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Protesters Feel Big Brother Watching

By Lewis W. Diuguid
Kansas City Star

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

A lot of unsavory stuff keeps happening at area peace protests.

Brad Grabs arrived early at 13th and Central streets for the Sept. 4 protest near the Music Hall, where President Bush was to speak. A government security official dressed in a dark suit and tie approached Grabs.

“He said, ‘Brad, I'd like to ask you to move your demonstration up a block to maybe 12th Street,' ” said Grabs, chairman of the Kansas City Iraq Task Force, which has organized area peace rallies. What astounded Grabs was he had never seen the man before, yet that security official knew Grabs' name.

“I was caught off guard by that,” said Grabs, who declined to move the protest. “It was sort of eerie.”

But anyone who has been to the peace rallies near the Country Club Plaza wouldn't be surprised. On the roof above the Cheesecake Factory, authorities openly shoot photos of protesters. Up there where the Plaza lights line the rooftop, the view of the peace rallies is spectacular.

But who's responsible? A Secret Service official in Washington, D.C., was noncommittal. “We wouldn't give out any information on current surveillance,” he said.

It wasn't the FBI. “We don't surveil people that are exercising their constitutional right,” said Jeff Lanza, FBI spokesman and special agent.

Kansas City police spokesman Capt. Rich Lockhart fessed up. Police investigative units have been shooting the pictures “to monitor those activities.” The information they've gathered also could be shared with other law enforcement agencies.

“It is a very disturbing infringement on our rights,” Grabs said. “I think our government is a little bit paranoid in some ways targeting people like myself and others in the movement.”

People who are exercising their right to protest against Bush and the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq find themselves under surveillance by the government, which cloaks itself in secrecy. It makes people feel as if they're in a totalitarian state under Big Brother's watchful eye.

Laura W. Murphy said laws like the Patriot Act have vaulted America into a “new era of discrimination.”

“The question is are we safer or are we less free?” Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said recently at a meeting with the Trotter Group of black columnists in Nashville, Tenn. “I think we're less free.”

Bill Douglas is another example. He had a sign that said, “What is Bush hiding about 9-11? Stop the 9-11 cover-up.” A police officer stopped him as he walked to a protest rally near St. Luke's Hospital during first lady Laura Bush's visit in September.

The officer arrested Douglas in the crosswalk at Washington and 44th streets. Douglas' court date on a municipal disorderly conduct charge is Thursday. For his trial, he said he got a copy of the police dispatch tape in which the arresting officer was told, “Keep him out of sight until she (Laura Bush) goes by,” Douglas said.

“My take is they (the police) are there to protect my rights as a citizen as much as they're there for her security,” he said.

But that's not what happened. Douglas was handcuffed, put in a police wagon and taken to the police station, where he was booked, fingerprinted, photographed and questioned about whether he was subversive. Authorities even took mug shots of his protest sign.

They held Douglas about two hours before letting him go. He said he got a taste of how some people have been treated in the new Patriot Act America in which they're arrested, held for an indefinite period and no one knows what's happened to them. “Once in the system you immediately realize that you are completely isolated and completely powerless,” Douglas said.

Compare that with this: Protesters at some rallies have found raw eggs smashed on their cars. A woman at one peace rally cut her head when she was knocked to the ground by a Bush-backer. Authorities did nothing.

This month Bob Rowe, a regular at peace rallies, also got a taste of the law's inaction. He was at Mill Creek Park with his sign that said “Honk for no more George W. Bush.”

A man took Rowe's sign, jumped in a car and sped off. Rowe called the police. He said the officers were rude and didn't take a report, saying the sign had no monetary value.

“They don't have much regard for people on the Plaza demonstrating,” Rowe said. “I think it's going to get nastier as the election gets nearer.”

Let's hope not. A lasting peace remains the goal.

Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Star's Editorial Board. To reach him, call (816) 234-4723 or send e-mail to Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.

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