FBI raids on six houses in Minneapolis and Chicago, including the office of the Minneapolis Antiwar Committee, have the antiwar movement – and the left in general – in an uproar. Agents came barging into homes guns drawn, kicking down doors and smashing furniture, armed with search warrants. The warrants described, in suitably vague terms, allegations of “material support for terrorism.” No arrests were made, although a number of individual activists were served with subpoenas demanding their appearance before a grand jury. Computers, documents, phones, and other materials were carted away by burly FBI agents, who appeared at 7 a.m. sharp, locked and loaded.
Let the frame-ups begin!
This Palmer raids-style fishing expedition is apparently aimed at members and supporters of an obscure Marxist grouplet, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), a Maoist remnant founded in the 1960s which came out of the “new communist movement” documented in Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air. What drew the attention of the authorities to FRSO was apparently their “solidarity” work on behalf of the Palestinians and a Colombian leftist insurgency known as FARC.
More about FRSO later, but in the meantime let’s look at the context in which all this is occurring. Why it seems like only yesterday that the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General issued its report on the illegal surveillance, infiltration, and systematic harassment of antiwar groups, including the Merton Center, in Pittsburgh, the Catholic Worker organization, and Greenpeace. The report has been described by many as “scathing,” but in the process of trying to whitewash FBI Director Robert Mueller, it also succeeds in minimizing the crimes of the political police as they sought evidence to frame up a bunch of pacifists as potential terrorists.
In justifying the infiltration and extensive surveillance, FBI agents told the IG that, since the individuals involved were advocates of “direct action,” the activities of the Merton Center/Catholic Worker raised the possibility of “arson attacks” on military facilities. Remember, this is the same FBI that, under J. Edgar Hoover, spied on and tried to destroy Martin Luther King. An arson attack these thugs can understand, and deal with, but the concept of nonviolent resistance is a direct affront to their entire worldview – and a much more potent threat to their power.
The surveillance of the Merton Center, and specifically of a 2002 protest against the Iraq war, was supposedly initiated in order to garner information about “an ongoing terrorist investigation,” and so Director Mueller testified in hearings before Congress, but that turned out not to be true. A great deal of the IG’s report is taken up with defending Mueller, personally, who supposedly didn’t know there was no ongoing terrorist investigation that required the agent’s presence at the rally, where he took photographs of participants and collected literature. Or, at least, this agent didn’t know there was such an investigation – although there was – but went anyway, because he was a “probationary” pig, and was just trying to please his supervisor: his presence at the antiwar rally, however “ill-conceived” it may have been, wasn’t carried out “because of the Merton Center’s antiwar advocacy,” it was just “make-work.” And if you believe that, then I have a P. T. Barnum quip at the ready I won’t even bother typing out.
“Ill-conceived,” but legal – that’s the IG’s verdict on the Merton Center surveillance, because the FBI’s shenanigans fit the very loose legal parameters applicable under the PATRIOT Act. After all, the rationale goes, it’s possible that the subject of an ongoing investigation into al-Qaeda’s Pittsburgh cell might attend a protest against the Iraq war given by Catholic nuns. Just as I suppose it’s possible Osama bin Laden could convert to Christianity and become a Trappist monk.
In an editorial, the Boston Globe denounced the FBI’s actions as “red-baiting,” but this is incorrect: A footnote in the report seeks to justify the surveillance, or at least make it more politically palatable, by identifying the Center as an “anarchist” enterprise, one devoted to “mutual aid” as well as fighting war and State oppression. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, there aren’t all that many reds around to be baited – they’ve all either gone into real estate, or else gone to Washington to take jobs in the Obama administration. It’s those darn anarchists who are the new bogeymen, bomb-throwing radicals both Chris Matthews and Rush Limbaugh can vilify in unison.
Since the PATRIOT Act and subsequent legislation gave the feds a blank check to spy on us, law enforcement agencies have taken the opportunity to cast as wide a net as possible over the legal activities of American citizens whose only goal is to change American foreign policy. Under Bush, and now under Obama, the government is engaged in a systematic campaign to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat the anti-interventionist movement on the home front, all under the rubric of “anti-terrorism.”
The FBI invasion of antiwar activists’ homes and offices is the latest chapter in this ongoing campaign: as our troops take Kandahar, our political police are taking Minneapolis and Chicago.
The target of the raids, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, is interesting because its history gives us a capsule summary of what happened to the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 70s – and a lesson in why the current antiwar movement is floundering.
FRSO came out of the generational radicalization that created Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and energized a mass left-wing student-based movement. When SDS splintered into a couple dozen fragments in a frenzy of factional warfare, FRSO emerged from one of the splinters known as the Revolutionary Youth Movement (II) – the Revolutionary Youth Movement (I) being something altogether different, you see. In any case, as more and more of these young radicals began to go into real estate, or take up Zen Buddhism, the dead-enders either joined the Weathermen and went underground, or else joined one of the plonky neo-Stalinist “parties” – i.e. sects – that sprang up like mushrooms on a fallen tree.
FRSO was one such grouplet, formed out of the merger of the Maoist Revolutionary Workers’ Headquarters (which had previously split from the Revolutionary Communist Party), and the Proletarian Unity League. Both of these groups had been highly critical of the “ultra-left” doctrine, tactics, and strategy of the Maoist movement, and sought to salvage those activists who survived the flight to bourgeois respectability.
