Once again, the government is finding a way to use Twitter and other social networking platforms as tools to curtail civil liberties. Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger of Queens, New York were arrested on charges of hindering apprehension, criminal use of communication facility and possessing instruments of crime. The charges stem from Madison and Wallschlaeger setting up shop in a hotel room with some police scanners and sending texts and tweets to demonstrators about police movements during the G20 demonstrations in Pittsburgh.
The FBI raided the home of Madison, spending 16 hours snatching everything from computers and cell phones to gas masks, books and apparently a picture of Lenin.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/speers/87875364/
and probably this stylish t-shirt
The police and other government authorities accuse Madison and Wallschlaeger of what amounts to aiding and abetting crimes perpetrated by demonstrators. The theory goes that because the two were informing protesters of police activity, they made it possible for protesters to commit crimes ranging from everything from refusal to disperse to property destruction and vandalism. John Burkoff, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law backs the feds up, saying “Anyone can tweet, but the truth is, sometimes speech can be criminal.”
Of course speech at a protest “can be criminal” when it comes from a “self described anarchist.” The FBI, police and right wing media are all too happy to demonize anyone who falls somewhere “left” of Limbaugh. However, when the potentially “criminal” speech stems from radicals on the right, the best the feds will do is accidentally issue a report. The Secret Service had the diligence to investigate the juvenile who created the infamous Facebook poll but the brains to realize that it was just an idiot’s stunt, not a direct threat. One has to wonder however, how the Bush administration would’ve dealt with a similar incident when considering the many incidents where folks were dealt with harshly for wearing t-shirts such as this:
Street demonstrations, particularly ones against multi-national corporate efforts to run the world, can get nasty. We all remember the “battle of Seattle.” Some remember the murder of Carlo Giuliani by Italian police forces. Plenty of people here in Chicago remember police actions on Michigan Avenue in 2003 all too well, including folks who happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s nothing like walking out of your hotel into a wall of robocops swinging clubs indiscriminately. Unfortunately, the misbehavior of riot police and the overzealous surveillance tactics by federal agents and the military are so commonplace that bystanders , politicians and pundits will make any excuse to defend criminal actions by these defenders of the status quo.
Right now, there’s no precedent for such legal action against demonstrators. It’s not illegal to monitor police activity via scanner – plenty of journalists, law enforcement buffs and hobbyists do it all the time. Americans on both sides of the political divide lauded Iranian protesters for doing the very same thing Madison and Wallschlaeger are accused of.
Broadcasting police activity, especially after the tear gas hits the pavement, is the kind of public service that helps a protester keep it peaceful. When police start beating and arresting people like it’s 1968, it becomes more than difficult to stay uninvolved, especially if you have no idea that boots are marching around the corner. Why should I lay down and take lumps because some random idiot in a crowd of thousands (probably an agent provocateur) chucked a brick somewhere?
Prosecuting these two men for watching the watchers is the kind of thing Americans should recognize as the behavior of tinpot dictators and McCarthyists, not a free society. We need to stop the feds from silencing dissent, be it digitized or in the flesh.
Aaron Cynic is a zine writer, internet radio host, blogger, musician, and project organizer from Chicago. He mainly publishes a zine called Diatribe, but has published a few other one shot zines. Aaron has also contributed to numerous other websites and publications. His radio show appears Sunday nights at 8pm on Punk and Beans Radio. You can reach Aaron by emailing aaron @ diatribemedia dot com.