What's He Building in There? 

2002 was the year in which Americans were asked to spy on their neighbors.

Barry Reingold never thought much about the consequences of airing his political opinions in public. A longtime resident of Oakland, he'd enjoyed plenty of lively discussions debating his left-leaning ideology with friends or acquaintances. Then last fall, after a friendly but heated locker-room debate at his gym, the FBI came calling.

"One of the people said 'Bin Laden is really an asshole,'" recalls the retired phone company employee. "I said, 'Yeah, he really is an asshole and what happened is really horrible, but he'll never be as big an asshole as Bush. ... Bush bombs all over the world for oil profits.'" Someone retorted, "Aren't you an American?" and Reingold, who was indeed, said he viewed himself as a member of the working class who might have been born anywhere. The conversation soon ended.

A few days later, the FBI showed up at Reingold's Lake Merritt apartment. "On the one hand, I was a little bit scared," he says, "On the other hand, I was pretty angry because it was right after September 11, and I heard that a number of people had been visited by the FBI and some had been taken to jail and even deported."

The two agents asked Reingold if he belonged to the gym and said they'd heard he'd been talking about Bush, bin Laden, oil, war, and Iraq. Then they told him that as a US resident he was entitled to freedom of speech. Reingold was emboldened by the irony of that statement. "Yeah, I sure am," he recalls quipping. "Thank you very much; this ends our discussion." He proudly claims to have sent the officers away before they could file a report.

Reingold's experience was the harbinger of a national trend that began with September 11 and continued throughout the past year, both locally and nationally. For the first time in several generations, US citizens were overtly encouraged by the authorities to report "suspicious" activities. Many have done so willingly, which is how UC Berkeley student Charlotte Wu came to find campus police in her dorm room after someone overheard her discussing video-game bombing maneuvers with a friend. Between California's Amber Alert, increased participation in Neighborhood Watch programs, and federal initiatives that aimed to turn postal workers into spies, 2002 was a year in which Americans were asked to spy on their neighbors.

The USA PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress in October of 2001, asked for civilian assistance in reporting unusual behavior. In North Carolina, a student was questioned by the Secret Service after an informant reported an anti-Bush poster hanging in her apartment. In Chicago, police and postal workers interrogated an activist for requesting something other than US flag stamps for his organization's mailing. And by January of this year, 8 percent of libraries surveyed by the University of Illinois Library Research Center said they'd already been forced to reveal patron information as result of September 11.

And yet, 2002 began with a prominent call to snitch. In his January State of the Union address, President Bush said homeland security would depend on the "eyes and ears of alert citizens." His proposal? A new "Citizen Corps" that "would provide every American the opportunity to participate in community and family safety and to be better prepared and better protected from crime, terrorism, and disasters of all kinds." This included a Justice Department-administered program through which citizens would assist police agencies that were having difficulty meeting "public-safety challenges." In October, the Transportation Security Administration asked private pilots to report anything suspicious at airports.

With so many people on the lookout for something suspicious, it's no accident that they found plenty to report or to fear. In September, three Arab-American medical students were detained for hours in Florida after a woman sitting next to them at a restaurant allegedly overheard what she determined to be a suspicious conversation. Though cleared of any wrongdoing, the men were later barred from completing their hospital internships. And here in Oakland in June, according to an ACLU report, Sugako Green -- a Muslim resident -- was harassed by a Walgreens security guard and asked not to enter the store as she passed by wearing her religious head covering and veil.

In Oakland, where city officials failed to convince voters to support a ballot measure that would have increased the number of cops, the Oakland police began a new program to beef up enforcement with the help of private security guards.

And in North Oakland, the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council implemented a new program in which block captains will send out e-mails to neighbors regarding crimes or suspicious activity. Other Neighborhood Watch programs grew by up to 25 percent in some local communities this year, with Richmond, Antioch, Hayward, and Oakland all reporting surges in participation. "Even on College Avenue, residents were being encouraged to call if they saw strange people," complains Dawn Phillips, director of People United for a Better Oakland, or PUEBLO, an activist group often critical of law enforcement tactics. "Everyone becomes a suspect when you think like this. We need to think of people as sharing our community."

The trend has other manifestations. Richmond cops, for instance, have recruited citizen boat-owners to help patrol its shoreline and protect the Richmond Chevron oil refinery. "There was a tremendous response from citizens wanting to volunteer their time, their vessels, anything they could do to help," says Sergeant Enos Johnson. Vice Mayor Tom Butt, however, pans the program: "I think people who are doing it are more interested in getting out in the boat and playing around in the water than they are in doing any hardcore security work," he says.

The public call to vigilance also made 2002 the perfect year to implement technologies that some people may consider invasive. In Alameda, police increased usage of a new phone-notification system called Citywatch that lets detectives phone every resident -- thousands in some cases -- in a selected area with a recorded message that alerts people to recent crimes or solicits their help in catching a suspect. This fall, officers nabbed a bank robber after the suspect's description went out over the system. "I think there is an increase in support and latitude to let police do their job," says Jarrod Suth, the system's administrator.

In the same vein, California's Amber Alert Plan was unveiled this year to broadcast information about child abductions on digital freeway signs. The program has helped thwart a few kidnappings, and proponents are now pushing to make it a national system.

In compliance with the PATRIOT Act, the American Bankers Association will use LexisNexis' IDPoint to increase its ability to perform identity checks on individuals, according to InternetWeek.com.

While these technologies have solved some crimes, they have civil libertarians cringing. "Today, computers enable different government agencies to share information; information collected for one purpose is reviewed for others," writes Robert A. Heverly, a fellow with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, in a Los Angeles Times editorial. "Tyranny, as much as if not more than freedom, is facilitated by the computer."

But there are hints that this new latitude in surveillance may have peaked already. Police agencies are angry that federal money to implement some of the programs hasn't come through. Cities across the country, and especially in Northern California, have been drafting measures to protest the PATRIOT Act. Berkeley, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Sebastopol have passed resolutions opposing the act. And recently, Operation TIPS, or Terrorism Information and Prevention System, which asked citizens to report suspicious activity to the FBI, failed in Congress after being assailed by both the left and the far right.

The backlash against the privacy invasion has become so widespread and bipartisan that the ACLU has retained former US Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga) -- forerunner in the move to impeach Clinton -- and retiring right-wing House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex) to act as consultants. Now, a new focus for the civil liberties camp will be to dismantle the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program, which would track potential terrorists by keeping a central database of prescriptions, library accounts, and credit card transactions for all Americans.


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