Lesbian Notions

Keeping an F-B-Eye on Dissent

Paula Martinac | April 19, 2004

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator John Kerry speaks at a town hall meeting with US Senator Hillary Clinton, D-NY, at City College of New York 14 April 2004 in New York.
Photo: AFP/Stan Honda
What's the significance of presidential hopeful John Kerry having a hefty FBI file? It all depends on whom you ask.

For months, Republicans have been desperately trying to paint Kerry as a left-wing extremist. A few months ago, one anti-Kerry fanatic even altered a photo of an anti-Vietnam rally the future senator attended so Kerry would appear to be sitting right behind Jane Fonda, who notoriously traveled to North Vietnam to oppose the war. (The creative doctoring didn't pan out, however. According to a recent poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey, only 20 percent of Americans are aware that Fonda was once a controversial antiwar activist; they know her instead as a movie actor and fitness guru.)

For the far right, Kerry's FBI file must look like political gold. It details his close surveillance by federal agents during the early 1970s for his work with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, some of whose members once advocated antigovernment violence. Kerry didn't, but that doesn't make a bit of difference to right-wingers. They seem to believe that opposition to any U.S.-waged war - even one like Vietnam, which was later disowned by one of its architects, Robert McNamara - is inherently seditious, indicating a hatred of our country.

But while some may associate FBI surveillance with "Commie sympathizers," an FBI file can also be a symbol of honor. Indeed, many of us on the left who have spoken or written against government policies have files of our own. For me, learning about Kerry's file made me like him more. Kerry's passionate engagement in antiwar activities as a young man strikes me as a sign of character and a critical mind - someone who is not afraid to voice dissent even while being tailed by G-men.

Indeed, throughout much of the 20th century, federal agents hounded many important activists and leaders who dared to question the social and political order. Suffragist Jane Addams, a prominent social reformer in the early 1900s, was seen by the feds as "directly responsible for the growth of the radical movement among women in America," at a time when the mere idea of women voting was considered revolutionary. Her colleague Carrie Chapman Catt, who founded the League of Women Voters in 1920, was "a supporter and advocate of subversive propaganda," according to an FBI report on her activities. Catt's vociferous criticism of U.S. foreign policy during and after World War I was branded by the Bureau as "unpatriotic."

Perhaps most famously, the FBI trailed civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and his successor, Ralph Abernathy, advocates of nonviolent resistance. Because the tide of the black civil rights movement couldn't be stopped, the feds looked for ways to discredit the two African-American leaders for "immoral activities" in order to jeopardize their work for social justice.

When a government resorts to turning dissenters into security threats, it's a sign of weakness, not strength. Not surprisingly, Sen. Kerry's surveillance by the FBI occurred during the Nixon era, which was one of the most paranoid - and not coincidentally, corrupt - of all presidential administrations. In response to the news about his surveillance, Kerry was quick to make the distinction between the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover and the current Bureau. "The FBI of today is on the front lines of the war on terror, and it's critical that they be effective with our full support," he said.

But we shouldn't dismiss Kerry's experience and that of other famous protesters as belonging to bygone eras. There's still an underlying assumption in this country that voicing opposition to government policy renders a citizen untrustworthy. Today, the Patriot Act, which extends the powers of the Department of Justice to fight terrorism in the post-9/11 world, threatens Americans' freedom to dissent.

And it's peace activists who are once again under suspicion - but this time for a different war. Earlier this year, the FBI issued subpoenas to four antiwar activists who had played leadership roles in a civil-disobedience seminar called "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home," which was sponsored by a chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) at Drake University in Iowa. As part of their investigation, the feds demanded the membership roll of the NLG chapter and "all records of Drake University campus security reflecting any observations made of the ... meeting, including any records ... of attendees..." Although the feds later rescinded the subpoenas, a chilling message had already gone out to antiwar activists around the country: protest at your own risk.

The revelation that Kerry was harassed by the FBI makes him a more interesting candidate - one Nader supporters might want to take a second look at. "The experience of having been spied on for the act of engaging in peaceful patriotic protest," Kerry noted, "makes you respect civil rights and the Constitution even more."

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.

Previous edition
Spread the Word [25/03/2004]



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