Refusing to be silenced

August 1, 2008

On July 24, about 100 people gathered in Baltimore for a forum to stand up against a long-term spying operation conducted by the Maryland State Police against anti-death penalty and antiwar activists.

The surveillance and infiltration of the groups took place while Republican Robert Ehrlich was governor, according to 43 pages of state police reports recently released to the ACLU. The spying continued month after month despite the fact that the state's agents never recorded a single illegal act among the groups' protest activities. This week, the current governor, Martin O'Malley, appointed a panel to review the state police surveillance operation against the anti-death penalty and antiwar movements.

Dave Zirin, a sportswriter and activist, was one of the activists named in the spying reports. At the July 24 meeting, he talked about his reactions to the spy scandal and activists' plans for "going on offense."

YES, THEY were spying on a sportswriter. It's amazing. And I'd really like to flatter myself and think it's because Governor Ehrlich and the Maryland State Police were really curious about my thoughts on who would win the Super Bowl this year, but no. They weren't watching me for who I am, but because what I'm a part of--and that's a movement to end the racist death penalty.

It's a movement that Bob Ehrlich opposed. And because he and his people opposed it--because we disagreed with him--we were a threat to homeland security. Because our very ideas differed to those in power, we were deemed "needing to be watched."

I just want to be clear about what I believe before I say anything else. I believe that such actions are illegal, that they're unconstitutional and that those who ordered them belong in prison. And if that means Bob Ehrlich has to be frog-marched out of his mini-mansion, then so be it. If that means Tim Hutchins finds that a cell is his new home, then so be it.

There's an old expression from Eugene Debs, a socialist who spent years behind bars for making a speech against World War I. He said that the criminal justice system is like a magical fishing net that catches minnows, yet lets the whales go free.

Anti-death penalty demonstrators march outside Baltimore's Supermax prison in December 2005
Anti-death penalty demonstrators march outside Baltimore's Supermax prison in December 2005 (Ben Dalbey | SW)

And I, for one, am just tired of this. I'm tired that there are thousands of people in this state behind bars for petty crimes, yet Bob Ehrlich and his minions can break the law and walk free. This is what has to end. It's time that the whales paid a price.

NOW, I have to be honest with you. Over the last few days, my mind has just been racing. That's what happens when you see your name in Maryland surveillance reports. But three thoughts have become very clear. I just want to share those, and then I'll sit down, I want to hear what other folks have to say.

The first thing is that I have never been prouder to be part of the movement to end capital punishment in this state. We in Maryland, I feel like we've led the country on this issue, and we were threatening enough that they decided that the constitution was expendable. And I think there's some pride to take from that, frankly.

I also think we should take some confidence that this makes it very clear they can't win the debate fair and square. They have to resort to these dirty tricks because we're right, and they're wrong. They say "death row," we say "hell no," and you know what? The people are on the side of "hell no," and that's why they sent people after us.

What you can do

If you want to express your outrage at the surveillance of Maryland activists, contact the office of the current Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and demand a full investigation of the Maryland State Police, the public release of all documents obtained through its illegal activities and a specific commitment that the anti-death penalty and antiwar movements will not be targeted again. Call 800-811-8336, or submit a comment online.

So that's the first thing: I'm proud to be part of the anti-death penalty movement.

But the second thing is when this story broke--I'll be honest about this, and I have a feeling I'm not alone in saying this--I started thinking about every single person who has come to a meeting, every new face who was there one week and gone the next, anyone who ever asked a question.

Honestly, I've gotten e-mails from people around the country, as I've done some interviews on Air America and Democracy Now!, and people are sending me little cell phone pictures of people they thought might be agents--people who might be the mysterious "Lucy." I get these mailed to me, and people ask the question, "Is this Lucy? Is this Lucy? Is this the person?" And some of the people, I look at it, and I say, "Um, no, that's not Lucy--I think that's just a chair."

People are getting very agitated by anything alien or strange in their meetings. And as I got another e-mail from another person, who sent me a picture of somebody with a huge Mohawk and piercings everywhere, and they asked, 'Is this Lucy?'--it just clicked for me. This is exactly the way they want us to think.

