The ominous rise of the surveillance state continues unabated. With each passing day, hope fades that the Obama administration will diverge from George W. Bush’s erection of a police state.
The government’s treatment of Elliot Madison is a case in point. Madison, a 41-year-old self-styled anarchist and social worker, was arrested on Sept. 24, 2009, and charged with violating a federal anti-rioting law. Madison allegedly listened to a police scanner (which, according to the New York Times, is legal) and blogged about it on Twitter to help fellow protesters avoid law enforcement at the G-20 summit taking place in Pittsburgh that same month. (Ironically, just months earlier, the U.S. government called Twitter a boon to democracy after Iranian protesters used it to organize anti-government rallies.)
One week later, agents with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force raided Madison’s Brooklyn home, seizing computers, books and papers, along with other assorted items, including his marriage license, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” DVDs and a needlepoint depiction of Lenin. The list of what was taken stretches for pages.
All of this over a few tweets? After all, Madison’s tactics are fairly common these days. Monitoring police communications and movements during protests is one of the few means average citizens have in attempting to level the playing field against the pervasive surveillance tools of law enforcement agencies.
The police possess all manner of invasive and coercive technological devices at their disposal, which they used on protesters at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. As the New York Times reported, during the protest, “heavily armed police officers reacted to the anti-globalization protesters with tear gas, sonic weapons, rubber bullets and mass arrests.” Sound cannons — which are suspected of causing damage to eardrums and perhaps even fatal aneurysms — were also used to disperse protesters.
Unfortunately, as Ryan Singel writes for Wired, “The federal anti-rioting statute is serious business, and is seemingly easy to violate. For instance, it is a felony ‘to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or [...] to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in [...] a riot.’ By that token, simply telling a person fleeing cops with batons which way to run makes you a felon. One wonders how the Southern Christian Leadership Council and Martin Luther King, Jr. would have fared under that law, when he was in a Birmingham jail, writing letters urging people to support the direct-action program of sit-ins and marches. Those protesters were later attacked by police using dogs and fire hoses on the orders of Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor.”
Similarly, John Lennon could have been charged under this law for his “Power to the People” lyrics, which urged people to take to the streets and start a revolution.
The point is that it no longer matters what your particular gripe is, whether you’re an anarchist, a tree hugger, a Tea Party protester, or something else altogether. The government is sending a clear message that Elliot Madison is not the exception but the rule: this is what happens to people who disagree with the government and act on it.
The U.S. government is an expert when it comes to spying on its citizens. Information is being covertly collected about every aspect of our lives and is being secretly sifted and analyzed in vast data storage facilities, far from the gaze of public scrutiny. The highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA), for instance, possesses unprecedented powers to spy on our communications. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 the telecommunications industry has worked with the NSA to allow the agency to screen data for key names and words, giving it the power to monitor e-mail, texts and calls for “suspicious activity.”
Moreover, what was once considered a peaceful protester is now, because of government paranoia, considered an extremist. A report produced by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 cast a wide net in its classification of “extremists” to include those on the right — such as those who “reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority” and oppose issues like abortion or immigration — and left-leaning “extremists” such as animal and environmental rights groups and anarchists.
Clearly, freedom of thought and conscience are at serious risk today from federal and state agencies intent on suppressing actions they deem to be a threat to the status quo. It all adds up to an Orwellian government that would like nothing better than to dictate what we can think, read and believe. The thought police are not that far away.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.