Encountering and Countering Political Repression

By Chip Berlet

When you're trying to wash the tear gas out of your eyes with a bottle of spring water, it's the wrong time to learn about political repression. So reading this section now has a practical value. Surveillance, infiltration, harassment, media demonization, disruption, police misconduct, excessive use of force, and other repressive techniques have been used to stifle dissent in the United States since it was founded. Repression appears whenever social and political movements threaten the status quo and challenge the unequal distribution of power and wealth. Every progressive movement has faced political repression, and every progressive movement has--and will--sweep it aside. The sooner activists learn the basics...the faster political repression can be successfully countered. Brian Glick has outlined the four main repressive techniques used during the FBI's illegal Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO): Infiltration, Psychological Warfare from the Outside, Harassment Through the Legal System, and Extralegal Force and Violence. [See: War at Home]. After activists exposed COINTELPRO and it was terminated, many of the surveillance and disruption activities previously employed by the FBI were shifted into a network of right-wing "countersubversive" institutions and groups in the private sector. Ross Gelbspan showed how clandestine right-wing groups coordinated attacks on the movement against US intervention in Central America while law enforcement and intelligence agencies looked the other way.

At the same time the FBI and other public law enforcement agencies sought to regain authority for spying on dissent by reframing it as leading to criminal activity or as a cover for terrorist violence. In Philadelphia the public and private countersubversion networks worked together. The search warrant used to justify a police raid on the headquarters for the protestors planning demonstrations against the Republican Party convention in the summer of 2000 included false allegations from the Maldon Institute, part of a right-wing intelligence network dating back to the 1960s. [See: The Maldon Institute]

Demonstrations

Most activists will face political repression in the streets in the form of police using excessive force such as kicking and beating demonstrators, indiscriminate and dangerous use of tear gas, mass arrests, and roughing up those arrested. Street Law 101 starts with the idea that it is pointless to argue Constitutional rights with someone about to hit you with a heavy wooden baton. The National Lawyers Guild has written several guides on the law and exercising your rights of political protest. Read these guides before taking to the streets. [See: Security for Activists]

Arrests

Legal repression can include indiscriminate arrests, bogus charges, high bails, long detention before arraignment, abuse in jail, and punitive sentencing. Take these factors seriously in making your plans. Choose you leaders wisely and democratically, and then defend and protect them. Train others to step forward if leaders are arrested, and arrange beforehand for legal support for all those who are detained. Be aware that some people, especially those with family caretaking responsibility or medical issues, need to avoid arrest. Find ways for them to participate in your demonstrations with a reduced level of risk. Hand out poems and song sheets to those who plan to engage in non-violent civil disobedience, and sing in jail to keep spirits high. What are they going to do? Arrest you?

Divide and Conquer

Don't let your critics or establishment figures divide your coalition by targeting people or groups with unpopular ideas. The following familiar refrain is old and tired. "If only your group didn't include (fill in the blank: anarchists, communists, feminists, gays and lesbians, Vegans, witches, atheists) you would be more effective." Baloney. It's a trick. Allow one slice and the blade of division keeps cutting. Set your group's principles of unity in a democratic fashion, and then welcome as participants all who abide by those rules.

Disruptive Behavior

It really doesn't matter why someone becomes disruptive or acts like a provocateur, the point is that every group has a right to establish principles of unity that include acceptable limits on behavior. If your group is devoted to non-violence, then a person who continuously suggests trashing store windows probably is in the wrong group. Spend time struggling with them over the principles your group has established. If they are still unwilling to change their behavior, ask them to leave. Don't "agent-bait" people who are disruptive or who act suspiciously. Scurrilous rumors weaken a group's sense of trust and loyalty. Deal with behavior, not intent--because intent often is not easy to ascertain.

Paranoia

OK Sometimes THEY are out to get YOU. Obsessing over the details is pointless. Repression happens. Take reasonable precautions and move on. [See: Common Sense Security]. Don't let bogus "experts" divert you from your goals with scary talk about wiretaps and infiltrators. This is a form of self-aggrandizing disruptive behavior. Clicks, buzzing, and electrical fluctuations on a phone line are symptoms of either bad phone service or a bug, and the most experienced and honest experts with thousands of dollars worth of equipment will tell you they can't really tell the difference unless they physically find a bug. [For more information, see: Bugs, Taps And Infiltrators]

Bottom Line

The goal of political repression is to stop you from being an effective activist. By educating yourself and working in a team with others as part of a larger movement, these schemes to protect power and privilege and preserve the status quo will be overcome.

For more information, visit Security for Activists

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation… want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
--Frederick Douglass, 1857
[Full quote in context]

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, spent 20 years as a political organizer from 1967-1987, working with civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, labor union, anti-fascist, and other groups. He specialized in demonstration and rally logistics, media, and security. He has written extensively on political repression, worked as a paralegal on lawsuits against government intelligence abuse, and was a co-founder of Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report.
©2001, Chip Berlet

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