The idea was to rebuild the movement by carrying out a holding action, but the result was yet another split, with one faction deciding that the entire basis of Marxist-Leninist theory had to be reexamined with a critical eye – these are the “Left Refoundationists” – against the upholders of orthodoxy, who called themselves FRSO-(Fight Back). There are, today, two organizations which call themselves the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, with the orthodox faction winding up in the sights of the FBI, and the Left Refoundationists winding up in … “Progressives for Obama.”
One comic side note of the raids is the Left Refoundationist denunciation of the FBI’s attack on their ex-comrades, which, after decrying the incident as “part of a growing governmental trend targeting the left,” and pointing out that “the [African National Congress, which currently governs South Africa] was on the ‘terrorist’ list right up until they won electoral victory in South Africa,” is careful to point out, in bold print:
“Although the organization in question has a similar name to ours, we are different organizations. (We are officially Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad (FRSO/OSCL).) We were not targets in these raids.”
In other words: it ain’t us! It’s those guys over there:
“These raids and arrests have the effect of stifling dissent and foreclosing democratic rights of minority viewpoints. We should be concerned, whether or not we agree with the politics of the targeted organization.”
The Left Refoundationists went into the Democratic party, and were active in “Progressives for Obama,” an outfit cooked up by Tom Hayden, FRSO-“Left Refoundationist” and AFL-CIO bureaucrat Bill Fletcher, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover, whose job it was to get these former militant commies to the polls on behalf of the Great Change. The orthodox FRSO-ers, on the other hand, continued along the “Marxist-Leninist” path, meeting with leftist insurgents in South America and occupied Palestine, but still feeling the pull of the Great Change. As their “Main Political Report” on the domestic situation for 2010 puts it:
“The election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States is a contradictory event. In part the election of Obama was a referendum on race in the United States, a referendum that came out surprisingly positive … Obama’s election represents a rejection of the Bush administration policies and a desire amongst the people for a progressive agenda from the government. Immediately following his election there was a sense of optimism and a feeling that change is possible. This is a very good development after so many years of Bush. ”
I wonder if they’ll revise that last sentence in light of recent developments.
I think it’s safe to say the antiwar movement was unprepared for this kind of attack from an administration they hailed as “a very good development,” and I’m not just talking about FRSO. The idea that the election of a black man whose resume reads “community organizer” is going to change the face of US imperialism even slightly is an illusion brought on by the identity politics that have long since replaced Marxism (or any coherent ‘ism) in the canons of the left. If many have wondered who let the air out of the antiwar movement, it was precisely those “radical” leftists who, like the “orthodox” Marxists of FRSO, signed on as the “left” wing of the Obama cult. That’s why they didn’t see the mailed fist of the State coming even when it was a few inches from their faces.
The Minneapolis and Chicago raids are just the beginning. The logic of the “war on terrorism,” and its legal machinery here on the home front, is an ever-expanding campaign to associate political dissent – and, specifically, dissent from our interventionist foreign policy – with violence and treason. And it will be a lot easier to pull this off under a “progressive” veneer. Remember, Bush’s political police just spied covertly, as well as targeting Islamic charities and shutting several down: Obama’s KGB is conducting open raids on the offices of domestic antiwar organizations. Anybody who gave a dime, or an hour of their time, to the Minneapolis and Chicago antiwar groups in which FRSO involved itself is now apt to be on an FBI “terrorist watch list.” Under this “progressive” President, the FBI isn’t just taking photos of us at antiwar events and following us to the grocery store: it’s kicking down the front door and taking our stuff.
The escalation of Obama’s wars abroad is being matched, and more, by an escalation of the war on dissent at home – and the antiwar movement is caught unprepared, in shock that this “community organizer” and his buddies in the Justice Department would go after them. So watch out, comrades: that FBI agent at your door may be a “Left Refoundationist” of a particular type.
Okay, aside from the ideological lesson we can draw from this, what can the antiwar movement do, concretely, to defend itself from attack? What’s needed is a legal defense organization, one narrowly devoted to providing assistance to those who find themselves targeted on account of their anti-imperialist views. The network that’s grown up around the defense of Bradley Manning ought to be expanded to include not only the FRSO activists but all future targets of state repression – and, believe you me, there will be more.
The ruling elite has never been more nervous, because their rule has never been more brittle: the economic collapse foreshadows a political collapse that can only be prevented by a crackdown and general tightening of the rules of the American “democratic” system. They’re making up these new rules as they go along, and the process is still ongoing, but of one thing we can be certain: the Constitution is a dead letter. It no longer exists except as a document kept under glass, venerated but never obeyed.
In an atmosphere like this, anything is possible: repression, mass raids, and, yes, even dictatorship (in the name of “preserving democracy,” naturally). We are in for some hard times, and certainly some tumultuous times: if we’re going to survive, we must shed any illusions that the State is going to back off, or give us a break, because, after all, “our” guy is in the White House. The Obama administration is the enemy of freedom at home and the main danger to peace abroad – and progressive opponents of war and domestic repression need to either acknowledge that, or else give up the fight. The Obama boomerang has hit them squarely upside their heads: now they need to pick themselves up off the ground and face reality.