Encountering and Countering Political Repression
By Chip Berlet
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
unequal distribution of power and wealth. Every progressive movement
has faced political repression, and every progressive movement has--and
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
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]
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]
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.
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.
OK Sometimes THEY are out to get YOU. Obsessing over the details is pointless.
Repression happens. Take reasonable precautions and move on. [See: Common
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]
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
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."
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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