They want us divided, they want us silenced, they want us suspicious of each other. It really has a goal--a goal of putting a chill on our side and making us jump at shadows. And I think it's so important that we not let that happen, especially now.

There was a statistic released today that 84 percent of the country believe we're going in the wrong direction, and that George W. Bush is roughly about as popular as the measles. And I think in the face of recession and war, it's so important that we continue to welcome new people into our struggle.

It's so very important that we foster an atmosphere that's not suspicious of new faces, voices and ideas, and that we continue to welcome people who--like the family of Vernon Evans--just don't have a choice about whether or not to fight back in the current climate. They have to fight back, and it's important that we create a space that is welcoming to these new people and these new voices.

And, of course, that's why it's so important we're here tonight--to get out of the chill and into the warmth that comes with struggle.

Now I'm not arguing that we be stupid here. If we're in a meeting, and we're talking about doing a picket or doing a petition, and someone raises their hand with a big smile and says, 'So, where do you keep the weapons?'--I think it's okay if that raises some concerns.

But as long as our objectives are clear, and our practices are open and democratic and principled, we should feel secure. And if undercover police officers feel like they have to hand out 1,000 flyers to earn our trust, well, then that might just be the price that we have to pay.

So, that's the second point I want to make--that we can't let them crawl into our heads, because then they win.

THE THIRD point I want to make is something about having perspective. We on this panel--you could say that we are victims of the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, no doubt about it. But we're in no way the people who have suffered the most.

These are people who are in Guantánamo Bay. These are people who have been tortured. These are people who are having their mosques and homes bugged. They are our Arab brothers and sisters. They are our Muslim brothers and sisters, and we need to remember them here tonight.

Because many of us, myself included, have made the point that we're about as far from terrorists as you can imagine. Someone like Max, who has been a pacifist for decades, is as far from a terrorist as you can imagine.

But I think it's important to say that the problem is not that the Department of Homeland Security was surveilling the wrong people. It's that they are surveilling anybody. This is a culture of fear that says some people deserve to be watched, and we should be clear that that's driven by Islamophobia, and it's fed by the needs of the Bush administration to create an enemy at home, even where none exists.

It's the reason why my Arab and Muslim friends feel like they have targets on their backs.

It's the reason Sami Al-Arian--a Palestinian refugee who's lived in the U.S. since 1975, had five children in this country and taught at the University of South Florida--was arrested in 2003 and has been rotting behind bars ever since, even though the courts have found him not guilty of any crime. Al-Arian remains in prison today solely because he refuses to cooperate with government efforts to fabricate "anti-terrorism" cases against other pro-Palestinian community leaders.

Sami Al-Arian is a hero for doing this. They've turned him into a criminal--that's the real face of who's been victimized by the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security.

Enough is enough. We need to realize that this is so much bigger than Maryland--so much bigger than our corner of the world, as Terry said. I really think we need to decide as a country, and there's really no middle ground here. Either we have a constitution or we don't. Either we have the right to organize and assemble, or we should just put a padlock on the Capitol building with a sign that says, "Closed for business."

Either Bob Ehrlich and the state of Maryland pay for what they did, or we have no civil rights.

I'm glad that Dennis Kucinich and state senator Brian Frosh want to hold hearings, but we can't wait for that. That's why I'm so glad that we're all going to be part of this lawsuit with the ACLU pushing forward.

I've been joking that by the time this is done, Bob Ehrlich is going to be paying for my daughter's braces. Well, just to be clear, her teeth are fine. And I really don't care if I get a penny. That's really not the point. The point is to say that we deserve justice, and I'm not willing to wait on Martin O'Malley or any other political leader to give it to us.

To use a sports term, it's time to go on offense. Our movement must use this moment to press forward and reverse the priorities that see millions go to jail, when schools and hospitals rot.

Because it's justice time for anybody who has ever been harassed in the land of the free. I really do believe this--this is for Malcolm X, this is for Dr. King, this is for Angela Davis, this is for Paul Robeson, this is for Sami Al-Arian, and this is for anyone who dares stand up for social justice. We will not be silenced.

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