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Activists in Washington have long suspected that members of the Metropolitan Police Department, or MPD, were infiltrating their meetings and protests. Now lawyers representing the group United Students Against Sweatshops say they have evidence: a trail of Tweets and Tumblr posts that appear to document the double life of a local police officer, who routinely posed as a protester named “Missy Thompson.” Kojo explores a story of activism, cyber-sleuthing and undercover police work.
- Jeffrey Light Attorney representing United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS)
- Mike Elk Writer, In These Times
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Virginia's race for governor casts new light on a controversial immigration visa program. We will explore EB-5s and the merits of providing fast-track green cards to foreign investors.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, protest rights, undercover cops and a tale of social media sleuthing. The protestor introduced herself as Missy. Over the course of months, she seemed to show up at every protest against sweatshops and the Keystone Pipeline. But nobody among the activists and organizers seemed to know her and some thought she might be an undercover cop. So they set out to put a real name to a familiar face.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILast week, lawyers for the United Students Against Sweatshops filed suit against the city claiming they had proof that Missy was, in fact, a full-time member of the Metropolitan Police Department, a fact that may well place the police department on the wrong side of a D.C. law that explicitly protects the rights of protestors.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Mike Elk. He is a writer who covers labor issues for In These Times. Mike Elk, thank you for joining us.
MR. MIKE ELKGreat to be on the show, Kojo.
NNAMDIJeffrey Light is an attorney representing United Students Against Sweatshops, USAS. The group recently filed a suit against the Metropolitan Police Department for spying on protestors. Jeffrey Light, thank you for joining us.
MR. JEFFREY LIGHTThank you, good afternoon.
NNAMDIHave you participated in a mass protest where police were present? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Did you feel like police overstepped their boundaries and infringed on your free speech? 800-433-8850 is our number. You can shoot us an email to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIJeffrey, D.C. is unique among many American cities in that it has a law explicitly protecting the rights of protestors and expressly prohibiting the police from spying on them without cause. A lot of organizers have long suspected that the police were doing it anyway, but they didn't have any proof.
NNAMDILast week, you filed a lawsuit claiming that a mystery protestor who went by the name Missy was an undercover Metropolitan Police officer. What exactly are you alleging that the MPD is doing?
LIGHTThe lawsuit alleges that Officer Nicole Rizzi went by the name Missy at protests where she would, without legal authorization, without suspicion of wrongdoing, going to a wide variety of planning meetings and protests in violation of this law, which is called the Police Investigations Concerning First Amendment Activities Act.
NNAMDIWe invited the Metropolitan Police Department to participate in this conversation. We got an email from Chief Cathy Lanier who says: "We would like to comment, but due to pending litigation, we cannot comment at this time. However, I feel confident that we have adhered to all laws pertaining to the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004."
NNAMDIWe'll discuss this during the course of the show. You can make up your own mind. Mike, we invited the MPD to participate. That's the response we got. Since you first broke this story, Police Chief Cathy Lanier did speak with The Washington Post, telling reporter Peter Hermann essentially what she just told us in that email.
NNAMDIIn your article, you describe this story as a mix between "Gossip Girl" and "The Wire." As a reporter, what intrigued you about this story?
ELKWell, what intrigued me in a weird way is that typically when people Facebook-stalk people, they're Facebook-stalking people they're dating. It's a bizarre phenomenon of the last -- my decade, my decade of dating unfortunately.
ELKBut in this case, they used Facebook-stalking not for dating, but to find out if somebody was an undercover cop. And really this story kind of combines two of the worst problems of my generation, which is the mass expansion of the surveillance state, as well as the mass expansion of narcissism through social media so it's really kind of a funny story in some ways which drew me to it.
ELKBut more than that, there's a broader story here that I find fascinating as somebody who covers workplace safety a lot and particularly the 1,130 workers who died in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, is that, you know, we discovered -- Jeffrey discovered this woman Nicole Rizzi, the undercover officer, spying on an anti-sweatshop protest.
ELKWhat's really incredible here is, here you have the police at home using new powers under the war on terror to expand surveillance on activists here at home. But also we're being told and, you know, this is disrupting, you know, activists here in the U.S., but we're also being told that the U.S. can't place tougher trade sanctions on Bangladesh with its poor workers' rights record because then it would fuel radical Islam because it would lead to more people being unemployed.
ELKAnd at the same time, we're seeing trade unions suppressed using the Bangladeshi intelligence service, which is being trained by the U.S. So this is kind of connecting a lot of strands of how the war on terror has helped disrupt many activists fighting for workers' rights. So that's what I found so fascinating about it.
NNAMDIWalk us through the process in this specific case. It's my understanding that the unmasking process started when an activist was, well, hanging out at a bar on U Street with some friends and was turned on to a Twitter user who used the handle @snufftastic.
