"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On Sept. 17, 23-year-old Kay Morrison of Seattle was standing on the platform at the Bad Schandau train station in Germany waiting for the train to Prague. She planned to join some 12,000 demonstrators who sought to disrupt the 55th annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Prague. Morrison says she was approached by Czech border police, who scanned her passport with a handheld computer. She was taken by train to another station, where police searched her belongings and informed her she was on the list of “persona non grata” — not welcome in Prague this week “or in the future.”
She made another failed attempt to enter the country. After further inquiries, the Czech police announced on national television that Morrison had committed a misdemeanor on a previous trip to the Czech Republic; she had been fined for smoking a cigarette in the main train station. (It later turned out that the “receipt” the police gave her was false and that they overcharged her for the offense.) Though Czech authorities did not say so, Morrison believes she was put on the list because of her arrest in Seattle at last November’s mass protests of the World Trade Organization.
Morrison is one of 300 activists barred from the Czech Republic in advance of the so-called “S26″ demonstrations. Another American, Lee Sestar of Chicago, was told by customs officials at the Prague airport last Sunday that he was also on the unwelcome list because he was arrested at the Seattle protests. Sestar, who insists he was swept up with a group of peaceful protesters, was eventually convicted of failure to disperse, a misdemeanor offense. Charges against Morrison in Seattle were dropped. But both were “persona non grata” in Prague last week.
Czech authorities have been praised for successfully containing violent demonstrators who tossed Molotov cocktails and bricks at police and delegates during the IMF/World Bank summit. But authorities’ efforts to prevent demonstrations by keeping demonstrators out of the country reflect an approach to dealing with the global protest movement that does not bode well for civil liberties.
Over the past month, Czech authorities have sought to bar hundreds from the country. An American and three Dutch cooks with the vegetarian collective Rampelpaln were kept out of the country, and a trainload of 1,000 Italian anarchists affiliated with the militant Zapatista-support group Ya Basta! was surrounded by riot police and held at the border until four group members targeted by police agreed to get off.
Czech police, acting in concert with American and European police officials, have tried to prevent known activists from entering the country. Their most controversial means of doing so involves a list of activists allegedly provided to Czech authorities by the FBI.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the FBI told Salon that he “had not heard” of any FBI lists of activists or persons arrested in the U.S. being turned over to Czech police. “I have no information on that matter, nor can I confirm or deny published reports,” FBI Special Agent Steven Berry said.
Reports of the list emerged after Czech officials discussed information they had about unwelcome foreign activists with the press. Czech Republic Chief of Police Jiri Kolar told Agence France Presse on September 15 that authorities possessed lists of “undesirable individuals” who are “suspected of abusing their stay to threaten state security, public order, or undermine other protected interests.” Czech Interior Minister Stanislov Gross added that many are “under investigation for crimes committed during violence in the United States,” most notably during the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle and the IMF/World Bank protests in Washington last April.
According to the British newspaper the Guardian, Scotland Yard also provided photographs and information on the alleged “ringleaders” of the May Day demo in London this year, when numerous bank and store windows were smashed and monuments desecrated.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Prague said Tuesday that “inexperienced” public affairs officers with the Czech police had mistakenly sourced the lists to the FBI. “There is no blacklist or watchlist that the FBI gave to Czech police concerning American activists,” U.S. press attachi Victoria Middleton told Salon. “Whatever lists [the Czech police] have came from publicly available documents,” she said.
Middleton acknowledged that FBI officials, as well as local and state police from Seattle and other U.S. cities, “shared information with Czech police officials” about the role of activists in previous mass demonstrations, as did police from other European countries. But Middleton added, “I have been assured by law enforcement officials at the highest level that this information is in the public domain.”
The extraordinary security measures in Prague are indicative of the increased surveillance and repression of activists worldwide, as law enforcement agencies cooperate to combat a new, increasingly mobile army of dissent.
Last month the FBI — which hosted trainings for Czech police in Washington during the last round of IMF/World Bank protests in April — opened its own office in Prague. American law enforcement officers, along with special agents from Interpol and Scotland Yard, were on hand both before and during Prague protests this week to advise Czech authorities. Scotland Yard even sent a “media specialist” to help counter negative spin.
After Tuesday’s violent protests in Prague, police will likely increase surveillance of activist groups. But so far authorities have done a poor job of differentiating the violent from the peaceful demonstrators.
