"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)
Stop your car to help a woman who appears to be lost — and get pressured, while in police custody, to become an informant. That’s what happened to one of the men profiled in a recent New York Times report on yet more aggressive spying on Muslims by the NYPD.
Egyptian-born Moro Said pulled over one night because, he says, a woman looked like she needed directions. She turned out to be an undercover officer, and hauled him in on a prostitution-related charge. Then cops pressured him to start informing them on what he sees and hears in his mosque or in cafes.
As the Times describes it, the NYPD adapted a process used with suspects who might know about related crime, like drug dealers or low-level mafia members, to the Muslim community in general. When Muslims — or people with “Arabic-sounding names” — were arrested, they would be interviewed and recruited to inform generally on mosques or cafes or other areas frequented by Muslims.
The program remains active under new NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton’s lead; the Department has conducted 220 such interviews so far this year.
While this program is just part of the NYPD’s dragnet targeted at Muslims (and, with the recently de-emphasized stop-and-frisk, communities of color generally), the program is yet another of the many methods local and federal law enforcement use to coerce Muslims to spy on their own community. Last month, two civil rights groups sued on behalf of four Muslim men who claim the FBI put them on the No Fly list and then used that status to coerce them to become informants. Earlier this month, Mother Jones reported on a American of Sudanese descent who claims the U.S. had him held in proxy detention as part of an effort to recruit him as an informant.
Around the globe, it seems, the government continues to use the tools of law enforcement to find more spies to report on innocent Muslims.
It’s not just coercion that law enforcement uses to find people to inform on their community: the government has twice told the FISA Court that it may use the phone dragnet program — in which it conducts contact chaining on a database of the phone record of Americans’ phone records — to identify potential informants.
As often happens, the “benefits” the program’s boosters point to, to justify such coercive law enforcement techniques are minimal. The Times cites Jose Pimental — who ultimately pled guilty to a terrorism charge, but who many doubt would have been able to conduct an attack without the coaching of the informant in question — as one of those successes. That informant also reportedly smoked pot with Pimental during the investigation. In short, up until this point, the Pimental case has been a case study in how not to run an informant-driven investigation. Yet the NYPD uses that prosecution to rationalize coercing people to report on general information about the Muslim community.
Imagine how such generalized spying would be regarded against potentially riskier set of targets, like the finance criminals who wrecked the economy in 2008 and have continued to engaged in damaging fraud. Imagine if every banker who visited a sex worker got hauled in and was offered leniency if he informed on his co-workers, bosses, and clients? (Key to the coercion, of course, is that many Muslims don’t have the resources of bankers to fight low-level criminal accusations.)
Of course, bankers need not worry. A recent DOJ Inspector General report revealed that when DOJ attempted to roll out undercover teams (not civilian informants, but FBI undercover officers) to target mortgage fraud, FBI Agents either weren’t informed such a plan existed or, if they were, needed “specific direction or training on how to commence a mortgage fraud” undercover operation.
The FBI, apparently, couldn’t figure out how to treat suspected bank criminals like it and many other law enforcement agencies treat innocent Muslims.
Therein lies the problem. It has gotten too easy, since 9/11, to treat the Muslim community as a whole as suspect. It has become too easy to use the tools rolled out after 9/11 to combat real threats (and borrowed, before that, from the drug war) to instead criminalize a faith community. It would be unthinkable — and unworkable — for more privileged communities. And yet it continues.
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)