IT ALL STARTED with a seemingly benign photograph taken last October — October 8, 2001, to be exact, the day that the Bush administration began bombing Afghanistan. The kickoff of our country’s War on Terrorism prompted an advocacy group known as Worcester Peace Works to call an emergency vigil. By late afternoon, as many as 125 activists were lining up, shoulder to shoulder, along two well-traveled streets that constitute the intersection of Lincoln Square, where the Worcester Police Department (WPD) houses its headquarters. The antiwar demonstration attracted prominent college professors, nuns, artists, and children as young as six. Some of the demonstrators stood in silence, dressed in black. Others displayed banners quoting the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (LOVE THY ENEMY), Mahatma Gandhi (AN EYE FOR AN EYE MAKES THE WORLD GO BLIND), and similar adages.
The peace vigil might have been unremarkable were it not for a three-by-five photograph, which captured the image of a thirtysomething woman whose blond hair fell around her shoulders. Like many of the demonstrators, she wore black. Unlike them, she had a bold, yet slightly awkward smile on her face, as if she didn’t quite fit in.
Ironically, minutes before the photograph was taken, the woman had been on the other side of the lens. Demonstrators had noticed her because of the careful way she went about setting up her shots. At one point, she stationed herself in the gutter, within several feet of the protesters. She would crouch down, smile at her subjects, release the shutter, and then proceed on down the line. Eventually, Kevin Ksen, a Worcester Peace Works spokesperson, offered her a press release. The woman shrugged it off. Confused, Ksen asked what media outlet she represented, but she refused to answer. When pressed again, Ksen says, she retorted, "I’m not with anybody." "I just froze," he recalls. "I thought, ‘So why is she taking pictures of us?’ "
The tip-off came when the blond woman walked toward a Worcester police van. On reflex, Ksen whipped out his own hand-held camera. "I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t get a picture of you,’ " he remembers. He took her snapshot. When the film was developed, it confirmed what Ksen and his fellow activists had suspected: the woman was a cop. In Ksen’s picture, her coat has swung open, revealing a pistol in a holster. In the background, a uniformed WPD officer can be seen scurrying toward the woman, as if rushing to protect her.
When the photo appeared in Worcester Magazine days later, beside an article exposing the mystery woman as a cop, activists were stunned. Police officials acknowledged that the female photographer was, in fact, an officer assigned to the Bureau of Criminal Investigations. Not only that, but they admitted in subsequent news accounts in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that the WPD has been photographing peaceful protesters for years. They casually ticked off recent rallies that had been secretly captured on film — former president Bill Clinton’s visit to the city in 1998, a nurses’ strike in 2000, a teachers’ rally in 2001. Police photo surveillance of ordinary citizens was being presented as routine. In one T&G article published October 18, 2001, Detective Lieutenant John McKiernan, who ordered the peace-vigil photographs, explained the practice this way: "Two years from now, these people may be laying down in the street, and we may need to identify them.... It’s been our function for years to identify protesters. It’s among the things that we do."
Today, six months after the photo made headlines, Worcester is grappling with a classic debate over the extent to which government surveillance of political activity is permitted. To be sure, America has a long tradition of police covertly monitoring people who espouse opinions outside societal norms. One example of excessive police surveillance was the FBI’s infamous and now-defunct domestic-counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). COINTELPRO involved much more than photographs. At the height of the civil-rights and anti–Vietnam War movements, the FBI singled out individuals as well as organizations for special surveillance. Federal agents compiled elaborate dossiers and even infiltrated protest groups. Former president Richard Nixon maintained a so-called Enemy’s List, which consisted primarily of antiwar protesters and like-minded dissidents who hadn’t done anything illegal.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, the state police operated its own subversive-activities division until 1971, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit challenging the office’s constitutionality. As Ronal Madnick, of Worcester’s ACLU chapter, observes, "The government has tried to stop dissent by targeting people in the past. This is not a hypothetical."
Given the current political climate, history seems poised to repeat itself. The September 11 terrorist attacks have led to heightened concern for security at the expense of civil liberties, as well as a tendency to shun dissent. All of which suggests that, if left unchecked, the practice of photographing peaceful protesters today could result in Nixonian-style, Big Brother surveillance tomorrow.
If police actions in Denver, Colorado, are any indication, we may well be closer to that disturbing reality than most people realize. On March 11, the ACLU of Colorado announced that it had discovered documents from secret files on protesters kept by the Denver police since 1999. A preliminary review has uncovered extensive dossiers on 3200 individuals affiliated with 208 organizations, including such well-known groups as Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee. The "spy files," as they’re called, detail everything from license-plate numbers and home addresses to physical descriptions of people, none of whom has committed any crimes.
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, explains that he has found "no legitimate reason" for such monitoring. Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Denver police. If such documentation can emerge in Denver, Silverstein notes, it can emerge in Worcester — or, for that matter, anywhere else in the US. "I don’t understand why the police don’t compile files on people who vote or who attend city-council meetings," he adds glibly. "What is it about a peace vigil or a protest that makes it a police matter?"