A recent Canadian security report, “Anti-Globalization — A Spreading Phenomenon” warns that authorities must brace for a variety of threats from the growing protest movement. “Continued presence and use of large numbers of security forces, fencing, and similar restrictive measures could dampen the enthusiasm of protesters and might gradually reduce the size of some gatherings, as could adverse weather conditions,” the report states.
“But, as demonstrated by extremist animal-rights and environmental activists, security measures could prompt a rise in the scale of violence from smashing windows to arson attacks, the use of explosive devices, and even physical threats against individuals, including posting warning letters purported to contain contaminated razor blades.”
The report, which was produced in preparation for protests at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary, Alberta, last May, was widely mocked in the Canadian press for its “highbrow” intelligence. It cites recent articles on protesters in the New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as the book “No Logo” by Canadian media theorist Naomi Klein.
“The report shows they have a fairly sophisticated understanding of what is motivating activists,” Klein says, “certainly far more so than our elected officials here in Canada, who portray activists as anti-globalist, or protectionist.
“The problem is,” she says, “they portray grass-roots activists as James Bond-like figures with all these high-tech tools, which then gives them the rationale to spend all sorts of money on their own high-tech surveillance.”
The Internet has become a central organizing tool for demonstrators, as well as a key target for police, who are monitoring activist Web sites and discussion groups, and in some cases, even posing as protesters to gain information. Some police have targeted activists with cellphones, noting that the use of cellphones and radios gives protesters a new level of “tactical mobility” with which police must contend.
“Legal, grass-roots activism has become the new ‘terrorism’ in the post-Cold War world,” Klein says. “They need a new enemy, and the activists are it.”
Both before and during the recent protests in Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, police infiltrated meetings and disrupted public gatherings. Activists complained that their phones were tapped and that police were posted outside the homes and offices of suspected organizers. In Los Angeles, some infiltrators were so successful that they even got arrested or gassed by fellow officers.
Last May, the Paris-based Intelligence Newsletter reported that reserve units from U.S. Army Intelligence were deployed to monitor the April 16-18 protests against the IMF and World Bank in Washington. “The Pentagon sent around 700 men from the Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir to assist the Washington police on April 17, including specialists in human and signals intelligence,” the report states.
Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Michael Milord confirmed that the Department of Defense provided medical and “explosive ordinance support, as well as food and housing to the National Guard and Washington police during the April demonstrations.” However, Milord insists the support amounted to no more than 30 Defense Department personnel. The Secret Service, U.S. Marshals, U.S. Park Police and Federal Bureau of Prisons also provided support to the Washington police, Milord confirms.
According to the newsletter, activist files are being circulated via the Regional Information Sharing System (RISS), a network of computers used by law enforcement agencies nationwide. Created by the feds to track organized crime networks, RISS now serves more than 5,300 member law enforcement agencies in 50 states, two Canadian provinces, Australia, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. It also networks to the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service, U.S. Customs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Intelligence Newsletter reports that among those currently labeled as “terrorist” organizations in the RISS database are Global Justice (the umbrella group that organized the April demonstrations in Washington), Earth First, Greenpeace, the American Indian Movement, Zapatista National Liberation Front and ACT-UP. A spokesperson from the Department of Justice called the report “bogus” and said the RISS system does not list domestic groups as “terrorists.”
“We don’t collect information in any group that wants to demonstrate anything, unless there is a crime being committed,” insists Jerry Lynch, director of Magloclen, one of the six RISS regional centers. “If there’s any individual or group that has as its purpose to commit crimes, we would be entitled to collect information on them, as would any law enforcement agency, ” Lynch explains. “It is not the purpose of RISS to colect information on civil disobedience protests.”
But the perception of nonviolent activists as terrorists has emerged elsewhere as well. During demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, organizers were targeted for carrying cellphones. John Sellers of the activist training group Ruckus Society was arrested and held on an unprecedented $1 million bail after the Philadelphia assistant district attorney argued that Sellers “facilitates the more radical elements to accomplish their objective of violence and mayhem.” (Another judge later reduced the bail on constitutional grounds, but misdemeanor charges against Sellers are still pending. Sellers denies all charges.)
