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