Granny Doc posted a Daily Kos Rec List diary about new surveillance on deck after the end of this month. But surveillance is nothing new. Big Brother was watching me back in the 1970s. And lots of other people, too. It’s certainly not pleasant, but one adapts to it. And it has its funny moments, too.
Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about the subject of surveillance, in response to seeing the film The Lives of Others, recently released on video.
So, the purpose of this diary is mainly to get particular about surveillance. Surely I’m not the only one around who’s been “watched”. Perhaps, someone else has a tale to add.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle originated as a scientific concept, applying to electrons: Are they a particle, or are they a wave of energy? Turns out the things you do to examine them aren’t neutral: The answer to the question influences the answer you get. And so, we see it as applying to many things. This movie reminds us that the process of secretly watching someone changes those doing the watching, too. It’s a good one: definitely worth seeing.
Actor Ulrich Mühe stars in The Lives of Others, and the story touches very close to his own life experience:
He plays an agent of the Staatssicherheit, East Germany’s main security and intelligence organization. The role had particular resonance for him, who was under surveillance by the Stasi, being a noted theater actor. He later discovered that his then wife Jenny Gröllmann was registered as an informant during their marriage. Nevertheless, she had denied that allegation until her death.
In the movie, his character (Weisler) starts to emotionally identify with the people he’s spying on, and it changes him. Ultimately, this systematic subversion of basic civility harms everyone, including the ones wielding the power.
Johnny Clegg and Savuka, in the very different context of South Africa, expressed a similar message in their song, Jericho:
For we are the prisoners
Of the prisoners we have taken
The visual on the following’s not great. But just listen to their extraordinary Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World, and realize that the act of making this music was illegal in apartheid South Africa. As good a sign as any that apartheid was too warped to survive. But yet, such perverse exercises of power continue to crop up again and again throughout history.
In case you’re in the mood for more (and anybody not in a big hurry should be), this one has way better performance footage, and visuals more in synch with the spirit of the song. Whenever I feel discouraged about anything, I can turn to the music of the struggle to overthrow apartheid, and get a little jolt of fortitude and enthusiasm. These days, we could all do with a little more of that:
An aside: I’ve long thought the best hope for Iraq would be to bring in Mandela & de Klerk & Desmond Tutu. Before the U.S. invasion, Iraq was a country with many similarities to South Africa. Similar size and total population. Similar 20% minority of the population brutally suppressing the rest. Some of the South Africans who couldn’t pass muster in “Truth & Reconciliation” ended up as mercenaries in Iraq, with a notoriously brutal apartheid “interrogator” found dead there. It’s now national law in South Africa that it’s citizens are forbidden from contracting in Iraq. Enforcement? Who knows? But at least they went on record.
Big Brother IS Watching
Back in the 1970s, some of my neighbors were interviewed by the FBI, about me. They were POed and wanted me to know about it. The way they told it, they got offended with the questions pretty quickly and started asking questions instead of answering them. (E.g. “Why do you think activism on the Left should be investigated? Why don’t you go after someone violent like the Ku Klux Klan?”) Nowaways, telling me about it would be illegal according to the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. That’s under challenge in the courts, and may well be struck down. But even so, it would be naïve to expect wide ranging surveillance to stop anytime soon. So times have changed for the worse. Compared to the Nixon years, as John Dean reminds us all, regularly.
A few years later, I lived on-reservation in the household of a militant activist tribal head of government. Well, within the original reservation boundaries. The Puyallups had the bad luck to have a city (Tacoma) built on top of them, and most all the land alienated from native title. In the early 70s, all they had left was half their cemetary (the state exercised emmient domain to remove the other half to build a highway.) The Feds took back much of their reservation a little over 100 years ago, when something over 90% of their population were wiped out in a wave of epidemics: measles, smallpox, influenza. So we were on-reservation, but in a semi-residential, semi-industrial, semi-marshland urban landscape.
Back to the truck: For quite some time (was it months?), a bakery-truck sized vehicle parked out on the highway, across a vacant lot. It had no markings, and out-of-state plates. Every 8 hours two guys would drive up in a plain blue sedan, get in the truck. A few minutes later, two different guys would get out of the truck, get in that same sedan, and drive off. They all carried lunchboxes.