A previously sealed police affidavit made public earlier this month details how Philadelphia police used state troopers to infiltrate planning meetings and the puppet warehouse, where activists were constructing giant, satirical floats and other props. Some state troopers even posed as union carpenters and helped build floats.
More disturbing still, the affidavit cites a report by an obscure right-wing think tank to contend that some of the protest groups are funded by Communists and “Soviet” sympathizers.
Specifically, the affidavit claims that PCAN, the Pennsylvania Consumer Action Group, is a “United States conveyer for People’s Global Action (PGA), a self-styled ‘leaderless’ international network of groups opposed to the global market economy. Funds for the PGA … allegedly originate with Communist and leftist parties and from sympathetic trade unions. Other funds reportedly come from the former Soviet-allied World Federation of Trade Unions.”
In fact, People’s Global Action is the international umbrella group that formed two years ago in Geneva to help launch the WTO protests in Seattle. And PCAN is a consumer rights group in Reading, Pa. While PCAN organized the permitted and peaceful “unity march” that led off the GOP protests on July 30, it had nothing to do with the street blockades that took place later that week.
The affidavit attributes its information to a report by the Maldon Institute, a private think tank funded by conservative multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife is best known for financing several investigations of President Clinton in recent years. Maldon Institute director John H. Rees is a contributor to the right-wing John Birch Society and publishes a newsletter devoted to “intelligence-gathering” which is distributed to police.
The affidavit’s red-baiting shocked protest lawyers and civil libertarians. “For many of us, it brings back the worst memories of J. Edgar Hoover and the flagrant abuses of the FBI during the ’40s and ’50s … right on up to the ’60s and ’70s,” says Larry Frankel, executive director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union.
Philadelphia police are barred from conducting undercover investigations of political groups without mayoral consent because of a 1987 lawsuit filed by the ACLU. Both prior to and during the GOP Convention, police and city officials repeatedly denied that they had infiltrated protest groups — a fact which leads ACLU legal director Stephan Presser to contend that the cops used state police to do “an end run” around the law.
Police and city officials have declined to comment, noting that the GOP protesters are still being prosecuted.
More repressive measures have taken place in cities where media scrutiny was not so high. In Minneapolis last July, the FBI was brought in to oversee preemptive measures on activists aiming to disrupt the International Society of Animal Geneticists meeting. Claiming that large quantities of ammonium nitrate had been stolen from a nearby storage facility, and that a cyanide bomb had been detonated in a McDonald’s restaurant (it was a smoke bomb), the federal Drug Enforcement Agency raided one of the collective houses where anarchists had been organizing, several days before the protest. A dozen were arrested and several hospitalized during the raid. Charges against all but one were eventually dropped.
Last May, undercover police disguised as activists went so far as to provide a “secure” apartment in Calgary for a “communications team” set up by John Parnell of the Ruckus Society to advise protesters during the World Petroleum Congress. The Congress, which drew no more than 300 demonstrators, was defended by some 2,500 law enforcement officers.
According to Parnell, the undercovers (a police detective, a Canadian Mountie and a customs official) met him outside the convergence space where activists were meeting and led him to an apartment, where they helped him set up his gear and even helped out with logistics. Undercovers were also among those carrying radios and Nextel cellphones on the streets. “It was surreal,” says Parnell, “I was listening to people talking on the radio that were monitoring us.”
Parnell, a 52-year-old communications geek who installed radio systems for Witness for Peace during the Contra struggle in Nicaragua, is no stranger to police surveillance. “These guys were good,” he says of the Canadian undercovers.
While global law enforcement authorities step up their surveillance of activists, activists in turn are using technology to keep their eyes on police. During protests in Seattle, Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, activists monitored police communications, in some cases live-streaming feeds picked up off police radio scanners over the Internet.
As the FBI is well aware, independent media centers — information hubs set up by activists in cities across the U.S. and Europe — have played an increasing role in helping protesters to both coordinate actions and control the spin on events.
An Aug. 1 FBI advisory to corporate security officials and police reads, “Based on the increasing priority that independent media centers appear to have received by protests and activists organizations after N30 [the November 30 demonstrations against the WTO], the coverage will likely attempt to record law enforcement operations, particularly during the marches, and even more so if physical response is used by local law enforcement.”
Sarah Ferguson is a freelance writer based in New York City who writes frequently about activism.More Sarah Ferguson.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)