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Free radicals (continued)

Wednesday, July 21. It’s a few minutes before seven, and the penultimate Bl(A)ck Tea Society meeting is about to begin; in two weeks they’ll meet one last time to determine the group’s future. Outside, bright lights blind Brian as a local television reporter has him do a voiceover for the 11-o’clock news. Two days ago, BTS filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Boston, alleging that the DNC’s Free Speech Zone — enclosed by eight-foot-high chainlink fences, overhead netting, and snaggy razor wire — violates citizens’ First Amendment rights. Since the general public consensus is that the Free Speech Zone is completely ridiculous, the suit gives the BTS more credibility — and more press.

The police have also driven reporters to the Bl(A)ck Tea Society. Late last week, the BTS claimed that the NYPD/FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force visited the home of a New York–based activist, trying to dissuade him from coming to Boston and consorting with "troublemakers" like the BTS. An article in the recent Sunday Boston Globe reads: "Officials say they are on the watch not just for Islamic militants but also domestic terrorists, including ... far-left radicals who oppose capitalism." Over the next few days, activists from Boston to Kansas City to Denver will also report visits from FBI agents.

"The people who’ve been around since last July, the core group of people, we are very concerned about that," Frank had said the previous week during a BTS open house at the Lucy Parsons Center. "Not because we think we’re so cool.... But one of the police’s quote-unquote effective deterrent strategies is to arrest all the organizers the day before. We are seriously concerned about that. Frankly, we’ve been doing a lot of legal groundwork trying to prepare exactly for it."

Back in May, Frank had maligned Dennis Kucinich supporters for having "delusions of grandeur." I wrote the phrase down, thinking it was laughable that an anti-authoritarian seeking to "finish the American Revolution" would indict others for such megalomania. But now, no one cares about the Kucitizens. Everyone cares about the Bl(A)ck Tea Society. The e-mails are coming. The media requests are coming. The coverage keeps coming: CNN, the New York Times, the Associated Press, WBUR, C-SPAN, and on and on. Should Elly, Tania, or Andrew mysteriously disappear in the coming days, the BTS could get journalists involved in a second. Meanwhile, Kucinich is chopped tofu-liver.

Thursday, July 22. During the Free Speech Zone hearing, it becomes evident that law-enforcement officials consider the BTS — and anarchists in general — a major security threat. Judge Douglas P. Woodlock doesn’t actually say "anarchist," but he explains that the threat of "particularly aggressive demonstrators," "slingshots," the specter of Seattle’s riotous 1999 WTO protests, and "urine" have contributed to the protest pen’s prison-like blueprint. During a court recess, Woodlock meets with government officials privately, so they can share "information" with him that directly bears on the plaintiffs. In the end, the judge does not rule in favor of the Bl(A)ck Tea Society.

"People sensationalize anarchism," says Will Taggart when I meet him later in Kendall Square. "Anarchists are very nice people, just like everybody else. They’re just trying to get their message across like anybody else." Still, members fear getting picked up on bogus charges before the convention. "We are one of the most legal political organizations you will ever see. We’re concerned about things like jaywalking, littering, loitering." Will looks me in the eye. "You’ve been to all our meetings. We’re a peaceful, nonviolent group that gives aid to protesters from Boston and across the country. It’s kind of boring."

But he is nervous. "Yes, I am," he admits, staring into the distance. "Very."

Friday, July 23. Emma Lang’s nervous too. Scared, actually. When I meet the 19-year-old UMass Amherst student in Central Square three days before the DNC, she’s visibly stressed. Never mind the 10 new press requests left in the BTS e-mail inbox this morning; there are pressing security issues to deal with, concerns about bugged cars, home raids, and possible FBI visits. Late last night, the FBI warned major television networks that "a domestic group" was planning to attack their media trucks. Most BTS members have posted security notices at home so their roommates know not to panic if federal agents come knocking, and more important, not to let them inside without a search warrant.

Emma was at the Free Speech Zone hearing yesterday, too. "I wish they’d wake up and smell the coffee on the urine thing," she sighs. "It’s very scary that they think of us as being that scary. If they could see what we really do is give each other hugs. We sit around and we come up with ways to keep each other safe." And then there’s the specter of those WTO protests to deal with. "They keep saying, ‘Well, in Seattle, anarchists caused chaos,’" Emma says. "That was five years ago. But nobody thinks of that — how five years in baseball history and five years in government history is forever. Five years in an activist movement is a long time, too."

Emma is tired of being scared about her friends’ security. "I’m very angry that my state will call the Secret Service and look up my friends, knock on their doors, potentially knock on my door because I want to be out in the street and say things. I just want to talk." She sighs. "Who knows John Kerry better than the kids of Massachusetts?"

Saturday, July 24. The paranoia is infectious. I’m hopping out of a cab before a BTS press conference when I spot a procession of eight Middlesex County Sheriff SUVs crawling in the opposite direction. I’m convinced that they’ve come to snatch the Bl(A)ck Tea Society, that a special-ops team just hauled away outspoken Elly before she could make the evening news again, that sweet little Emma will soon be pressing license plates.

When I get to the second-floor lecture hall and find no commotion, just a line of camera tripods arranged in the second row, I’m genuinely surprised.

"Lying motherfuckers!" Frank Little growls. He’s hunched over a laptop reading a Boston Globe story online. "The police have no shame!" He comes over, drops the computer in front of me, and grumbles, "Here, read this. You were there. You saw what happened."

A few weeks ago, the BTS designed fliers for locally owned businesses to hang in their storefront windows. Today, the Globe reports that Boston detectives are investigating whether the BTS extorted money from local business owners when handing out the placards. "A State Police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities were investigating whether anarchists were extorting money from business owners with the message, ‘If you donate, we won’t trash your place,’ the source said." But as far as I know, the BTS was distributing the fliers for free, so activists could more easily support the local economy. Talk about hysteria: even flier distribution arouses the authorities’ suspicions.

In a sense, though, this kind of press helps the BTS. The more the cops try to discredit the group, the more the media want to cover them, especially since the Bl(A)ck Tea Society is a supporting character in a national story. And the more press attention it gets, the more opportunity the BTS has to show that it’s made up of reasonable, intelligent people who’re simply livid that both presidential candidates are prisoners of special interests.

During the press conference, a television reporter asks about potential protest violence. "The FBI recently said that we’d be attacking you," points out Andrew. "I believe it’s probably a result of the fact that we’ve gotten positive media. They try to build a divide between the community and us because if we’re isolated, we’re segregated, they can do whatever they want, and they can use whatever tactic, whatever style they want, to try and suppress us."

On the way out, Andrew calls to me. "So when will we get to see your story?" I tell him it’ll be out after the Bl(A)ck Tea Society dissolves. "Wow," he says puckishly. "If you’re an undercover cop, I’m impressed."

page 3  page 4  page 5 

Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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