Two days ago, March 7, my Pomona College colleague, Miguel Tinker Salas, was holding his regular office hours for his students. Three students were indeed waiting outside his door to speak with him. Two grown men came up and started speaking (without identifying themselves) to the students, asking them pointed questions about what Professor Tinker Salas has been teaching in his classes.
Background info: Professor Miguel Tinker Salas is Arango Professor in Latin American History and Professor of History and Chicano/a Studies. He teaches classes in Latin America history and has special research expertise in the history and politics of Venezuela. Pomona College is a small liberal arts college (about 1500 students) and is one of the five Claremont Colleges, all located in Claremont, California, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles.
Back to the story: The two men asked to speak with Professor Tinker Salas in his office. They identified themselves as Los Angeles County Sheriffs Mike M. Abdeen and Don Lord, operating out of a West Covina office, but they did not show any badges. They explained that they were members of the "L.A. County Sheriff's Department/F.B.I. Joint Task Force on Terrorism." Professor Tinker Salas asked whether they were actual F.B.I. agents, and they said no. They explained that they had "come by to have a conversation" with Professor Tinker Salas because they were "interested in his work," and noted that there is a growing Venezuelan population in the Los Angeles area and thought he might be able to tell them more about it.
Professor Miguel Tinker Salas didn't buy that line and asked them point blank why they were really there.
At that point, they opened a folder, revealing that it was a file on Professor Tinker Salas, along with his picture. And, they said, they had some questions for him. Those questions: What is his immigration status? Is he a U.S. citizen? What is the nature of his contact with the Venezuelan embassy or consulate?
More background: Reporters from various news outlets have lately been contacting Professor Miguel Tinker Salas asking him to provide historical background on the growing tension between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the George Bush administration. For instance, several outlets contacted him for a response after Donald Rumsfeld compared Chavez to Adolf Hitler. Most recently, Professor Tinker Salas was interviewed for ten minutes on CNN en Español about the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America.
Note that in today's Los Angeles Times Mark Weisbrot opines about the U.S. administration's concerted efforts to isolate Chavez. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for "a united front" against Venezuela.
Evidently that campaign is now authorizing official jackboots to harass internal voices of dissent. The ACLU of Colorado reports that the F.B.I. Joint Terrorism Task Force has been targeting, in a multi-state campaign, all kinds of peaceful protesters as allegedly "domestic terrorist" threats.
What has Venezuelan politics to do with the war against terrorism? Who officially sent out the thugs to pay a visit to my colleague? That "conversation" was clearly meant to serve two purposes: to add to Professor Tinker Salas's ongoing file in a fishing expedition to uncover something incriminating against him; and to let him know that THEY are watching, a not-so-subtle warning to intimidate in order to curb his speech.
We should be outraged. This is an abuse of power, a latter-day domestic enemy's list -- it goes well beyond due diligence in the war against terror. Our elected officials -- Sheriff Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, Congressman David Dreier from the 26th District, and Senators Boxer and Feinstein -- should denounce this political harassment in no uncertain terms. The rest of us should convert those chills running up and down our spines into anger and activity.