We had a big household at the time. One of those extended-family tribal houses where you joke about needing “bunk beds in the dining room”. And, as it happened, there were four teenagers in the house then. Kids with problems – big ones, like mom about to die from cancer, absent alcoholic father; parents in the middle of a disputatious divorce; stuff like that. Teenagers tend to act out anyhow, and we had our share of routine boyfriend/girlfriend angst and the like. (The gang shootings hadn’t started much back then, it’s a rougher town now.)
We used to laugh about the poor fool who got stuck listening to what went out over our telephone.
I mean, of course, it’s outrageous. And whatever demons those kids were wrestling with should have been none of the federal government’s damned business. Of course. But still, you gotta laugh sometimes. And we did.
Ever curious, I went out to offer the guys in the truck some coffee. Some peculiar version of a “welcome wagon”. I brought my camera, too. But I couldn’t get them to answer my knocks on any of the truck’s windows and doors. I did notice a very robust padlock on the back. Decidedly not standard issue.
I guess they brought their own coffee. Dontcha think?
I mean, nobody was building bombs or anything like that. Well, nobody was building bombs anyhow. But it was a militant bunch. Our head of household, a matriarch and head of tribal government, had participated in a variety of building occupations, and generally brought friends and family along. Notably, the “Trail of Broken Treaties” at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Headquarters in Washington, DC the fall of 1972. There’s a lot of versions of that story, many of which claim credit for the occupation to the American Indian Movement (AIM). But from everything I know, Suzan Shown Harjo gets the story right in Indian Country Today:
Indians were camped all over the building, busy with security and other tasks, but mostly reading documents. Everyone talked about the thick carpeting, leather couches and chairs, running water and indoor plumbing that were more comfortable and modern than most Indian homes.
Years later, I interviewed John Ehrlichman, after he had served time in prison for Watergate crimes. He had been Pres. Richard M. Nixon’s top domestic affairs aide and I asked about his Indian policy discussions with his old boss. He said there weren’t any. He could recall Nixon actually saying only one thing, during the occupation of the BIA building: “Get those goddamn Indians out of town.”
What was found in those documents pretty much confirmed every bad thing the activists of Survival of American Indians Association (Washington State mainly) and other groups who formed the 800 in the occupying force already knew. But it was evidence. SAIA also provided the 20-point manifesto whose author, Hank Adams, was chosen as lead negotiator for the militants. Anyhow, the information brought to light from the mass assault on the BIA’s file cabinets helped in Indian Country, at least for awhile.
This 1972 action was a sequel to a similar “surprise party” at the Washington State Dept. of Game & Fish. The way I was told, the occupiers there called up the Commissioner at his house on the weekend. He didn’t like being called at home, and told them he’d be in his office Monday. “OK – we’ll wait for you here till then.” Whoops! Just like at the Bureau, people like Hank Adams, Ramona Bennett and Suzette Mills spent their time speed reading in between negotiations with the authorities.
Those were wild days!!
And there were many other actions. At its core was the NW Coast Salish tribes’ uncompromising position that they would not surrender their treaty-guaranteed right to fish for salmon at the “usual and accustomed places”. And they won on that. Sort of. There’s still the problem of all the environmental harm that has brought many runs of salmon to the verge of extinction. But still, a step in the right direction, because the tribes finally got a place at the table to advocate for protecting the fish.
Anyhow, keeping that kind of company, and even participates in the occasional occupation or other action oneself, one should not be so surprised to end up under surveillance. And this is just what I knew about. Who knows what else there’s been?
Did it go away for awhile, that surveillance, or did it continue all those years? Can’t really know. I’m guessing I had a hiatus, but would not be shocked if it hadn’t. Our best defense is sheer volume. Eventually, “they” will have so many enemies, they’ll be isolated. (More than they already are.) One does weary of these authoritarian creatures, rearing their ugly heads again and again over the decades.
Either way, it’s nothin’ new. Certain disciplines are involved. Assume that much of what you do isn’t as private as you’d like to think it is. Certainly on-line!!
It Gets Silly Sometimes
Someone I knew was in the midwest during those years, someplace with lots of cornfields, living in a rented farmhouse. As an active antiwar activist, she had her own detail of men in suits and shiny shoes (de rigeur for the FBI back then) following her around. And, as it happened, she ran out of gas one day, and so was compelled to stop by the roadside. And so did her spooks, a “discreet” half-mile back or so. So she got out of her car, and traipsed back to ask them for help. Lookit, you’re not going to be able to follow me anywhere until I get some gas. Would you mind helping? Eventually they did, but not till after the ritual denials that they were following her.
Lord love a duck!