Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and other big city cops are calling for a new system of “citizen watch” programs, allegedly to help them spot hidden terrorists. I view this new call for a nation of private spies with a deep suspicion born of experience with the LAPD and its historic penchant for spying on law-abiding residents of that city.
Back in the late 1970s, together with a band of other doughty journalists, including Tommy Thompson, Ron Ridenour, Ben Pleasants, I co-founded and ran a spunky little news weekly called the LA Vanguard. In the course of just one year, we broke stories about secret “security offices” run by local phone companies (Pacific Telephone and GTE) which provided unlisted numbers and credit information to police and other government agencies without requiring a warrant, about the killing of unarmed citizens by police, about the LAPD’s “shoot to kill” gun use policy, about judges in landlord-tenant cases who were slumlords themselves, and many other stories that were being ignored by the LA Times and the rest of the local establishment media.
For our efforts, we found out years later, we were targeted by the LAPD’s “red squad,” known at the time as the Public Disorder Intelligence Division (PDID), for an intensive program of spying that including planting a young cop, Connie Milazzo, as a member of our editorial collective. We only learned of Milazzo’s real identity years later when she admitted disclosed it herself to a judge in a public hearing (she wanted to avoid being sent to the county lockup along with a group of activists she had “joined” undercover who had all been arrested during a protest and who were refusing to provide their identities to the court).
A subsequent lawsuit filed with the help of the ACLU of Southern California, eventually settled for a payment of $1.8 million by the City of Los Angeles, disclosed that the PDID had for years been using as many as 20 undercover cops to infiltrate and spy on over 200 legal political and activist organizations in the Los Angeles area, gathering rooms full of files on everyone from members of the National Organization for Women to the staffs of certain members of the city council.
We also learned that the LAPD was providing those files to a shadowy private outfit in San Francisco called Western Goals, which had links to the ultra-right John Birch Society. Western Goals was apparently seeking to serve as a private repository of dossiers on leftists and political activists collected by local police all around the country in a kind of end run around the restrictions on domestic spying by the FBI that had been imposed after the post-Watergate revelations about the abuses of the COINTELPRO era.
This is why Bratton’s idea stinks. Local police, because they are local, are even more prone to rogue activities that will never be exposed or monitored than are federal police.
As accommodating of police-state tactics as Congress has been, especially since 9-11, at least some members of that body have raised concerns and demanded investigations of some of those abuses by organizations like the FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency. But city councils have been notoriously uninterested in monitoring the unconstitutional activities of their local police around the country, who have extremely powerful political connections and the support of local media establishments.
Any attempt to organize a citizen’s watch program to look for suspicious activity is bound to devolve into a police program of spying on those who are outside of the “norm”: minorities, leftists, activists, loners, people with alternative life-styles, artists, etc.
Let’s be honest. America faces no existential threat from terrorism. It does face such threats from rampaging climate change, political corruption, corporate power, economic collapse, and many other things, but it is hardly threatened by terrorism, which has killed far fewer people even in 2001 than have auto defects, contaminated food, and insurance company denials of care.
Back in 2001, the Bush/Cheney administration stoked an irrational fear of terrorism in order to win passage of the Patriot Act and acceptance of other actions, such as creation of a program by the National Security Agency to use supercomputers to monitor millions of Americans’ electronic communications. Many of those threats to freedom remain in place today. Now Chief Bratton and his compatriots in police departments around the country are trying to stoke that same irrational fear of terrorism to move the country even further towards a police-state mentality.
The last thing we need in this era of corporate-media-induced conformity and citizen passivity is a bunch of self-appointed citizen snoops calling in to the cops with reports on every neighbor who looks or acts a little bit different.
Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist. He is author of Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (Common Courage Press, 2003) and The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at thiscantbehappening.net