A Black Mark

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

IF YOU DON'T like something your government is doing, you should be able to come to Washington, D.C., and say so in peaceful protest. You shouldn't have to worry that the color of your shirt will get you arrested. Or that police will call in the FBI to grill you about your political or religious views. It's distressing, then, when authorities in the nation's capital show so little regard for the basic American tenet of free assembly and trample on the rights of citizens.

A lawsuit brought by a group of protesters in a 2002 incident paints a disturbing picture of the actions of D.C. police and the FBI, and it raises questions about whether there was an attempt to hide some of those actions. As reported by The Post's Carol D. Leonnig, the protesters not only were wrongly arrested (the charges were dropped and any records expunged), but they were also interrogated by the FBI, allegedly including inappropriate questions about their and others' beliefs. The protesters say the interrogations were videotaped, and one aim of their lawsuit is to find out what happened to those records.

There's no question that police should investigate suspicious behavior, particularly in this era of heightened concern over terrorism. Yet the worst offense of these protesters is that they were wearing black; police were apparently confusing fashion with dangerous anarchism. That they were arrested on trespassing charges even after showing they had a parking pass for the garage where they were detained suggests that public safety was not the paramount concern. Either the arrests were a pretense to gather intelligence or a bid to discourage dissent -- perhaps both.

The involvement of the FBI, which is supposed to monitor domestic groups only when there is clear suspicion of criminal activity, is particularly disturbing. For years, authorities refused even to acknowledge that FBI agents were present in the garage, only to have their presence confirmed by a newly discovered document. What makes that revelation even more troubling is that city officials had vowed to the court that no such document existed. Was that oversight an honest mistake or a coverup?

Both the FBI and D.C. police have stumbled in the area of individual rights -- the FBI of late with its misuse of "national security letters" to obtain private information about U.S. citizens. The District's most notable transgression was the infamous mass arrests in Pershing Park, also during anti-globalization protests in 2002. Police officials say they have reformed their ways since that costly incident. We would like to think so. But the apparent nonchalance of local and federal officials about getting to the bottom of what happened to those people dressed in black is not reassuring.


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