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Cool Justice
Stifling Dissent Before It Happens
By ANDY THIBAULT, Columnist
Law Tribune Newspapers
December 8, 2003

     Now that we have pre-emptive war, it's only logical that we'll have pre-emptive action  to suppress free speech. It's not enough to punish protestors with beatings and false arrests. Now, the FBI and local law enforcement have been turned loose to infiltrate, disrupt and otherwise harass grass-roots organizations opposed to the war in Iraq.

     The thought police are making a comeback, causing even veteran civil rights lawyers like Richard Bieder of Bridgeport to speak with a hint of caution.

     "At the risk of being fully investigated myself for the audacity of asking this question," Bieder said, "What's wrong with our Attorney General? Haven't we learned from the excesses of the past? "Doesn't the Executive Branch of our government have enough confidence in our citizens to trust that they can freely associate with others to question the actions or inactions of those who govern our country?"

     Some of us remember the way informants were used in the 1960s to infiltrate and kill off the Black Panther Party, and even to plot and organize draft board raids so activists could be arrested. In New Haven, for example, entities including the city, the phone company and the FBI illegally spied on hundreds of citizens, resulting years later in the
settlement of a class action lawsuit. I contend this is not a good use of taxpayer money, unless, of course, you're looking for easy work in law enforcement or want to continue packing our jails. Maybe some long for the Nixon years.

     "The technique of investigating those exercising First Amendment rights as a cover for trying to eliminate or neutralize political dissenters -- people trying to exercise First Amendment rights to change government policy-- is as old as the books," Bieder said. "It was successful when the Republicans made "inquiries" at the polls -- discouraging poor people from voting -- when Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of the State of California in 1934; it was an unmitigated disaster when J. Edgar Hoover let it run rampant in the 60s; it will trample on people's rights in the new
millennium, too. Spend my hard earned money and taxes on improving the lives of people in need. Please."

     How does one make sense out of all this? Perhaps there is no way to do that. Don't count on the loser politicians to stand up. Pressure must come from below. For now, I look to a few activists from the young generation.

     Here's one. Ladies and gentlemen: In this corner, standing five-feet, six inches tall, weighing in at 130 pounds, wearing the green trunks, we have a compelling threat to national security. He is Edward Owaki, 19, of Bethel, a college student with a mind of his own. Owaki must have a bulging FBI file by now.

     "I am a domestic terrorist," Owaki wrote in an alternative newspaper, Danbury's Hat City Free Press a couple years ago. "My crime is attempted persuasion of Americans to oppose the USA Patriot Act  Join me in domestic
terrorism. Because freedom might be outlawed - and if it is, only outlaws shall be free."

     Owaki, now a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, took a long ride for a demonstration last month, all the way to Miami for the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. Watching what he saw as an accelerated transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich and the corporations, Owaki had become an anti-corporate activist. On Nov. 20, police broke up the human chain he formed on the street and he suffered a severe head injury. He was also arrested.

      "I'm worried," Owaki told The Miami Herald, "that I will stifle my own speech because of this."

      For the sake of free speech, dissent and Owaki's health, let's hope he regains his equilibrium. The country needs him and people like him. 

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