A word of advice for anyone who is planning on videotaping footage at the Democratic or Republican National Convention this year: hide your camera.
Despite living in the age of information over-saturation, citizens, and protesters especially, face unprecedented levels of intimidation and censorship from an ever-expanding police and intelligence community. But we're still totally free. I know this because the president keeps telling me this.
The "intelligence-gathering" umbrella was formerly comprised solely of CIA agents, men in crisp, black suits and narrow black ties below their Joe Friday haircuts and garden-variety features. Now, it is a beast of a bureaucracy, a massive fusion network of federal and local agents working together toward the purpose of...well...collecting intelligence. Except, the parameters of what they're striving toward are unclear these days.
What is pertinent information? What's being nosy? What constitutes a violation of the Constitution? No one knows. Or rather, no one cares to stop and ask the question except the very people now at the mercy of this gargantuan mistake of a Big Brother. Whenever I imagine the intelligence community these days, I think of The Abominable Snowman crushing Bugs Bunny in his massive paw as he happily sings, "Oh boy! A little bunny rabbit! Just what I always wanted! I will name him George, and I will hug him..."
Well, our private conversations, information, and freedom to protest are George, and George is very much in the grasp of the giant, inbred, possibly retarded monster that is The Intelligence Community.
Later this month, protesters will gather (and by "gather," I mean, "sit in their designated pens") at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. When they arrive, they can expect to encounter a new, sophisticated fusion center at the heart of the American intelligence matrix.
It won't be your grandmother's protest, where police haphazardly sprinted after hippies, but the game ends when the protest is over. This time around, the police presence will be huge, suspicious activity will be loosely defined and cataloged in a huge national database. Furthermore, because so little is known about this huge database, there's no way to know if someone erroneously charged with "suspicious activity" will be permanently exonerated for their crime, or if they will forever remain on "The List." In a turn of fate that would make Kafka shudder, simply being accused of guilt could forever brand one guilty.
And unlike your grandmother's protest, this won't just involve the local police. The big boys -- the national guard -- will be called out for this one. They're not going to get poked in the eyes by damn dreadlocks-wearing hippies AGAIN, by God! The Colorado Independent reports that the military will also be sharing intelligence information and providing support through US Northern Command, a creation of the 2002 homeland defense measure. Many fear the fusion center will result in unwarranted spying on protesters exercising their First Amendment rights at the convention.
In an interview with Democracy Now, Erin Rosa, a reporter for the Colorado Independent, explained that Denver seems to be seriously bracing for a stand-off between the police and protesters, to the point where the Colorado Army National Guard is constructing makeshift barracks in the far east region of the city:
They're not saying what the purpose is for nearly 400 people to be stationed in this private university. They're actually going to be stationed at Johnson & Wales University in the eastern region of the city, you know, more than 400 troops in that one area. They rented more than 500 rooms across the city. And they're not saying what the purpose will be for, but they have confirmed that it will be all Colorado National Guard personnel.
So while Denver is immersed in a total police state, what sort of behavior can individuals expect from their new intelligence and censorship overlords? In the same interview, Mike German, National Security Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, warned protesters that new guidelines for what constitutes suspicious terrorist-like activity may include some pretty basic elements of protesting:
The Los Angeles Police Department issued an order compelling their officers to report criminal and non-criminal suspicious behavior that can be indicative of terrorism, and they listed sixty-five behaviors...One of the precursor behaviors to terrorism that's identified in the order is taking video. And we put in our report a couple of instances where people taking video were stopped by police officers simply for taking pictures or video. And in some cases, particularly where they're taking photographs or video of police, it actually resulted in arrests.
This would put quite a damper on many grassroots responses to this kind of intelligence/police state bullying, particularly I-Witness, a group created to protect citizens from the attacks of overzealous police authorities. Eileen Clancy, the founder of I-Witness Video, explains that it's important to keep a video log of every protest (complete with date and time displayed clearly on the camera) should the footage be needed as evidence in later court hearings.
Of course, having your camera taken by the police puts an end to all of that. Activists will be left totally defenseless in court, at the mercy of every whim and accusation from the police. And there will be tons of accusations and court hearings, particularly because there are an ever-growing number of activist watchdog groups posting their footage online. The most recent example is the Critical Mass bicyclist, who was body checked by an NYPD police officer.
It bears repeating that these watchdog groups are a good and important presence. They need to be able to function free from fear of being labeled terrorists for simply documenting protests especially because the media so rarely walks the extra 200 yards over to their protest cages to interview them. Activists need to remain free to document their own presence for their own safety, and for the benefit of the community at large. In a democracy, it's essential that all voices be permitted to speak at an even volume so citizens can educate themselves and come closer to understanding the objective truth.
But maybe you think I'm being too paranoid. After all, it's only temporary, you say! It's only for the convention, and we do have to protect Obama and his giant brain from the unkind intentions of a handful of mean people, right? If it only it were true. This Denver police and intelligence presence will be an abiding change in Colorado's social landscape.
Eileen Clancy explains that the Deputy Chief of Operations in Denver testified before the House subcommittee that they see the DNC fusion center as an opportunity to make permanent a "super fusion center." So, Clancy says, the Denver crew is going to take their government allocated $50 million and "play with their new toys," and they are going to build a permanent and more powerful surveillance apparatus for Colorado.
These changes are here to stay, and Denver is only the first string in the intelligence community's new Super Spying Web. Happy protesting, Colorado! The only hope activists have is to join together in watchdog networks. When I interviewed Eileen Clancy, she offered this advice to DNC protesters:
"The federal government is trying to criminalize video because it has tremendous power to expose bad acts by the police and federal agents. The best way for people to document police misconduct is to band together in video activist groups such as I-Witness Video, work in pairs or affinity groups, protect their footage by making back-up copies, publish their work in the media or on the Internet, and vigorously challenge any arrests, detentions and police orders to erase photos or videotapes. The First Amendment offers tremendous protection to people videotaping the police at work, but we must fight to maintain our right to shoot."
In this world of sophisticated spying, the underdogs will need to care for their own, and the protesters at the Denver DNC are no exception.