Monday, July 21, 2008
When I received a voice mail last Wednesday from the Maryland ACLU, I assumed it was about the fight against Maryland’s death penalty. Executions in Maryland have been shut down since 2006, and the state’s General Assembly has authorized a commission to make recommendations on the future of capital punishment. The commission’s plans are the topic of constant conversation among abolitionists.
It turns out the ACLU call was about the death penalty, but not exactly in the form I was expecting.
When I called back, ACLU staff attorney David Rocah explained that my name had appeared repeatedly in a 46-page report documenting a clandestine surveillance and undercover investigation conducted by the Maryland State Police for more than a year, from March 2005 to May 2006.
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The report was released to the ACLU after it sued the Maryland state police for refusing to disclose information-gathering activities aimed at peace activists. “Detailed intelligence reports logged by at least two agents in the police department’s Homeland Security and Intelligence Division reveal close monitoring of the movements as the Iraq war and capital punishment were heatedly debated in 2005 and 2006,” the Washington Post reported.
“Organizational meetings, public forums, prison vigils, rallies outside the State House in Annapolis and e-mail group lists were infiltrated by police posing as peace activists and death penalty opponents, the records show. The surveillance continued even though the logs contained no reports of illegal activity and consistently indicated that the activists were not planning violent protests.”
The infiltration of the CEDP was carried out during the one-term reign of former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who ended the moratorium on executions that had been imposed by his predecessor when the flaws in the death penalty system became impossible to overlook.
The surveillance began after the first execution overseen by Ehrlich–of Steven Oken in 2004–and continued during the CEDP’s campaigns to save Wesley Baker, who was put to death in December 2005, and Vernon Evans, who won a last-minute stay of execution in February 2006.
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HEARING THE news, I thought it was a bad joke. Undercover cops investigating public meetings of civil and human rights activists against the death penalty? Police infiltration of discussions held at the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee hall?
My first reading of the surveillance report reinforced thiis response. It was full of factual errors, botched names and mistaken identities and associations. According to the report, the “national socialists” (i.e., Nazis) were organizing against racial bias in Maryland’s death penalty. Not just wrong, but a dumb kind of wrong.
The report ludicrously described one well-respected activist and ardent pacifist, Max Obuszewski, as a “terrorist.” As for me, they couldn’t figure out if I was an anarchist or socialist.
Their confusion on this last point is at least somewhat understandable since we have people from a wide variety of political and religious affiliations who come together to oppose capital punishment. But in the event the Maryland police are still wondering, in the proud tradition of anti-death penalty attorney Clarence Darrow, I’m a socialist.
The report does get one thing right. Nowhere in the 46 single-spaced pages is a single illegal activity conducted by anti-death penalty activists (observed or imagined) described. Not a single statement, note, e-mail or comment made publicly or illegally obtained through surveillance can be construed as illegal, improper or even rude. Instead, the list of events documented in the report–distributing fliers, petitioning–are about as scandalous as the minutes of a local Rotary club.
I’ve read enough history to know something of the long and sordid story of these kinds of spy operations in the U.S. I’ve also attended events in support of imprisoned activists, such as Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Maryland’s own Eddie Conway, who have paid a terrible price when paranoid policing takes hold.
The surveillance of the CEDP and antiwar activists seems ludicrous by comparison, especially with the ineptitude of the Maryland cops shining through on every page.
But this kind of inanity is dangerous–to the lives and livelihoods of the people who are subjected to it, and to the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech, assembly and petition of grievances of everyone.
And it’s there that the joke stops. Because sending cops into activist meetings on college campuses, community centers and Quaker meeting halls to write down lists of names and the activities of the participants can only be described as one thing: state repression.
Any state-organized act designed to prevent or disrupt the efforts of ordinary people to effect change must be vigorously opposed and organized against, to stop similar acts from occurring again. The current governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, has assured the public that the surveillance has stopped. This is a first step, but until the laws are changed and the responsible parties publicly brought to account for treading on our liberties, it’s not enough.
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ANTI-DEATH penalty author and activist Sister Helen Preajen once counseled activists that “support for the death penalty may be a mile wide, but it’s an inch deep.” She meant that while many people support capital punishment in the abstract, their support is based on misinformation and is easily turned when faced with the facts.
Prejean is right. The more light that is shown on this archaic and barbaric practice, the more it loses its hold. My own experience has shown me time and again that a five-minute conversation with even the most ardent death penalty supporter can often turn someone from a booster to a critic. Those conversations have helped turn the tide of public opinion away from support for the death penalty.
Nowhere has this been clearer than my home state of Maryland, where by every indication, capital punishment is on its way out. A moratorium on executions (the second halt in executions since 1999) has been in place since 2006. The number of people on death row has shrunk from 17 prisoners in 1998 to only five; new capital prosecutions and convictions are down; and support for the death penalty remains on the decline.
Perhaps that’s why a shrill and die-hard supporter of the death penalty like Ehrlich and his team decided it was necessary to send undercover agents and surveillance vans to our meetings. Ehrlich came into the governor’s mansion in 2003 determined to restart executions in Maryland, and he discovered that was necessary to resort to underhanded tactics and dirty tricks to prop up the tottering house of cards.
As CEDP National Director Marlene Martin put it, “How incredible it is that the Maryland state police wasted money to spy on a group of folks trying to stop the execution of a poor Black prisoner. But then again, I guess the little people, Black and white, coming together to fight against a blatant, unfair and racist barbaric practice like capital punishment, has always scared those in power who want to maintain an unfair and unequal society.”
In the Maryland police report, alongside the names of long-time anti-death penalty activists, there’s a special focus on the activities of the family of death row prisoner Vernon Evans.
According to the logic of the report, the Evans family represented a unique kind of threat–because of the power of their personal efforts to stop the state from killing their son, brother, cousin and father, and because of how broadly their story of pain, redemption and hope resonates in an often beaten-down city like Baltimore.
Their voices are a powerful antidote to the politics of fear and revenge practiced by death penalty supporters. They are precious to our movement against the death penalty and to build a better world, and we have to defend them.