she said were from her were signed the same way.
“I don’t know why I would have done that,” she said. “I honestly don’t know.”
Abuzuaiter sent another e-mail about a meeting against an eviction in Hairston Homes at the center to Officer Teresa Biffle and mentioned the Latin Kings presence at the meeting. She said she doesn’t recall sending it but said she hopes her action didn’t endanger them or increase the level of surveillance they were under. Beloved Community Center staff declined to comment for the article.
When pressed as to whether an investigation into the e-mails in question was necessary to determine if someone tampered with the files, Abuzuaiter said, “I think we should find out, yes,” but stopped short of calling for an investigation. Roberto said one is absolutely necessary.
“We need a thorough investigation of the entire matter and this is one reason why we need an independent police review board because the police cannot investigate themselves,” he said.
Beyond the e-mails in question, Roberto said the department’s definition of criminal intelligence flies in the face of the Constitution and implies that any political gathering is criminal.
“We need to get to the bottom of this, and the city council must be fully responsible for doing so,” he added.
Mo Kessler, the co-owner of Glenwood Coffee & Books and an Occupy Greensboro participant, also questioned why police needed to monitor activists, especially groups like Occupy Greensboro that are open, transparent and law-abiding. Kessler said she felt criminalized and heartbroken by the department’s surveillance, adding that staff has caught police going through the bookstore’s trash and said an undercover officer came in and asked questions about whether Occupy still met at the bookstore.
E-mails in a separate public-information request filed by YES! Weekly revealed that Finch went undercover in Occupy Greensboro. In one message, Finch wrote that he was in an Occupy meeting and trying to convince the group to focus on its encampment rather than protest near a Bank of America office on Benjamin Parkway that President Obama’s motorcade would be passing by. According to a News & Record editorial, Chief Miller denied that any officer was undercover in Occupy Greensboro. At the time, Finch’s message was sent up the chain of command to Miller. The chief included it in a report to the Secret Service.
“I will keep you plugged in as we learn more,” Miller wrote to Curtis High, a US Secret Service employee on Oct. 16, 2011. “Rob [Finch] has been on the money with the Intel from this group.”
Kessler said Finch, donning a zip-up red fleece jacket, approached her at the group’s encampment one night between dinner and a general assembly meeting.
“The only thing I thought to myself is, ‘You are far too well dressed to be involved in this,” Kessler said.
She said Finch — who didn’t give his name but who she recognized in a photo on YES! Weekly’s blog — said he hadn’t seen her around before and asked her several questions about herself. Kessler said she didn’t realize he was an undercover officer until seeing his photo later.
Abuzuaiter’s e-mails to Finch — which she denies sending — predate the beginning of Occupy, but she said she didn’t know there was an undercover officer at meetings and wouldn’t recognize him because they had never met. The councilwoman was one of several people who acted as a parade marshal and police liaison at the beginning of Occupy with the group’s consent.
Todd Warren, a member of Occupy Greensboro’s foreclosure working group, said he didn’t recognize Finch but accepts surveillance as an unfortunate part of doing activist work.
“I’ve been part of doing movement work in Greensboro for a long time now and there have been instances of undercover officers in meetings and sometimes people recognize them… because Greensboro is a small place,” Warren said, adding that surveillance keeps many people from participating in social movements. “That chilling effect I believe is the ultimate goal of that kind of surveillance. They would always love to find a big fish to pin up on terrorism charges or criminal charges but I think the ultimate purpose is to have that chilling affect.”
Warren’s work in the group revolves around investigating mortgage and foreclosure fraud committed by banks, and he said police should be investigating people committing these acts instead of a peaceful group that was transparent and worked with the department. He said the surveillance was laughable and a waste of public funds.
Warren said that he would like to hear Abuzuaiter’s version of her relationship to the police directly from her, but said everyone makes mistakes and that he trusts her to have the accountability and integrity not to act as an informant. He said police have historically worked to fracture social movements by disseminating false information about participants, and said he didn’t trust the city or police not to put out false information to discredit a progressive council member with movement connections.
Several of the e-mails referenced in the article and other pertinent ones are available on the YES! Weekly blog: www.yesweeklyblog.blogspot.com