One of my cherished childhood memories is of my petite, polite mother closing the front door firmly on two hulking FBI agents who wanted to come in and ask her questions. “I don’t have to talk to you,” she informed them in a steely voice, and she didn’t. Wow, Mom! I can’t swear to all the details–were the agents really so big, or was I just little? and did they really wear hats and trench coats, or have I dressed them to fit the 1950s stereotype?–but I do have a distinct memory of them casually lifting the lids from our streetside garbage cans as they left and peering inside, like cooks checking the stockpot. I doubt they really expected to find secret papers tossed in with the banana peels and steak bones; they were simply making a point. After my mother died, I sent away for her FBI file, which revealed, among other more serious invasions of privacy, that every year the FBI would phone our house on a pretext to make sure we still lived there. Honestly, hadn’t they noticed that the phone book has addresses too? Your government dollars at work.

But why wallow in ancient history? In the wake of September 11, spying on citizens is back in all its careless glory. Indeed, it appears it never really went away. For example, my old friend Barbara Levy Cohen and her husband, Mark Cohen, are among the many represented by an ACLU lawsuit against the Denver Police Department. The Colorado branch of the ACLU announced last March that it had learned that the DPD had conducted surveillance and maintained “criminal intelligence files” since the 1950s (!) on people engaged in constitutionally protected political activities. Soon after, Mayor Wellington Webb admitted that “the issues that have been raised by the ACLU as well as others are legitimate” and that files existed on 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations, from the Million Mom March to the “criminal extremist” American Friends Service Committee, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and NARAL.

As always seems to be the case with police files, the Denver dossiers are full of egregious misinformation and dark comedy. Barbara, a serious, mild-mannered secretary who, when not organizing around Native American and fair-trade issues, likes to read and go to the movies, is identified as having a “direct relationship” with an “outlaw biker” gang involved with “narcotics, weapons.” (Not true, Barbara says, for the record.) Mark’s file contains a group photograph with an arrow pointing to him–only it’s not him. Margaret Taniwaki, a Japanese-American woman who spent time as a child in a World War II internment camp in California, is identified as “Caucasian” (maybe they meant to write “Asian”?); her ex-husband of twenty years has a file because she drove a car registered in his name. Sister Antonia Anthony, a 74-year-old nun who belonged to a pro-Zapatista organization called the Chiapas Coalition, was cited as supporting the overthrow of the Mexican government–which would make her more of a firebrand than the Zapatistas themselves.

But there are more serious items, too. Glenn Morris, chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado, Denver, and member of the leadership council of the Colorado American Indian Movement (AIM), had a death threat listed in his files: The police knew about it but never passed it on. While Cassandra Medrano and Pavlos Stavropoulos were in Greece, another couple used their car to drive to an antiglobalization demonstration; that couple’s 9-year-old child–listed as a “reliable” source in the files–gave a police officer information about her parents that the DPD misassigned to Medrano and Stavropoulos; using this “information,” the DPD started a file on Medrano and added to its file on Stavropoulos. Do we want to live in a society where fourth-graders are considered reliable sources, and in which cops probe children for information about their parents on the basis of political beliefs and activities that are legal?

What causes do “criminal extremists” favor in Denver? Besides reproductive rights, good works and pacifism, apparently they are keen on Native American rights: “Of the files I’ve seen,” Barbara tells me, “three-quarters mention AIM and protests against Columbus Day, which is a big issue here in Denver.” The Direct Action Network, an antiglobalization/fair trade group, also caught the inquisitorial eye: So much so that at one point the DPD, aware that its usual infiltrators had become familiar faces, asked a detective from the vice and drugs control bureau to attend a DAN meeting undercover. Given such practices, it’s not surprising that another popular cause is protesting abuses of the citizenry by the Denver Police Department. Barbara’s and Mark’s files note that in 1991 they co-signed a letter published in the Colorado Statesman, a local weekly, criticizing the police for racism. Why does this classic exercise of the First Amendment belong in secret dossiers?

Not that spying on the nonviolent would ever be right, but it’s worth noting that the Denver debacle was facilitated by the police’s lack of training in the use of the Orion Scientific Systems software program: Crucial decisions about how to categorize and input information (what constituted “criminal extremism,” for example) were made in an unprofessional, whimsical way. Other cities in which secret police files have been uncovered tell a similar story of inept paranoia: Until the mid-1980s, four years after passage of a state law barring police spying on nonviolent political activities, Portland police kept tabs on a wide variety of groups, including the Northwest Oregon Voter Registration Project, a food co-op, a bicycle repair collective, a group setting up a rape hotline and a battered women’s shelter.

These days, local authorities are eager to jettison longstanding restraints imposed after abuses in the 1970s and go back to their old-fashioned ways. The New York City Police Department, for example, announced that it wants to be able to spy on citizens without having to persuade an official three-member panel that it has just cause–even though it cited no examples of this process hindering an investigation. In a fine twist, the NYPD plans to use an updated version of the Orion software employed to such notable effect by the Denver PD.

Just remember: You don’t have to talk to them.