If you walked by me on the street, if you noticed me at all, it would probably be due to how much I looked like your 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Jones, or your professor for English Comp I in community college. I don’t think you’d see me and run to find the nearest police officer as you thought I might have a bomb in my purse. You would never categorize me as someone you might find listed in FBI surveillance documents collected on a “terrorist” group engaged in “criminal activity.”
I’m an ordinary, middle class (or actually, probably lower-middle class, now), middle aged, married mother of two young children. I’m a small business owner active in my neighborhood and my community who organized an organic produce co-op several years ago that’s still going strong and who bakes cookies for my neighbors and friends every year for the holidays. Last year, I was the social justice committee chair for the Unitarian Universalist society, where I attend service pretty much every Sunday. I’ve even spoken (haltingly) from the pulpit a few times on subjects ranging from climate change to economic inequality and corporate personhood.
And if you looked at heavily redacted documents recently released to the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund by the FBI in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, you’d see what could only be references to me on a page headed with the identifier “terrorist group” engaged in “criminal activity.” What on earth could I have done to get myself listed there, you might rightfully ask yourself.
What did I actually do? In an area devastated by the foreclosure crisis, the bank crisis, the unemployment crisis – an area making national news because of the numbers of homeless children and families, not to mention unemployed construction workers and elderly women wandering lost and traumatized, I helped plan a peaceful, non-violent protest. I legally stood on a sidewalk with my two young daughters and a cardboard sign including me in the 99%. As the result of these dangerous activities (also known as Constitutionally protected free speech), my name is now listed in federal law enforcement documents under a label that includes the word “terrorist.” So I’m not sure if I can be subjected to some kind of retribution or harm, or what will happen if I try to get on a plane, or if I apply for work as a state or federal employee to feed my family, or if I interview another activist.
I’m cracking jokes, albeit grim ones (it’s how I deal with stress other than just by accumulating grey hair), but if you really think about it, this is no laughing matter. The core of our democracy – our Constitutionally-guaranteed rights allowing us to influence our elected representatives (against an increasingly stacked deck) – is at stake.
Just consider this, half of the country is impoverished (considered low income or poor) according to the most recent US Census figures. Income inequality is at an all time high in the US – actually worse than in 1774! According to the Sunlight Foundation, money, and in particular corporate money, in politics is driving up the US corruption perception index. We’re now ranked about a C (if a teacher were to grade us), behind Singapore, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan (and quite a number of others as well). Indeed, as confirmed in an article in Salon, Everyone Hates Citizens United, at somewhere around 90 percent, “the vast majority of Americans think there’s too much money in politics.” Not surprisingly given these conditions, approval of our elected representatives across the board is at a record low: just 9%.
Now, if poverty, income inequality, and corruption weren’t enough to move people to object, there’s the immediate and grave threat of climate change imperiling the future of their children and grandchildren. Say you’re a parent or a grandparent – or just a human being – and you’ve been listening to the scientists and reading the news, and almost definitely experiencing the direct effects of climate change yourself through broken heat records, drought, super storms, wildfire, flood, and/or rising insurance premiums. Chances are you’re getting pretty concerned about the future for yourself and those you love.
If you’re really following the news and absorbing as much information as you can because of your concern for your children or grandchildren, then you’re probably aware of some interesting figures, such as the $4 billion in federal subsidies for the oil industry or the hefty federal contracts paid with our tax dollars to the corporations that are destroying our environment. You’re probably also aware that these companies are spending hundreds of millions in lobbying, not to mention what they’re spending in super PACs to influence elections – some estimates put that figure at $6 billion over the last election cycle. Common sense would dictate that this is not an equitable or acceptable state of affairs for the citizens of our country or the planet. This is exactly the sort of scenario in which our right to free speech is so crucial.
Let’s look at some numbers. There are over 313 million people in our country. Recent figures show that while the message is finally echoing about climate change, still about 40% only – roughly 125 million people – have registered that people are already suffering as a result. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that a couple million here or there might be moved to protest something they consider such a grave threat. So what happens in national media when a million people stand in front of the White House and say, “Hey! We object to the destruction of our planet due to corporate greed!” Can’t you see the headlines? “People take complaint to the White House lawn and demand immediate action from their elected officials!” “Big Oil and the Military Industrial Complex are Cut Off! People tell their representatives to subsidize green energy instead! And they don’t mean coal – unless it’s for elected officials’ stockings! And then they want it to come out of said elected officials’ pay!”
Now here’s the point, how many people are going to be willing to risk their ability to provide for their family if they think they could be facing violence or arrest– and perhaps bail of $10,000 or $30,000 or $60,000 to get out of jail- for sitting in a tree to stop an illegal land seizure for an oil pipeline, or just protest? Or if some future background search could subject them to indefinite detention without legal counsel because they’ve been listed as a member of a domestic terrorist organization engaged in criminal activity – for nothing other than exercising their Constitutionally-protected right to free speech?
Let’s just take it all one last step further. Suppose the extremely wealthy and powerful interests with the most to gain by silencing dissent were successful. Suppose there were no more parents, teachers, veterans, social workers, plumbers, anarchists, union workers, or students willing or able to stand in the way of the pollution and destruction of our only planet, no longer there to insist on fair working conditions and safe products, no longer there to say that it doesn’t make sense to spend more on bombing another country than we do on feeding the hungry. No one was there to say that it’s not alright to have separate lunch counters or water fountains or a different set of standards and pay scale for women and minorities than for white men. No one to say that it’s not okay for banks we bailed out to fraudulently foreclose on families, to award their CEOs with multi-million-dollar bonuses, to wipe out the retirements of millions by gambling in the market, to steal from taxpayers and corrupt our elections. What happens when corporations can just do whatever they want – when they have their own federal law enforcement agencies funded by our tax dollars to monitor us as terrorists just for speaking out? What happens then?