Protesting in a police state

In July of 2005, when I was living in New Brunswick, NJ, finishing up my studies at Rutgers University, the apartment shared by my friend Ted and his then-wife Janice (they have since divorced for unrelated reasons) in neighboring town Highland Park was raided by a SWAT team of the FBI and New Jersey Joint Terrorism Taskforce, which took a wide variety of their property including any computers or related material, as well as their BBQ. Ted himself was never charged with a crime, and in fact was not even being investigated or targeted, but Janice had been targeted for her animal rights protest activities, which naturally included a lot of relatively harmless shouting at people who did not want to be shouted at, and in places where they did not want outsiders to enter. The actual charges against Janice were, in fact, the real offenses of trespassing and criminal mischief (i.e. spray painting graffiti on the fence of an executive of a company responsible for animal testing), but the police response to these minor offences was grotesquely out of proportion.

This blog post from the time has some quotes from contemporary news stories, which I will quote some bits of below.

Borough resident and animal activist Janice Angelillo remains at the Essex County Jail on $15,000 bail after she and a companion were arrested about 4 a.m. Thursday for giving a police officer fake identities after they were stopped on foot outside the Hoffman-LaRoche facility in Nutley, police said.

Angelillo’s Highland Park home was raided Saturday night by more than a dozen state and local police, some armed with assault rifles and clad in bulletproof vests and helmets.

Just before the Thursday arrest, police had been alerted to an incident in nearby Bloomfield in which derogatory slogans toward Hoffman-LaRoche were spray-painted on a white fence in the same color paint found on the hands and clothing of Angelillo and Philadelphia resident Nicholas Cooney, said Capt. Steve Serrao, assistant director for operations of the state Office of Counter Terrorism.


After the pair were arrested, police obtained a search warrant to examine their black Subaru that was parked near Hoffman-LaRoche.

Serrao said Angelillo and Cooney are also being investigated in connection with another criminal mischief incident in Long Beach Township that occurred within 24 hours of the two being apprehended in Nutley early Thursday morning.

“We recovered evidence from the (Subaru) and the residence that directly links Cooney and Angelillo to that (Long Beach Township) incident,” he said.

State Police also filed three charges against the two in the North Jersey incidents: criminal mischief, criminal trespassing, and conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, said Serrao, also counter-terrorism bureau chief for the State Police.

Angelillo and Cooney are affiliated with the animal-activist group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British company, has a facility in Franklin Township, where SHAC has held protests on numerous occasions because the company conducts laboratory testing on animals, Serrao said.

Note that the blog seems to be some kind of anti-animal rights activist movement blog and is insinuating, as the police did at the time, that there was some sort of link between the petty mischief of Janice and her companions and the seriously dangerous actions, such as full blown arson, engaged in by radical groups such as the Animal Liberation Front – a connection which was never even formally alleged, must less proved. Now, animal rights is far from a passion of mine-in fact I’ll happily eat almost any animal that’s not actually endangered or disturbingly intelligent and I have little problem with pharmaceutical animal testing (although I might be persuaded that testing of cosmetics on animals is too much for something as trivial as makeup). But I am concerned about human rights and free speech, and I found this sort of police state response to what was essentially a harmless protest action to be utterly reprehensible. Sure, a fine and maybe some community service would have been acceptable in exchange for the graffiti, but I simply fail to see the point of a paramilitary action directed against a 90lb vegan lady who was working as a public school art teacher in Newark. Actually, that isn’t quite true. Although there may not have been any legitimate public safety reason for the crackdown on animal rights protesters, the law enforcement apparatus of the state was drafted to suppress dissenting opinions that could embarrass the local pharmaceutical corporations, which are one of the pillars of the New Jersey economy.

Why am I mentioning a four year old story now? Because I have just spent the last several minutes reading descriptions of similar, but far, far larger scale police tactics being used to stifle protest in Minneapolis and St. Paul ahead of, and during, the Republican convention. There has been virtually no mention of these tactics in the mainstream media, as far as I can tell, but Glenn Greenwald at has been doing an excellent job of rounding up coverage, as well as providing his own descriptions. As he says:

Beginning last night, St. Paul was the most militarized I have ever seen an American city be, even more so than Manhattan in the week of 9/11 — with troops of federal, state and local law enforcement agents marching around with riot gear, machine guns, and tear gas canisters, shouting military chants and marching in military formations. Humvees and law enforcement officers with rifles were posted on various buildings and balconies. Numerous protesters and observers were tear gassed and injured.