ELKYeah, so what's interesting is that there was an activist, Lacy MacAuley, who worked at the Institute for Policy Studies who had long been suspect of this woman, Missy, being an undercover cop. But this happens a lot in, you know, activist circles, somebody suspects somebody strange of being an undercover cop.
ELKAnd then, she was at a bar and she saw this Twitter account of @snufftastic and she started piecing it together. And from reading the Twitter account of this woman discovered that she was actually a cop working undercover. And then they approached Jeffrey and Jeffrey and Sean (sp?) kind of then got to doing some serious Facebook/Tumblr-stalking, Instagram-stalking.
ELKI mean, this woman was on a lot of forms of social media and despite being an undercover cop, couldn't stop talking about being a cop on social media, which is pretty incredible. And then, you know, they filed the lawsuit and they came to me as they were getting ready to file it and we decided to go to press with the story.
NNAMDIJeffrey, anything you'd like to add to that? Because this was using social media in a way that it's not normally used, as Mike was pointing out. It's usually used to stalk people. Instead you discover. Did it surprise you at all that a woman who was working as an undercover officer with the police department would be this busy, if you will, on Twitter?
LIGHTWell, I've certainly read about stories in the past where police officers have gotten in trouble for using social media, but this is not like anything I've ever seen. This woman was on every social media site available and as an undercover officer, I was quite surprised that she was exercising such poor discretion and talking about her line of work.
NNAMDIWe should note that this lawsuit appears to prove that this police officer did, in fact, attend these protests, but The Washington Post noted that the lawsuit does not offer concrete evidence that this officer was not attending on her own time, Officer Nicole Rizzi, that is. To which you say what, Jeff?
LIGHTThere's fairly concrete proof, I think, that she was not attending on her own time. She tweeted from a Keystone XL Pipeline protest saying that it was unfortunate she had to work that day and that she was working outdoors that day. It was unfortunate because she wanted to be home watching March Madness.
LIGHTWe have a video of her at that protest. Most of the activists that I know, that are passionate about these issues, if they're on Facebook, they would be talking about these issues. If they're on Twitter, they'd be talking about these issues. Never a peep from her about how passionate she is about Bangladeshi workers in sweatshops.
NNAMDIYou're beginning to sound like a prosecutor. You're usually the defense attorney here, but now you're building a case against somebody. We're talking with Jeffrey Light. He is the attorney representing United Students Against Sweatshops, the group that recently filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department for spying on protestors.
NNAMDIWhere would you draw the line between a protestor's right to free speech and free assembly and the police department's desire to prevent disruptions? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're also talking with Mike Elk. He's a writer who covers labor issues for In These Times.
NNAMDIMike, you're a labor reporter so you were coming at this story having reported on the anti-sweatshop movement. Who are Students United Against Sweatshops? What kinds of protests were they organizing?
ELKWell, the United Students Against Sweatshops is a group of students and recent college graduates advocating to end sweatshop conditions overseas. Recently, they've been supporting the accord on fire and safety in Bangladesh. This would require a number of retailers and their subcontractors to set up an independent process that can be overviewed and have binding arbitration for following a certain set of safety procedures in Bangladesh and if not, that there would be big penalties.
ELKSo far, almost all the major European retailers have signed on to it, like H&M and Zara. Few of the American retailers have signed on to it. Certainly The Gap, Wal-mart, Target, they haven't signed on to it.
NNAMDIThey seem to be pushing something that would be much less binding?
NNAMDIThe American companies?
ELKYeah, they're pushing a plan that would essentially allow them to self-regulate, to do self-compliance measures and I think we've seen that self-compliance fails and we need to look no further than the Rana Plaza to see that self-compliance does not work.
NNAMDIIs that where we stand now on the workers safety issue in Bangladesh?
ELKFrom what I'm reading and reporting and I read from my friend, the Bangladeshi reporter Amnan Hussein (sp?) as well as The New York Times' Jimmy Yardley who have both done excellent reporting. Little is changing in Bangladesh. In fact, in some ways, workers' rights are rolled back in Bangladesh in certain ways.
ELKYou know, the government still maintains the power to stop a strike in any instance. Workers in export processing zones are banned from striking. And there still has been no action in the investigation of the Bangladeshi trade unionist, I mean, in Islam. And until we bring that to justice, I think it's still going to be open season on Bangladeshi trade unionists like it's been for the last several decades.
ELKAnd until we prosecute the murderers who are believed to be members of the Bangladeshi intelligence service, I don't think anything is going to happen to change things there. There's still going to be a culture of fear around union organizing there and until we eliminate that, I think we're going to see more Rana Plazas because we know that the Bangladeshi system is so corrupt that the only way that they're going to be able to stop it is if workers have the power to literally leave.
