Police spy on activists in Maryland

By: Alex Bennett

The Maryland State Police (MSP) spied on anti-death penalty and antiwar activists for over a year from 2005-06. They sent undercover agents into our meetings who pretended to agree with our cause, signed up for our e-mail list and wrote detailed reports about our activities. 

Our crimes? Leafleting, hosting forums, organizing peaceful demonstrations, reaching out to the men on death row and their families. Nowhere in the 43-page document of the surveillance campaign, obtained through a lawsuit by leading Baltimore activist Max Obuszewski and the ACLU, is there a shred of evidence that we ever broke a single law or plotted a violent action.

We can only conclude that--in the eyes of the state of Maryland--simply speaking out in defiance of government policy is enough to justify police action. 

In fact, Mark Gabrielle, MSP captain of homeland security and intelligence during the surveillance, claimed this was a "normal process" and that the "state police [didn't do] anything wrong." This is cold comfort for Obuszewski; the document reveals that he--a lifelong pacifist--has outrageously been classified as a terrorist in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Database!

Then again, the abolitionist movement, armed with its leaflets and picket signs, may very well have terrified Robert Ehrlich, Republican governor of Maryland from 2003-07. 

In 2002, a wave of abolitionist activity won a statewide moratorium on executions, but Ehrlich wanted to restart the death machine. Tragically, he succeeded in killing Steven Oken in 2004 and Wesley Baker in December 2005, right in the middle of the period covered by the MSP document.

Mike Stark, board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, put those executions into perspective at a public forum in Baltimore, addressing the illegal surveillance. Ehrlich had "one thin argument left," he said, "which is that in Maryland, a majority of people support the death penalty. They are so frightened of what might happen if activists get out there and talk to people...to change public opinion...They were willing to use their 'hit men.' They were using it as a way of furthering their agenda, to prop up the death penalty." 

The forum, sponsored by the CEDP and Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, was called "We Will Not Be Silenced: Maryland Anti-Death Penalty Activists Speak Out!" About 100 people gathered to hear individuals named in the MSP document denounce the violation of their Constitutional rights.

"These actions by the state police are a fundamental attack on the foundations of democracy," argued Terry Fitzgerald, another CEDP member named in the document. Dave Zirin, a sportswriter also named, went on to say, "They want us divided, silenced, suspicious of each other...but that's why it's so important we are here together tonight--out of the chill, and into the warmth that comes with struggle and solidarity." 

The message of the panel was clear: we will not be intimidated or succumb to paranoia, but continue the open and democratic organizing that makes our movement strong.

Days after the forum, current Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that he would establish a task force to investigate police spying activities for the period of time covered by the document. However, as David Rocah, ACLU staff attorney, stated, that document is merely "the tip of the proverbial iceberg." 

With that in mind, a meeting of Baltimore-area activists from the abolitionist and antiwar movements, among others, formulated a list of expanded demands for the state. They include: extending the investigation beyond the 2005-06 timeframe; holding all parties responsible for this illegal activity accountable; removal of every activist's name from the drug trafficking database and any other terrorist watch lists; and legislation to ensure that protest groups will never be spied on again.

These demands are stated in a letter to O'Malley and the MSP that was made public at a press conference outside of the MSP headquarters. O'Malley has not responded yet, but in the meantime, we are using a petition to gain public support for our demands and working with the ACLU on an investigation of our own. 

Perhaps most significantly, the spy scandal revelations came just as a state commission studying capital punishment in Maryland was commencing. Surveillance and the death penalty have been used in tandem time and again to brutally silence dissenting voices, from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to the Black Panthers and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

We will continue to work on both fronts in Maryland until we have delivered hammer blows to these two ugly faces of state repression.