They're watching

By Tim Redmond

ON THE LAST day of December 1968, with the Vietnam War raging and antiwar activity in California at a fever pitch, the San Francisco field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a memo from the Washington, D.C., headquarters instigating what would become a furious witch-hunt against a Stanford University English professor named H. Bruce Franklin. "Howard Bruce Franklin ... will appear at a forum with other educators in mid-January, 1969," the memo stated. "Consideration is being given to discrediting him because of his radical, violent and revolutionary position."

Franklin's main offense, it turned out, was opposing the war (and loudly denouncing imperialism, capitalism, racism, and a lot of other things a lot of people were loudly denouncing in 1968). But the FBI had its sights on him and was determined to ruin his life.

"I guess it was a compliment," Franklin told me by phone from his home in New Jersey, where he's now a professor at Rutgers University. "I guess they thought I was being effective. But I certainly hadn't committed any crimes."

As part of the FBI's campaign, documents later obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act showed, the agency dug up as much dirt as it could on the young professor and fed it to "a cooperative news media source."

Burton Wolfe reported in the Bay Guardian in 1976 that the "cooperative news media source" was Ed Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. The feds handed Montgomery 70 pages of material, much of which ended up in a series of Examiner articles that portrayed Franklin as part of a Communist plot to undermine the U.S. government.

It worked too: in the wake of Montgomery's stories, Stanford fired Franklin, who was then blacklisted for years and couldn't get an academic job. He even tried getting a certificate in environmental horticulture, to make a living, "and the FBI contacted greenhouses and landscaping firms to make sure I wasn't employable," he recalled. "It was pretty intense."

The Bay Guardian stories exposing Montgomery set off a fury of their own: Montgomery, with the support of the Hearst Corp., sued the Bay Guardian for libel. The expensive, time-consuming case dragged on for years. On the eve of the trial, the Bay Guardian lawyers produced a key document they had obtained through the legal discovery process: a copy of a draft of a Montgomery story that had been sent to Washington, D.C., for prepublication approval. The initials of J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious FBI director, were at the top of the story, indicating that it was ready to run. The Examiner had published the story exactly as approved.

At that point, Montgomery dropped his suit.

The Bay Guardian was only two years old, a small, more-or-less-bimonthly publication, when the FBI launched its attack on Franklin. But through the late 1960s and early 1970s, while the federal government was engaged in a concerted – and illegal – war on dissent, the fledgling alternative newspaper was right in the thick of things.

Flipping through the 1969 and 1970 issues of the paper, you see articles on the draft boards (unrepresentative of the community), on the Black Panthers and the radical antiwar movement, on the California war machine ("You name it – and California will kill it"), on the student strike at San Francisco State University and the police repression that followed ... and a few years later, the paper began to sort through the mess and expose how the local police and federal agents were trying to destroy the antiwar movement.

For example, on Valentine's Day 1971 – 16 months before five men would be arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington's Watergate Hotel – the San Francisco office of the Downtown Peace Coalition was burglarized. Among the items stolen were files that later turned up in the hands of the San Francisco Police Department.

On Feb. 22, 1975, the Bay Guardian published an interview with David Bruce Bronson, who was then serving a five-year-to-life term for burglary in a California state prison. Bronson told reporter Bob Levering that he had broken into seven other radical or antiwar groups in San Francisco for the purposes of espionage or sabotage, had turned over stolen documents from those break-ins to the FBI and the SFPD, and had been paid by the SFPD for his work.

And in the middle of it all, even Bruce B. Brugmann, the distinctly law-abiding Bay Guardian editor and publisher, was followed by spies.

In this case, they weren't government spies: they were hired by the San Francisco Chronicle to dig up dirt on people who were urging the Federal Communications Commission not to renew the broadcast license of KRON-TV, which at the time was owned by Chronicle Publishing.

