- "This is the 21st Century. Get with it, man!"
- This past Thursday I was invited by the group World Can't
Wait to talk about impeachment and Bush's preparations for war against
Iran at a Philadelphia rally--part of the group's Oct. 5 "Drive Out
the Bush Regime" campaign of 170 such rallies around the country.
Assembled on the mall in front of the Rizzo Municipal Offices building
in central Philadelphia in front of me were some 300 people, mostly young,
and all well-behaved, if high spirited.
- While I was talking about the Bush administration's
impeachable crimes against the American people and the Constitution--in
particularly the ramming through Congress of a bill that, for the first
time since American patriots drove the British out of the 13 colonies,
authorizes indefinite detainment without charge and imprisonment of American
citizens without the right to a trial--I noticed two men in sunglasses
with a high-quality video camera and a high-quality still camera with telephoto
lense filming the assembled crowd.
- After I spoke, I walked over to the two men and asked
what station they were with. I was pretty certain they were police, despite
their total lack of identification, because normally news organizations
plaster their cameras with their station call letters and these cameras
had no such identification on them. When I pressed them, both men turned
their cameras directly on me, from just two feet away, filming me as I
denounced their intimidation.
- "You should be ashamed of yourselves," I said,
as young people around me looked on in surprise. "This rally has a
police permit, and all the people here are legally exercising their First
Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly."
- The two men remained silent, and continued to grimly
film and photograph me as I spoke. I began telling everyone around me
who the men were and what they were doing, and some of the young people
began to pester the officers themselves.
- I later saw a member of the Philadelphia Police Department's
Civil Affairs Unit, a Captain William Fisher, who unlike the camera detail,
was clearly identified as a police officer by both a card pinned to his
shirt, and by a prominent armband saying: Philadelphia Police Department.
- Asked why the men were filming the crowd, he responded
briskly, "This is a free country. This is a public space. You're
free to be here, and they're free to come too and to take your picture."
- I allowed as this was true, technically, but that clearly
there was an element of intimidation involved when police come and film
the faces of everyone who comes to an event that is about criticizing the
- "Oh, you're so `70s," he said, looking at
my gray beard and balding head. "This is the 21st Century. Get with
- Indeed, he's right.
- It is the 21st Century.
- When I was a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles in the
late 1970s, it was discovered that the Los Angeles Police Department was
sending unmarked police officers like these armed with video cameras to
press conferences at places like the Los Angeles Press Club, where they
were setting up and filming certain events as part of a campaign of keeping
tabs on activist groups.
- This revelation caused a sensation, with front-page
articles in the Los Angeles Times, and inquiries into the practice by irate
members of the Los Angeles City Council. In the end, the police were forced
to back down and cease the practice, at least for a time.
- Now, here in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution
and the Bill of Rights, this trampling of the freedom of assembly and
speech seems to merit no attention at all in the local mainstream media.
When I called the Inquirer's police reporter, Barbara Boyer, to alert
her to what had happened, her response was "Well, I could take your
picture on the sidewalk, too, if I wanted. It's not illegal."
- Apparently the Philadelphia Police Department and most
of the local media think that it's appropriate for police to film people
who are exercising their Constitutional rights, and that this is what we
do in "21st Century America." To me, though, this seems more
like 1930s Germany, or 21st-Century China.
- Inspector Robert Tucker, who heads the counter-terrorism
task force of the Philadelphia Police Department, confirmed in a phone
conversation the next day that the two men with the cameras were working
for him. He apologized for their lack of identification, and for their
unwillingness to identify themselves, promising that at future public events,
they and others doing that kind of work would wear prominent identification
showing they were with the police. But he insisted that their work was
- "At events like these, there are usually anarchists
who show up," he argued, "and they're the ones that sometimes
end up breaking glass and causing problems." (It's an argument that
might justify video cams on every street corner of Philly, since crime
is everywhere.) He said that by filming the whole group, it would be possible
to identify those people later if there were incidents. Asked why the
officers were videotaping the entire crowd--and the speakers like myself
who were clearly identifiable anyhow--he offered no answer. Tucker claimed
that the tapes and photos made at the event would ordinarily not be retained,
but would be "taped over at the next event" unless there were
an incident involving an arrest, but he also noted that the department
does maintain files on "some people."
- What makes this whole thing feel particularly creepy
is the anti-terrorism bill just passed by a Congress of supine Republicans
and cowardly Democrats, which gives the president the authority, on his
own, to call anyone an "unlawful combatant," or a supporter
of terrorism, and to lock them away in a military brig with no right to
a trial or even a lawyer. When you put this police surveillance in that
context, it becomes intimidating indeed. Especially since the Philadelphia
Police counter-terrorism unit is an integral part of the federal joint
counter-terrorism strike force, making it easy for such film materials
to migrate over into federal hands.
- It seems to me it's time to get back not to the 1970s,
but to the 1770s, when Americans knew what was happening to them, and
stood up and said, "No more!"