ELKAnd we saw this as Rana Plaza workers did not want to go into that building, but yet they were forced to. And if they had a union, they wouldn't have been forced to.
NNAMDIAs we say on the show, our motto is connecting your neighborhood with the world. There are some local/global aspects to this story that we're discussing. Back to the local, Jeffrey, back in 2000 and 2002, the Metropolitan Police Department was involved in very controversial crackdowns against the World Bank, IMF protestors and anti-war protestors.
NNAMDIIt was also alleged that a D.C. police officer had infiltrated peaceful protest groups and urged them to commit violent acts. After years of lawsuits and damning reports, the D.C. Council passed something called the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004. You're bringing this case alleging that the MPD is violating that law. Tell us about it and what makes it unique.
LIGHTWell, specifically, Title 2 of that Act governs the instances in which the police are allowed to use undercover officers in investigating First Amendment activities and it puts some restrictions on their ability to do that. There needs to be reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.
LIGHTSo there can't be roving fishing expeditions. There needs to be authorization from a high level, a high ranking MPD officer. There are time limits on how long these investigations can last for and there needs to be a review of the information that's gathered so that anything that is protected First Amendment activity that has nothing to do with criminal activity needs to be purged.
LIGHTAs another part of this law was set up to create monitoring, the MPD was required to issue self-reports.
NNAMDIPeriodic audits, the council mandated periodic audits to verify MPD compliance, right?
LIGHTRight. There are two aspects...
NNAMDITwo aspects, the MPD itself was supposed to produce reports and the audit, but go ahead.
LIGHTSo both of those. And so the MPD has consistently said in their self-reports that they're not breaking any laws, that from right before the Act was passed until right when it was passed, they've all of a sudden come into compliance with every aspect of this fairly-detailed law. There's never been a problem with it. The response -- the auditor took issue with that. In fact, the auditor found that not a single use of undercover officer since the law was passed up through 2011 had been properly authorized. It never happened that they had done it correctly. And MPD simply issued a blanket response to the auditor, we think we're in compliance.
NNAMDIThe auditor's office last year complained that the police were refusing to turn over documents or cooperate with investigators. The MPD is disputing those claims. Back to you, Mike Elk, these demonstrations against sweatshops and against the Keystone Pipeline, was there a history of violence at these demonstrations, a history of disruption that would cause the Metropolitan Police Department to be concerned?
ELKWell certainly not with the United Students Against Sweatshops. I mean, they're -- what they typically did is they went into a location that wouldn't sign the Bangladesh safety accord, they would deliver a letter. And then when they were asked to leave by store management they would leave. So they were complying with the law and there was no reason to believe they would be involved in criminal activity here.
NNAMDIJeffry, I know that this lawsuit is aimed at getting the police to stop doing something you say they're doing. And what they're doing appears to violate the spirit and perhaps the letter of the law. But this kind of policing could also end up hurting the spirit of protests, couldn't it, maybe creating a sense of paranoia?
LIGHTYeah, since the lawsuit was filed I've heard from a number of different activists who have told me that they are now very distrustful of new people that they meet who seem enthusiastic about getting involved. United Students Against Sweatshops has expressed some concerns that there might be a bit of a stigma to being -- you know, even though they do entirely lawful actions that their supporters might wonder, are you guys doing something illegal? Why is there an undercover there? And additionally people that don't want to be spied on are chilled and deterred from coming to protests.
NNAMDII'm old enough to remember the COINTEL Program sponsored by the FBI that was aimed at disrupting the activities of activist organizations. Many of them civil rights organizations, some of them considered radical organizations, by placing people in those organizations who would encourage them to commit illegal acts so that they can be arrested. Mike, you interviewed some organizers here who were already talking about a sense of paranoia in terms of who they should trust, right?
ELKYeah, one of the organizers (unintelligible) was saying that he's distrustful. I mean, now if somebody wants to get involved in a protest activist group, are we going to have to do a week-long examination of their Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Wi-Frog, blah, blah, etcetera to figure out whether or not they're a cop. And, you know, protestors really -- people coming together organizing, it's about trust and building social capital. And how can you do that if you're uncertain that the folks you're interacting with might be lying to you? How can you build trust that's needed to do the kind of incredible things so many community organizers have to do?
NNAMDIJeffry Light, this will be, it's my understanding, winding its way through the courts in November of this year?
LIGHTYeah, our first court date is scheduled for November 22.
NNAMDIA date I will put on my calendar to make sure we're paying attention. Jeffrey Light is an attorney representing the United Students Against Sweatshops. The group recently filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department for spying on protestors. Jeffrey Light, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMike Elk is a writer who covers labor issues for In These Times. Mike Elk, that you for joining us.
ELKNice to be on the show, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, Virginia's race for governor casting new light on a controversial immigrant visa program. We'll explore EB-5s and the merits of providing fast track green cards to foreign investors. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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