The police have even gone so far as to arrest Amy Goodman, host of daily news hour Democracy Now, a show carried by innumerable public radio and television stations, as well as two members of her crew and an Associated Press photographer. The Democracy Now three were released fairly quickly, but it doesn’t change the fact that a dangerous line has been crossed when the authorities have moved on from merely arresting protesters to also apprehending clearly identified journalists. As you can see in the video of her arrest, there was no possibility of mistaken identity.

But the story that made the strongest impression on me was the one on tactics reminiscent of the 2005 raid on my friend’s house. As Greenwald says:

Homes of college-aid protesters were raided by rifle-wielding police forces. Journalists were forcibly detained at gun point. Lawyers on the scene to represent the detainees were handcuffed. Computers, laptops, journals, diaries, and political pamphlets were seized from people’s homes. And all of this occurred against U.S. citizens, without a single act of violence having taken place, and nothing more serious than traffic blockage even alleged by authorities to have been planned.

Falling somewhere in between the professional journalism and the protest marchers are I-Witness Video, amateur online videographers whose tapes of police illegality during the 2004 RNC convention in New York City were instrumental in getting hundreds of illegal arrests vacated by the courts. Even if we charitably admit that Amy Goodman and her attending crew were arrested mistakenly by an over-aggressive local cop, there is no valid excuse for the preemptive targeting of I-Witness Video.

[A]n FBI agent and a Wisconsin Deputy Sheriff showed up on the doorstep of the house in which members were staying (on Igelhart St.), interrupting a collective planning meeting. The officers left after a short conversation with members through a locked front door. Two hours later, around 30 police surrounded the house. Two people who left the house were detained in handcuffs; several others, who were inside, were told that if they left, they would be also be detained. Around the same time, three other I-Witness Video members who had left the house on bikes and two others who were riding in a car across town were also detained by police.

Two hours later, after the search warrant arrived, police at the Igelhart Street house stormed in, pointing an automatic handgun at the people inside. They handcuffed all the individuals inside, collected their personal information, and corralled them in the back garden. While police held the media activists and their friends there, members of the media, who had gathered in an adjoining backyard, interviewed I-Witness Video member Eileen Clancy from behind a fence. After completing their search, the police finally uncuffed everyone and departed. Within about two hours, the other I-Witness Video groups–who had been detained on bikes and in a car, all of whom also had their identifications verified and had undergone searches of various kinds–were also released.

Almost fittingly, another Democracy Now journalist, Elizabeth Press, was detained while covering the police raid on I-Witness Video. This police operation, like those against the college student protesters, was an example of the federal government actively suppressing public involvement in politics to a degree rarely, if ever, seen in the USA since the civil rights era.

In fact, this sounds less like the type of behavior the US government is supposed to stand for than what you expect to happen to protesters in a communist state. And speaking of that, as luck may have it one has been in the news quite recently. During the Olympics in China last month we got a neverending river of stories quite appropriately criticizing Beijing for their own policies towards protesters. In one very widely referenced and syndicated column, New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof, considered rather expert in this area for having reported on the Tiananmen protests/massacres of 1989, described the Beijing Olympics “protest zone” charade.

To put a smiley face on its image during the Olympics, the Chinese government set aside three “protest zones” in Beijing. Officials explained that so long as protesters obtained approval in advance, demonstrations would be allowed.


Public Security has arrested at least a half-dozen people who have shown up to apply for protest permits. Public Security is pretty shrewd. In the old days it had to go out and catch protesters in the act. Now it saves itself the bother: would-be protesters show up at Public Security offices to apply for permits and are promptly detained. That’s cost-effective law enforcement for you.

In the end, no protests were approved, several of the applicants were arrested (including two woman in their late 70s sentenced to “reeducation through hard labor”), while many of the remaining protest permit applicants were kept under quasi-house arrest, much like the FBI and local police attempted to do the other day to the I-Witness Video team.

In fact, no protest of any significance was conducted successfully in Beijing during the Olympics, and Chinese authorities were not shy about detaining and deporting foreign protesters, although at least one of them were sent to the “reeducation” camps. Among those detained was James Powderly, founder of the Graffiti Research Lab, a project “dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication.” Significantly, GRL projects are specifically designed to create public displays of messages using non-damaging technologies such as ultra cheap magnetic LED “sticky” signs, specifically so that activists can leave “graffiti” which does not cause the sort of permanent damage that gives the authorities an excuse to arrest someone like Janice. How did he describe his experience?

