• Guardian Environment Network
Police spy on climate activist while global warming goes unarrested
Police spied on activist Mike Tidwell for months as a 'suspected terrorist'. From Grist, part of the Guardian Environment Network
• guardian.co.uk, Friday November 21 2008 17.15 GMT
I'm not sure what's more shocking: the news that the Maryland State Police wrongfully spied on me for months as a "suspected terrorist," or that, despite surveillance of me, officers apparently wouldn't recognize me if I walked into their police headquarters tomorrow.
I'm a former Peace Corps volunteer, an Eagle Scout, church member, youth baseball coach, and dedicated father. I also happen to be director of one of the largest environmental groups in
Matters turned especially Soviet-esque on October 14 when I called the police requesting a full copy of my surveillance file. A spokeswoman told me I could visually inspect the file, but I couldn't make photocopies, I couldn't bring an attorney, and the police would be destroying the entire file after I read it.
And bring a valid photo ID, she said, to make sure you're who you say you are.
A what? Really? You spied on me, for God's sake.
The mess all began last summer when astonishing evidence surfaced revealing that the
I still don't know for sure. Yielding to public pressure, the police finally gave me a printed copy of my "file" on October 29. It raised more questions than it answered. Seven of the 12 pages were withheld without full explanation. And of the pages I did receive, at least half the words were redacted — blacked out with a marker.
There was a photo of me on the last page, lifted from my website. And on the first page, there were these words: "Crime: Terrorism, environmental extremists."
What terrorism would that be? My file — what little of it I have — makes reference to a morning speech given in Bethesda, Md., by then-governor Robert Ehrlich on November 17, 2005. A small audience of invited guests and journalists attended inside a classroom at
There was no civil disobedience at this event. No one was arrested. No county, state, or federal laws were breached. The entire affair was utterly peaceful, above board, and appropriate. Political demonstrations exactly like this happen a thousand times a day in
Yet Ehrlich's security team considered this "aggressive protesting." Afterward, the troopers contacted the
Ironically, I wasn't even present at the protest in question. I've never been to
Meanwhile, the state police say they've released everything to me that's relevant to me, but I don't believe them. Since July, the state police have made numerous public statements related to this spying controversy that have proved to be factually untrue. They initially said, for example, that the entire surveillance program was limited to anti-death-penalty activists. But we now know activists for peace, immigration, and the environment were spied on too. I believe more of the spying story is yet to come out, however. With the help of a heroic Maryland attorney, David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union, and an equally heroic Maryland state senator, Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, I believe all the facts will soon surface and we'll see legislation in the state General Assembly in 2009 specifically banning police abuses like this.
The final tragedy here, of course, is how much this whole episode has been a distraction to the public. The real threat of terror to
But you can't have strong and lasting environmental protections without a strong democracy. Most of the transformative, positive change experienced in American history has happened only after significant citizen engagement at a noisy grassroots level. That's why, ultimately, the objective of almost all environmental groups — from the more liberal Greenpeace to the more conservative Nature Conservancy — is inspiring average citizens to care enough to take action, to make their desires known, to get involved in the system.
But who's going to get involved and get noisy — in
The national economy is tanking, we're bogged down in two wars, and the accelerating impacts of global warming could soon get so severe that Pentagon planners already anticipate security challenges worldwide from the inevitable social unrest spawned by biblical droughts, floods, wildfires, and the rest. History shows that it is precisely during times of war and want that governments tend to overreach and trample liberties. And it's only in resisting these temptations that certain kinds of governments — democracies — grow stronger.
With a climate disaster looming, I've worked very hard for many years to promote clean, renewable energy. But perhaps the greatest contribution I'll ever make to this cause is the action I'm taking right now: standing up and working hard to keep government itself clean.
Mike Tidwell is director of the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs