Sometime during the demonstrations against the Republican National Convention, which renominated George W. Bush in August 2004, I went on a media protest march down the Valley of the Imperial Media, Sixth Avenue, in the Big Apple. I had certainly been on enough marches in my life, but I was amazed. Back in the Vietnam era, when the police photographed peaceful demonstrators, they tended to do it surreptitiously and out of uniform. Here, police in uniform with video cameras were proudly out in the open shooting what looked like continuous footage of us all. And that was the least of it. We demonstrators were surrounded by a veritable army of police, on horseback, on motorbike, on foot. As I wrote at the time:
"The 'march,' which you might want to imagine as a serpentine creature heading south on New York's Sixth Avenue, had actually been chopped into a series of one-block long segments by the New York Police Department. Each small segment was penned on its sides by moveable wooden barricades and on either end by the wheel-to-wheel bikes of a seemingly endless supply of mounted policemen backed up by all manner of police vehicles… To 'march,' that is, actually meant to step from pen to pen, hemmed in everywhere, your protest at the mercy of the timing, tactics, and desires of the police."
As a light would turn red, your group on your block would be cut off from the group behind and in front of you. There was never a moment when we weren't, quite literally, penned in. If this was the "freedom" to demonstrate, it managed to feel a lot like being jailed right out on the street.
And that was a modest experience indeed. Jennifer Flynn lived through something far more intense, as Newsday revealed only last week. "Jennifer Flynn is not a rabble-rouser," was the way the Long Island newspaper's story began. "She's not an aspiring suicide bomber. She doesn't advocate the overthrow of the government. Instead, she pushes for funding and better treatment for people with HIV and AIDS. Better keep an eye on her. Wait! Somebody already did."
The organization Flynn co-founded was organizing a rally near the Republican convention. The day before it was to be held, while visiting her family in New Jersey, she found her parents' house staked out and then herself followed by no less than three unmarked cars. She wrote down the license plate of one which, according to Newsday reporter Rocco Parascandola, was traced "back to a company -- Pequot Inc. -- and a post office box at an address far from the five boroughs [of New York City]. Registering unmarked cars to post office boxes outside the city or to shell companies is a common practice of law enforcement agencies to shield undercover investigators."
The New York Police Department has denied involvement, but as Nick Turse points out at Tomdispatch.com today ("NYC, the NYPD, the RNC, and Me"), in the year before the convention, the Department's undercover teams had traveled the country, Canada, and Europe, conducting covert surveillance of quite peaceful activists. In practice, this is part of what the Global War on Terror has meant here -- the granting of an endless license for the draconian to become part of normal life, of what passes for "safety." And as Turse reveals, when it comes to "zero tolerance" policing, surveillance, and planning for the suppression of peaceful dissent, things have actually gotten a lot worse since 2004. In the Big Apple where police surveillance from mobile "Sky Towers" to stealth helicopters has become a way of life, fear drives a new, exceedingly profitable industry that feeds off protection money.
"All we want are the facts, Ma'am," Sgt. Friday of Dragnet used to say on the TV screen of my childhood. Well, the facts now are that surveillance and "homeland security" add up to a massive, booming business (and not just in Iraq). Already our second defense department, the Department of Homeland Security, has sprouted a second, mini-military-industrial complex -- and it's not just a domestic matter either. When it comes to the profits associated with surveillance and the crackdown, Chinese surveillance companies, already raising money from U.S. institutional investors, are reportedly about to get their first foothold on the New York Stock Exchange.
Today, a world of "safety" that involves techniques and technology once associated with Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 is fast becoming life as we know (and accept) it. And there's more to come.