THE INFILTRATION OF PEACE FRESNO
What have we learned?
By Catherine Campbell
With expanded police powers under the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the F.B.I. can now compel librarians to turn over lists of the books we read. The Sheriff of Fresno County, pursuant to federal guidelines, can send an undercover Deputy to infiltrate, deceive and conduct surveillance on the members of Peace Fresno for six months as part of the War on Terror. Attorney General John Ashcroft draws the line at gun registration, however, insisting that gun registration records are private, covered by the Second Amendment, and are not available as part of the War on Terror.
Are we feeling safe yet?
In January of last year, a thin young man with a goatee began to sit in on Peace Fresno meetings. He said he was interested in politics and was thinking over his position in relation to the war against Iraq. He took notes, listened quietly, and paid his Peace Fresno dues of $12 in cash. He called himself "Aaron Stokes" and no one suspected his true identity. For six months, off and on, he maintained a relationship with Peace Fresno, coming to some demonstrations at the corner of Shaw and Blackstone, and on one occasion, traveling by bus to an anti-globalization rally in Sacramento with a spirited group of protesters. Strangely, he was not on the bus back to Fresno.
Still, no one suspected.
Sanity depends on trust, trust in our family and friends, and - perhaps most important - trust in strangers. In 1987 I was driving on Highway 152 when a young man slid across the center divide and plowed head on into me at 60 miles per hour. My car flipped three or four times. For many months, the only way I could ride in a car was in the back seat curled in fetal position. I was incapable of believing in other drivers' commitment to the rules of the road.
On August 30 of last year, "Aaron Stokes" was driving his motorcycle through a residential neighborhood at a screeching speed when he was suddenly thrown and killed. An article in the Bee was followed by an obituary. Both revealed that Stokes was actually Aaron Kilner, a member of the Fresno Sheriff's Department anti-terrorism unit. Kilner had formerly been a vice cop whose targets were gay men having sex in Roeding Park public bathrooms. Kilner's face was recognized by Peace Fresno members.
It was hard to believe. Most Peace Fresno members have lived here many years. They were known. They have jobs, relationships, ties that bind. The Sheriff of Fresno County actually thought they might be terrorists? It had never occurred to them that they would be deceived, lied to, investigated, and for months on end. What had Kilner written in those notes he took? Did he create files on the individual members? Who had the files? The Sheriff? The F.B.I.? Had they been followed? Had they been investigated personally? What other community groups in Fresno were infiltrated, and by whom?
Who should they trust now?
In the months that followed the revelation that Peace Fresno was the subject of surveillance there has been much discussion of what it means. The story has been repeated in newspaper articles all over the country, most recently in an excellent piece in Salon.com of February 11, 2004. It is one of several examples of stepped up surveillance of peace and anti-war activism all over the country in the name of the War on Terrorism. Similar episodes of infiltration have occurred in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Boulder, Colorado. And these are the ones we know about because of strange, chance exposures. As the war in Iraq deteriorates, and as new rounds of protests in the U.S. occur, including antiwar demonstrations on March 20, and as the conventions convene and the elections approach, surveillance of those who dissent is likely to increase.
The collaboration of the federal government and local law enforcement in Joint Terrorism Task Forces (J.T.T.F.) has been the source of most of the new assault on dissent. Peace Fresno has obtained the Memorandum of Understanding between the Fresno County Sheriff's Department and the Federal Government that outlines their collaborative contractual relationship. Sheriff Pierce has admitted that Kilner was operating at his direction and under cover of law as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Such activity is forbidden under California law, but Pierce insists it is legally justified under federal law, and that he - presumably at the direction of the federal government - will continue to engage in surveillance of any community group that is open to the public. That means churches, schools, political organizations.
That means you.
The United States has a long history of surveillance of dissident organizations. The infiltration of Peace Fresno is nothing new. The purpose is never to protect the public or to root out terrorists. Sheriff Pierce and the F.B.I. know that Peace Fresno doesn't harbor terrorists. Their purpose is to stifle dissent, to scare people away from groups like Peace Fresno, and to break down the trust people have in their neighbors, their community, and their local law enforcement. Those who persevere in their dissenting ways are fated to be fearful and vigilant. Those who conform will hand over their privacy, surrender their library data, and ask, "Why worry? I've done nothing wrong." The divide between the two will grow. Surveillance defines who is on the inside, and who is not, who is welcome here, and who is unwelcome.
We live in frightening times. Peace Fresno members are shaken by what has happened. They know surveillance and repression are conjoint twins, and that there is much reason for worry, particularly if you have tried to do what is right.