Originally created 05/03/04

Security or spying? Police gather intel on G-8 protests



SAVANNAH, Ga. -- New Jersey professor Trent Schroyer's group doesn't stage a typical G-8 protest. It's mostly academics who prefer a symposium to the streets, using the world leaders' summit as a backdrop for sit-down discussions focused on alternative economic policies.

Still, when Schroyer's group T.O.E.S. (The Other Economic Summit) rented out a private hall near Savannah for a conference during the June 8-10 summit in coastal Georgia, police quickly began investigating.

Savannah police detectives visited the real estate office that rents out the recreation hall to view the group's contract. They also contacted the employers of the hall's owners and the Savannah professor who signed the contract.

And the police chief of neighboring Garden City, where the recreation center is located, says he didn't know Savannah police were looking into the professors' conference until the FBI told him.

"We have never had this degree of surveillance," said Schroyer, president of T.O.E.S. and a professor of sociology/philosophy at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. "I have no affiliation with any groups dangerous to the country in any way - unless rational discourse is a real threat."

With President Bush and leaders of the world's wealthiest nations coming in five weeks to secluded Sea Island, 80 miles south of Savannah, police are gathering intelligence even on peaceful dissenters with no evidence they plan to commit crimes, The Associated Press has learned.

In one case, the manager of a privately owned race track in nearby Pooler said his local police chief cautioned him about leasing the venue for a concert a protest organizer wanted to put on during the summit.

"I don't know too much about the protesting," said Ted Austad, general manager of Oglethorpe Speedway Park, who opted against the concert. "All I know is I've got to stay in business."

At the Progressive Recreation Center, owned by black employees and retirees of International Paper, board members felt harassed when police contacted the company after seeing the lease the professors' group signed March 25.

"Why are the Savannah police allowed to do that?" said Charles Nelson, a retiree and board member who manages the center. "What are they reacting to? We're not doing anything illegal."

International Paper confirmed that police contacted the company's Savannah mill, asking if the company owned the recreation center. Its employees own it separately from the company.

Margy Betz, who signed the contract for T.O.E.S., also got questions from her dean at the Savannah College of Art and Design after police called the college to see if it was sponsoring the event. Her dean, Jeff Eley, said he simply confirmed that Betz was working with T.O.E.S. independently.

Betz said she's not sure why police called her employer - the college's name doesn't appear on the leasing contract. But she said the matter was dropped after she talked with her dean.

Police expect thousands of protesters to come to Savannah, the host city for 5,000 international delegates and journalists attending the summit.

In their vigilance to avoid violent demonstrations like those that marred the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, police say they can't afford to overlook any protest groups - even if there's no evidence of criminal intent.

"This is the largest event that's ever going to come to this city in my lifetime, and we can't stand by and assume an event is going to be a nonevent," said Capt. Gerry Long, who is in charge of G-8 planning for the Savannah-Chatham County Metropolitan Police Department.

Washington attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, who has sued police on behalf of protesters in New York, Philadelphia and Miami, said police have become more aggressive, using pre-emptive scare tactics since the violence in Seattle five years ago. The calls make protesters fear they may lose their jobs and property owners afraid to rent to activists, she said.

"You have law enforcement conducting domestic spying operations, targeting individuals and groups purely based on those persons' political views," said Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice. "It's not innocuous. It's a McCarthy-era tactic."

Long denied that Savannah police are out to intimidate. She said police needed to know if T.O.E.S. was really a professors' group or violent protesters. She said police have no indication of any threats from summit protesters.

"The point is, can we ask the questions? Yes, we can," Long said. "Our purpose is not to discourage or encourage anyone from doing anything."

The FBI has distanced itself from such questioning, though Garden City Police Chief David Lyons said he was tipped off about the professors' conference by an FBI agent during a law enforcement meeting April 22.

"The FBI does not conduct intelligence investigations of people or groups behaving in a lawful manner to exercise their First Amendment rights," said Special Agent Steve Lazarus, spokesman for the FBI in Atlanta. "Nor do we have others do it for us."

The Savannah police inquiry didn't stop the Progressive Recreation Center from renting to the T.O.E.S. professors' conference.

However, Kellie Gasink, head of the Green Party of Chatham County, was turned down from leasing Oglethorpe Speedway Park in nearby Pooler after the manager, Austad, faced similar police inquiries.

Gasink approached Austad in January about renting the track for a concert June 9. She told him she hoped to book singer Willie Nelson with the concert's proceeds going to the Labor and Action Research Project, a nonprofit group she founded.

Austad said he was leaning against the concert when Savannah Detective Bruce Watkins visited the track during weekend go-cart races asking questions about Gasink.

"The police basically said, 'Do you know what she's putting on here?"' Austad said.

Austad said he told Watkins, whose business card he pinned up beside his office desk, that he had already decided not to do the concert. Any bad publicity linking the speedway to rowdy protests could hurt his business, he said.

A few days later, Austad said, Pooler Police Chief Clarence E. Chan also called.

"He just said he had concerns about that event and we might want to take a closer look before leasing it out that person," Austad said.

Chan acknowledged discussing the concert with Austad, but denied saying anything to dissuade him. "It just didn't happen as far as I know," Chan said.

Gasink recently got a permit to hold a festival/political demonstration of up to 5,000 people in Savannah's Forsyth Park during the summit, but the concert fell through. She blames police.

"This is them wrongfully interfering with lawful activity," Gasink said.

In Garden City, where the professors' group plans to meet, Police Chief Lyons met with the hall's owners last month and promised police cooperation to ensure the event went peacefully. He also sent an e-mail to the organizers, calling the group "a fairly peaceful organization."

"Nobody said, 'Hey, these are violent, flame-throwing Nazis coming to town,"' Lyons said.