For two and a half years, Karen Sullivan played an integral role in the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee (AWC). She chaired meetings, made friends, and put in long hours into getting the work of the organization done. Her colleagues were sensitive to her privacy, refraining from further inquiry once they learned that she had a poor relationship with the father of her teenage daughter and was estranged from her parents.
But it was all a sham. This mother and friend was, first and foremost, an FBI agent, tasked with infiltrating the AWC and investigating its purportedly pernicious activities.
Now, dozens of American activists in Chicago and Minneapolis — including students, journalists and anti-war activists — who have worked in solidarity with Palestinians and Colombians, and have spoken out against the darker aspects of our foreign policy, have been subpoenaed before a grand jury. In the wake of these subpoenas, Sullivan disappeared. It was only this federal investigation that brought her secret to light. But questions remain about what the potential impact may be for our First Amendment rights.
Sullivan’s story is humorous, bizarre, and seemingly trivial in implication, but this undercover agent spent two years of her life and countless public resources infiltrating the anti-war group. Now, news from the proceedings indicates that prosecutors may be after activists who donated small sums of money to a daycare and women’s center in the course of a solidarity delegation to the West Bank.
Civil rights advocates have long been concerned about precisely this kind of misapplication of the “material support” statutes, which criminalize support for designated foreign terrorist organizations. A Supreme Court decision this summer greatly expanded and invested the term “material support” of terrorist organizations to include things like helping with humanitarian aid efforts and advocating for non-violent conflict resolution — a definition that encompasses, among other organizations, USAID and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. As dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer read from the bench, “The government has not made the strong showing necessary to justify under the First Amendment the criminal prosecution of those who engage in these activities. All the activities involve the communication and advocacy of political ideas and lawful means of achieving political ends.”
How, in any case, are Palestinian daycare centers a threat to American national security? This pettiness on the part of the state, regrettably, has serious implications for our right to free speech, our ability to have a rigorous national dialogue about these issues and, most importantly, on the welfare of the peoples subject to these disastrous policies, like the Palestinians.
Such prosecution constitutes nothing less than a political witch-hunt targeting not just Palestinian solidarity activists, but also Colombian solidarity, Kurdish solidarity and anti-war activists. It bears little mentioning that each of these groups engages in staunch criticism of American foreign policy, especially regarding its unbridled support of the deleterious policies of Israel, Turkey and Colombia.
The message is clear: if you have qualms with American foreign policy and the suffering it inflicts upon innocent people, you would do well to sit down and shut up, else you be accused of providing “material support” to our enemies. Such a witch-hunt raises the worst specters of McCarthy-era government encroachment on free society.
Moreover, this attack on free speech is as self-defeating as it is daft. Consider the ramifications for the Palestinians. If Palestinians are isolated from advice, solidarity and support for the undertaking of nonviolent action, what options remain left to them in the face of the persistently brutal conditions of a six-decade-long occupation?
In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is perhaps worth noting the resemblance that these activities bear to the COINTELPRO repression that portrayed Dr. King as a similarly dangerous activist leader. He, too, engaged in numerous actions of international solidarity and anti-war agitation, in addition to his heroic opposition to segregation. Today, those who continue to agitate for a better society face similar kinds of intimidation from the government. The aim of intimidating international solidarity and anti-war activists then, as now, was to silence dissent under the veneer of security concerns. By letting such encroachments on our liberties continue unabated, we surrender a more just and peaceful world to one dominated by fear and the status quo. It has already begun. Whether or not we let it take its course is up to us.
Omar Mumallah is a junior in Pierson College and Jacqueline Outka is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.