Well, I think probably, a lot of people might disagree, even some of my other detainees might feel like what they received wasn’t torture. And relative to what someone might receive on a daily basis at a place like Gitmo it certainly is not particularly harsh. It’s kind of like being a little bit pregnant, we were a little bit tortured. We were strapped into chairs in uncomfortable positions, we were put into cages with blood on the floor and told we would never live, we were sleep deprived the entire time. There was an interrogation every night and they kept us up all day. They never turned the lights off in the cells. We were fed food that was inedible, we were not given potable water. Any time you threaten and take the numbers of family members and take down home addresses, there’s an element of mental torture there. There’s physical torture in the form of us having to sit in uncomfortable positions all day long and spending the night strapped to a metal chair inside of a cage. We all have cuts and bruises from that, and some of my peers were beaten up a little bit.

Although the US government so far has reserved this sort of treatment for foreign terrorism suspects (Powderly is, of course, a foreigner in China) and has generally released detained activists promptly, is it much of a stretch, after the past few years, to imagine some of the protest kids arrested at the RNC being handled this way?

Although I expect an Obama administration would be somewhat better than the Republicans in this area, there has been precious little criticism of these police tactics by the Democrats (there has been a bit, for example Frank Lautenberg, NJ Senator, criticized the targetting of animal rights activists in 2005). This tendency may be stronger in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party, but they are certainly both complicit. With perhaps some individual exceptions, both parties are strongly opposed to any private citizens attempting to convey their own messages either to the media covering the convention or to the convention delegates. For example, last week’s episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher had a segment in which one of their reporters showed the starkly empty concrete “free speech” zone (awfully like the one’s in Beijing) that had been setup for the Democratic convention in Denver, and then hopped over downtown to show off the luxurious parties through for members of congress and other party delegates by corporations. When the party convention is openly sponsored by corporations, who hold lavish parties for politicans to which no media are allowed, and the FBI and paramilitary SWAT teams are used to prevent peaceful and legal protests from taking place and to arrest members of the alternative media, the total reality of today’s United States is profoundly different from the noble image that both major parties constantly trumpet.

Yes, as China’s economy has liberalized its people have gained an enormous amount of freedom compared to the bad old days of Maoism, and in some positive ways China is coming to look more like the US. But the US is also getting to look more like China, in all the wrong ways. Sure, if you compare the two countries there is unquestionably more freedom in the United States. But these are not just any two countries. These are the United States of America, which claims to be the world’s paragon of freedom, democracy and justice versus communist China, which is practically international shorthand for oppressive statism. Just being more free than China is a low bar to reach for, and the lack of attention paid to this issue by mainstream media or supposedly liberal (or libertarian) politicians is shameful. Yes, the United States of America today is still far more free than the People’s Republic of China, but the trend is grim. I worry about how far the situation will slide into police stateism before improving -if it does.

Ted never did get his computers back.

4 thoughts on “Protesting in a police state”

  1. “police tactics being used to stifle protest in Minneapolis and St. Paul ahead of, and during, the Republican convention. ”

    These “tactics” were necessary due to the violent nature of a sub-set of the protesters. Such actions hardly make the USA a police state, and Greenwald’s piece is pure hysteria. Did he bother to check out Denver during the Democratic convention?

    For some examples of actions by the “peaceful” protesters:

  2. There were certainly some violent protesters in the protest who deserved to be arrested, but it seems that the majority of people arrested during the march were actually charged with nothing more than traffic violations. Obnoxious? Maybe- but hardly violent. Regardless, my post here was exclusively about preemptive police raids directed against both protesters who, as far as I can see, were not among the violent protesters, as well as arrests of a number of journalists. Security of the streets during the actual protest is somewhat different matter.

    Do you think that the FBI raid on I-Witness Video in advance of the protest, or the arrest of Amy Goodman and her crew during the rally, despite very clearly showing press pass and security clearance, were justified?

    I’m not actually saying that the US is a police state, or even that it is very close to being one in absolute terms-only that the trend (however major or minor it may be) is in the wrong direction.

  3. I accidentally erased a couple of comments by over-zealous clicking in the spam filter. I think they’re back, but if I missed anything please let me know…

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