It is a gray but mild January afternoon at Union College, and I am there to protest. Later in the evening, Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister of Israel now wanted for war crimes in Norway and the UK and indicted for corruption in Israel, will be speaking in Memorial Chapel. The TV broadcast vehicles are lined up in a row with their antennas reaching skyward.
Near the Humanities Building, I am approached by two young men dressed in dark suits. The taller of the two’s body language displays some level of agitation and perhaps a bit of fear. As he approaches, he calls out to me, “Mr. Amidon, we are with the anti-terrorism task force in Albany and we would like to speak with you!”
He flashes a badge quickly, allowing no real chance of identification. His attempt at intimidation only succeeds in being extremely irritating.
I understand the need for an honest and well-trained police force and respect the men and women who perform their roles with courage, integrity, truthfulness, protecting the public. We need our anti-terrorism unit to be effective and work intelligently, to identify and prevent real threats. We want everyone to be safe.
Violating the law
Yet far too often, peace advocates are targeted as the subject of investigations and our law enforcement agencies are found violating the law. For example, Albany is famous for a case of Muslim entrapment. “Rounded Up: Artificial Terrorists and Muslim Entrapment After 9/11” (by Shamshad Ahmad) is the latest book written about the Aref and Hossain case. On Jan. 19 The Washington Post reported, “The FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist.”
My friends and colleagues have been arrested, caught up in illegal sweeps, abused and held in deplorable conditions. Sadly, when large groups of police gather to “protect the public,” there is far too often a police riot and police brutality (Chicago, Seattle, Pittsburgh). And police provocateurs have often been the perpetrators of violence at protests, for which peace groups have later been accused. These acts of lawlessness are then used to justify further violence, sometimes resulting in violent overreactions and brutal assaults by law enforcement officials.
As I stand there with the taller man, his partner walks up. I call for nearby friends to come and witness our conversation. My friends are told forcefully that this is a private conversation and to stay back. I am told I have done nothing wrong, that information has come to them that there may be an act of violence here tonight and that my name was associated with it, and advised, “don’t be stupid.”
I can’t help but wonder if this is real intelligence or their latest generic opening line. I already know I have done nothing wrong. “Don’t be stupid” suggests they believe I am guilty of planning violence. It is clear their intelligence-gathering is, at best, incomplete. Since the Olmert demonstration is focused on the criminal conduct of the Israeli government, I wonder if this is politically motivated by the Zionist lobby. Never before has my name been associated with possible or attempted violence. Why now?
The simple act of Googling my name makes it obvious that I am a committed peace activist and not a criminal or a terrorist.
I look at them and repeat, “I have done nothing wrong.”
They answer, “That is correct.”
“Then I don’t have to talk with you.”
“That is correct,” the shorter one replies.
“Then I am not going to.” I turn and begin to walk away.
The taller man threateningly says, “That is unacceptable.”
“You want to talk to me, then arrest me.”
They shake their heads no.
“Look, we are just trying to do our job and keep everyone safe,” the shorter man states.
Inside, Ehud Olmert is speaking, the overseer of “Operation Cast Lead,” the war in Gaza.
I want so much to shout, if you really want to do your job and keep people safe, go inside and arrest Olmert and hold him for extradition to Oslo, Norway, or the UK.
I begin walking toward a local TV cameraman and a female reporter. She looks scared. He is watchful and cautious.
“Turn on the camera,” I yell, “You want to do some investigative reporting?” I look at the officer. “Be a man, put the conversation on film. Let’s record it.” He looks confused and hangs back. The shorter man walks up.
We drift back away from the TV cameras.
“Look, I have no plans for being violent, and I do not know of anyone planning any acts of violence.” Then I add, “Of course, I am not responsible for everyone here.”
The shorter man now becomes agitated. “What does that mean?” he demands. I look at him and reply, “What do you think it means?” and then simply walk off. They do not follow me.
Since we need and want well-trained police force, here is some basic information that never quite seems to be understood by our law enforcement agencies: The peace movement is not secretive or violent.
We attempt to bring truthful, accurate information concerning important issues for the well-being of our country. We help inform the citizenry and protect a democratic society. Our primary tool is education. Both the choice of Ehud Olmert as a speaker and the actions of these officers at Union clearly demonstrate that education is desperately needed for peace and justice to prevail.
John Amidon lives in Albany and is a member of Veterans For Peace.