Pepper spray, rubber bullets or an IRS questionnaire – which of these poses the greatest threat to your political speech? If the recent brouhaha over the IRS’s singling out of Tea Party groups and the lack of a similar uproar over the systematic use of state violence against the Occupy movement is any indication, only the IRS questionnaire poses any threat to our democracy. It may seem rather bizarre, but in our current political and media climate, Karl Rove and his well-monied friends are potential victims of a nefarious political police and Occupiers are just a public nuisance.
Hatred of dissent and political surveillance has a long history in the United States. The FBI, which was born out of the Palmer Raids during the first Red Scare, officially engaged in surveillance and disruption of legal political groups from 1956 until 1971. The program, dubbed Counter Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO, targeted everything from civil rights groups to antiwar organizations. During this time, the FBI also carried out what was undoubtedly a political assassination of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton. While COINTELPRO as a centralized program died in disgrace, the FBI and other national and local agencies have been implicated time and time again in politically motivated surveillance.
Nowhere is this hatred for dissent more obvious than in the police responses to the Occupy movement. Across the county, peaceful encampments were violently broken up. In Oakland, police used tear gas and rubber bullets against occupiers, fracturing the skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen. This was just the war against Occupy that was visible to the public. Recent documents unveiled through Freedom of Information of Act requests by the Partnership for Civil Justice show that both the FBI and the Department of Homeland security monitored the Occupy movement across the country before the first encampment even took place.
In a move reminiscent of COINTELPRO, the Department of Homeland Security actually classified monitoring of Occupy as reports on “Peaceful Activist Demonstrations.” The FBI, which conceded that Occupy was a nonviolent protest, still investigated them for possible terrorist or criminal activities.
This, however, is not the political scandal that is allegedly endangering the First Amendment rights of all Americans, dominating cable news coverage and inspiring Congressional investigations. That scandal is the IRS’s singling out of conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) tax exempt status. Under current IRS regulations, a group may apply for 501(c)(4) status only if it is a social welfare organization. A social welfare organization is not prohibited from engaging in political activity, a term the IRS does not define, but political activity cannot be its primary function.
No one was tear-gassed, batoned, evicted, branded as a potential terrorist or even had their right to political speech in any noticeable way hampered. Instead, they were forced to fill out additional questionnaires to ascertain whether they were engaged primarily in social welfare rather than political activity. Not only did these self-styled victims of political repression get to continue operating as a 501(c)(4 )until the review was complete, not a single one was denied 501(c)(4) status. This in spite of the fact that at least one such group failed to disclose to the IRS its political activities, thus showing just how thorough the IRS’s extra scrutiny was.
That the IRS selected groups for their political leanings for additional scrutiny was wrong. It would be hypocritical to bemoan the continued and systemic political surveillance and repression of the left for the last 100 years and turn a blind eye to the shenanigans undertaken by a government bureaucracy against forces of the right. It is also hypocritical, or at the very least indicative of some very peculiar priorities, to decry the bureaucratic hurdles that the IRS put up for some well-connected and well-funded Tea Party groups, hurdles that all of them were able to overcome, and remain relatively mum about the systematic use of violence against, and politically motivated surveillance of, the grassroots Occupy movement.
This outright hypocrisy or peculiar prioritization is noticeable not only in the comparative treatment of the Tea Party and Occupy, but also between the Tea Party and the general attitude among members of Congress and the corporate media toward any political repression of left groups. Since the inception of the Tea Party, the FBI has raided the office of the Minneapolis based Antiwar Committee, as well as the homes of antiwar activists in the Midwest as part of an investigation into “material support of terrorism.” The FBI also raided the homes of activists in the Pacific Northwest with a warrant that claimed they were looking for “anarchist and anti-government literature,” as well as authorizing them to seize flags, flag-making material and black clothing. And recently, the Center for Constitutional Rights has attempted to challenge in court the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which could be used to construe legal activism in favor of animal rights as terrorism. Yet in spite of these obvious and very serious affronts to the political rights of Americans, Darrell Issa and Karl Rove have not found it incumbent upon themselves to take to the airwaves denouncing this clear political repression and question just how high up the chain of command approval of such policies go.
Even when it was revealed earlier this week that the IRS not only screened for Tea Party groups but groups whose names included the words “Occupy,” “Progressive,” “Israel,” and “Occupied Territories Advocacy” those Republican members of Congress and their counterparts in the corporate media foaming at the mouth over the previous revelations didn’t seem very outraged. Instead, the Republican staff of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is investigating the IRS screening, issued a statement proclaiming, “It is one thing to flag a group, it is quite another to repeatedly target and abuse conservative groups.”
A cynical person might question whether the real source of the disparate reaction to the treatment of Tea Party groups and leftwing activists stems from the different nature of their connections and agendas. The Tea Party groups funnel plenty of money into elections with the intent to make the world safe for corporate domination. As a result, they have a whole host of powerful political friends who benefit from their activities. A grassroots movement like Occupy, which challenges the entrenched power of wealth and privilege, or animal rights activists who take on industries so powerful that both Congress and state legislatures are drafting legislature just to insulate them from activists and whistleblowers, have powerful enemies, including members of both parties, powerful enemies willing to use the full force of the state to suppress them. Cynicism though, much like IRS questionnaires, is surely considered to be insidiously corrosive to democracy.