In a front-page story titled "The Dicks from SuperChron," Bruce revealed how private detective agency Neilson and Green, which handled investigations for the Chron's law firm, Cooper, White and Cooper, was tailing former KRON camera operator Al Kihn and former Chron ad salesperson Blanche Streeter, both of whom were opposing the license renewal. The private dicks were asking friends and neighbors about Kihn's divorce, about his political views (did he belong to any group that espoused the overthrow of the establishment?), and whether he smoked pot. And Chron officials were forced to admit in an FCC hearing that they were also following Bruce around and asking personal questions about him.

FBI agents and local cops spying on and trying to intimidate political activists. Private spies going after the political enemies of big corporations. It sounds awfully familiar.

In fact, the biggest difference between those days and today, as we point out in this 38th-anniversary issue, is that the government has more sophisticated tools at its disposal (there was no e-mail to intercept back then, and only a few pointy-headed scientists talked about DNA) – and a lot of what was considered blatantly unlawful abuses of power in the '60s is perfectly legal today.

It's frightening what's going on in the United States in 2004. Frightening in part because it's not so obvious: as Franklin told me, the government isn't assassinating people (at least not in the United States) the way radical leaders like Black Panther Fred Hampton were shot in the 1960s. But there are a lot of people locked in prison without access to lawyers. There are federal agents, and private operatives who may or may not be working with federal agents, intimidating and harassing political activists on a scale we haven't seen in 30 years.

From its founding days, the Bay Guardian has been on the side of the protesters, a paper for (and by) dissidents, a publication aimed at protecting the First Amendment right to question – loudly – the policies and practices of the government and the private interests who are, these days, even more powerful than the government.

In fact, Bruce cut his journalistic teeth in the McCarthy era, when he was a liberal editor of the student newspaper at the conservative University of Nebraska in the mid-1950s and fought to prevent a liberal agricultural economics professor, C. Clyde Mitchell, from losing his job because the conservative powers that be in the state thought the guy was too radical. (In the end, the faculty senate sided with Mitchell and the paper, upholding the principle of academic freedom in difficult times.)

That's why, on our 38th anniversary, we're devoting a special issue to "The New Police State."

In their seminal 1971 book on corporate power, America Inc., Morton Mintz and Jerry S. Cohen pointed out how difficult it can be to keep track of the people who are keeping track of you. "Power does not countervail," they wrote. "It attracts. Among the powerful, mutual assistance pacts are less painful than prolonged strife.

"Faced with such strength, the individual citizen should be excused if he feels himself overwhelmed by forces which, like X-rays, he knows exist but cannot discern."

That's how the new police state is shaping up. Your name goes into a database (and if Proposition 69 passes, your DNA may go into the same database). It's mixed with other data – what magazines you subscribe to, what movies you rent on pay-per-view, what organizations you belong to, who your parents are and where they were born. Maybe private data – what you buy with your supermarket discount card, when you withdraw cash on your credit cards, how much is in your bank account, even what types of doctors you're seeing and for what conditions – gets combined with government data. And pretty soon someone in a back room somewhere knows a whole lot about you.

And then maybe you try to board an airplane some day and you're told that you can't fly anymore – and nobody will tell you why or what you can do about it.

And that's under the best-case scenario. If you happen to be involved in an activity the government considers suspicious – even if it's totally legal – you could wind up incarcerated, without knowing why, for a long period of time.

This isn't wild and crazy paranoia. It's happening right now. And if the Bush administration has its way, it's going to get a whole lot worse.

"What's terrifying," Franklin told me, "is that today they have in place the full legal infrastructure for a police state."

The first thing that has to end is the rule of the Bush gang, and that means everyone who cares about the future of this country needs to do everything possible to elect John Kerry in November. But the Democrats aren't so perfect on civil liberties issues either, and if Kerry wins, we'll have to keep a close eye on him.

And we'll have to keep working, at the local, grassroots level, to build a movement against the police state, from the bottom up.

E-mail Tim Redmond