The framing of the NATO Five

June 14, 2012

Eric Ruder argues that the case against five young men associated with the NATO summit protests in Chicago represents an attack on all our movements.

MONTHS BEFORE the NATO summit took place in Chicago in May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy began filling the media with wild stories about a "special breed" of violent protester who would take over the streets that weekend.

There were tales about protesters stockpiling urine and feces to throw at police. Downtown businesses were encouraged to board up their windows, workers told to "dress down" so they wouldn't be targeted, and residents invited to leave town for the weekend.

Nothing that took place at the demonstrations came even close to fulfilling the city's scaremongering. But as if on cue, a Chicago police operation claiming to preemptively nab violent protesters was served up, giving the media something to focus on after all the frightening rhetoric thrown about by Emanuel and others.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, May 16, four days before the Sunday mass march against the NATO summit, a swarm of police broke down the door of a South Side apartment building, asserting that three occupants within were assembling Molotov cocktails to be used in a "campaign of terror" aimed at Barack Obama's campaign headquarters, Mayor Emanuel's house and police stations.

Supporters rally in defense of the NATO Five
Supporters rally in defense of the NATO Five

In the following days, police made two more arrests on terrorism-related charges, but claimed the cases were unrelated. They also declared that at no time had the city been in imminent danger--thanks to the work of the Chicago Police Department.

What emerged later was that there was a connection between the cases.

All five--the three from the apartment and the two arrested separately--had contact with two police informants who gave their names as "Moe" and "Gloves." At least one of these infiltrators--Moe--began appearing at activist meetings as early as March, and the two became generally known to Occupy Chicago activists when they donned masks and joined the Black Bloc contingent at a May Day march.

Another common feature to the cases is that no physical evidence connecting the five to any acts of violence has so far been presented--only the testimony of the informants.

And there's an even more glaring connection--the cases follow the exact same script used by government and law enforcement officials to crack down on high-profile social justice mobilizations in recent years.

ALREADY IN 2010, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) had grown alarmed by the emerging pattern of repression aimed at undermining the constitutionally protected right to free speech and assembly. The NLG even drew up a comprehensive report titled "The Policing of Political Speech: Constraints on Mass Dissent in the U.S." that enumerated various aspects of this script.

According to the report:

Time and time again, millions of dollars have been obtained by police departments for personnel and equipment at large events, justified by confidential informant testimony that large numbers of "anarchists" are planning to attend and engage in violence. Closer examination of the facts often reveals the falsity of such allegations: numerous police informants, many with criminal backgrounds, admit when later questioned that activist groups they infiltrated never planned any violent activities. Indeed, millions more have been spent paying damages to the demonstrators victimized by these tactics.

Published in 2010, the report goes on to document the use of this script in the police surveillance, infiltration and entrapment of activists during the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul and the 2009 protest of the G20 summit of powerful governments in Pittsburgh.

At the Republican National Convention, for example, two activists from Texas were encouraged, cajoled and manipulated by activist-turned-FBI-informant Brandon Darby into constructing Molotov cocktails. Even though the activists reconsidered and decided not to follow through on the plan, the FBI nabbed them anyway. The radio show This American Life and the documentary film Better This World expose in detail the manipulation used to set up these young people--all with the intent of undermining the activist effort they were associated with.

The use of such police-state methods--using the media to spread a message of fear, concocting plots in order to foil them and discredit protest activities, and deploying huge numbers of police ready to mete out violence--is now a regular part of how law enforcement seeks to police dissent in the U.S.

In Chicago, city officials didn't deviate from the pattern at any point: Create an atmosphere of fear in the run-up to the protest to scare away the general public and justify massive amounts of spending on security. Then launch a raid before the main march and use the media to further scare people and justify whatever brutality police ultimately used. And if and when the cases crumble on closer scrutiny, law enforcement and government officials will have already accomplished their goal of demonizing and disorganizing the movement.

And of course, the obsession about violent protesters, fed by the sensational accusations against scapegoats like the NATO Five, obscures the causes that animated protesters in the first place. In Chicago, the violence, torture, destruction and death caused by NATO, from Afghanistan to Libya, disappeared behind the discussion of "violent protesters." The victims were no longer the people of Afghanistan or Libya, but law and order itself.

THE NATO Five--Brent Betterly of Oakland Park, Fla.; Jared Chase of Keene, N.H.; Brian Church of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; and Sebastian Senakiewicz and Mark Neiweem of Chicago--appeared in court on June 12 and 13, but at the hearings, prosecutors declined to share the indictment with the defense. This left the defendants and their lawyers "tilting at windmills," in the words of defense attorney Tom Durkin.

Even the judge, Adam Bourgeois Jr., seemed surprised by the prosecution's refusal to say what the five are being charged with. "It seems a little strange, but that's the way it is," Bourgeois said.

At a press conference after the hearing, Durkin called the case against the defendants "ridiculous" and questioned the constitutionality of the Illinois terrorism statutes under which they have been charged because the wording of the law is "overblown and vague." "You can be charged with terrorism for destroying a beehive," he continued.

What's more, the state has set an outrageously high bail--totaling $5.75 million for the five--which itself serves as a form of pressure on defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge or face the prospect of remaining in prison during a trial that could take years in order to prove their innocence. As Michael Deutsch, another defense attorney, said:

The [defendants] have been locked up with draconian bail for almost a month, and the state has refused to provide defense counsel with any evidence in support of their sensationalist, politically motivated charges. The refusal to provide even the search warrant or a copy of a returned indictment until July 2 is evidence that in a case which they characterize as a terrorism case, the rules are interpreted to favor the prosecution. This is clearly underscored by the presence of the defendants in court in shackles, hands and feet, surrounded by a phalanx of sheriffs.

There is a long and shameful history of FBI and police infiltration, repression and frame-ups of social justice activists--from the infiltration of socialist and communist organizations in the 20th century to the assassination of leaders of the Black Panther Party.

In the last 10 years, Arabs and Muslims have been relentlessly subjected to the same pattern of infiltration, frame-up and raids to foil "plots" that law enforcement agents themselves organized. Since the September 11 attacks, more than 700,000 Muslims--nearly 50 percent of all Muslim households in the U.S.--have been interviewed by the FBI in what is essentially a national epidemic of racial profiling.

The defense of basic civil liberties requires activists to stand up to repression. It means defending the individuals targeted--such as the NATO Five--but also exposing police methods and refusing to be intimidated into limiting our exercise of our right to protest.

The frame-up of the NATO Five is an attack on the broader Occupy and antiwar movements. Standing up to this attack will depend upon building a national struggle to expose and challenge the state's assault on our rights. It will also require building a legal defense fund and holding actions around important dates in the legal case.

In the words of Matt McLoughlin, a member of Occupy Chicago:

It's heartbreaking that we're on the right side of history, that we're doing really good work, and that this is the government's response. It makes sense, I guess, that it's their response. We're a threat to the status quo. We've been really effective at changing the national conversation in such a way that won't help keep things the same way. That's why they're going after us.

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