Springs Activists Troubled by Spy Files
Peace protesters, Libertarian Party among those profiled
9-15 January 2003
Jenny Finn, a stay-at-home mom, feels passionately that the death penalty should be abolished. About five years ago, her interest in the issue got
her involved with the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, a Colorado Springs group that advocates nonviolent social change.
Molly Mulligan, a former educator, has been involved with the Justice and Peace Commission since she moved to the Springs in 1984.
"Issues of justice and peace are pretty integral to my faith," said Mulligan, a Catholic, who is now a member of the commission's staff.
Neither of the two women has ever been arrested in connection with social or political activism, and neither considers herself a threat to society.
"I go to a protest now and then," Finn said. But unlike some fellow activists, neither she nor Mulligan participates in acts of civil disobedience -- a nonviolent method of protest in which people get themselves arrested in order to make a political point.
"I'm afraid of that," Finn said. "I don't want to go to prison." Besides, she adds, she doesn't want to be away from her 2-year-old child.
Some kind of subversive
Nonetheless, both women were spied on by Colorado Springs police -- who have claimed they don't gather intelligence on activists unless they suspect criminal activity.
When the two women attended a peaceful protest at Peterson Air Force Base in 1999, Springs police took down their vehicle license-plate numbers, along with those of some 30 others, and forwarded the information to the Denver Police Department. Denver police then listed the women's names and home addresses in its "spy files," alongside files on groups labeled as "criminal extremist."
The women's names and addresses were also listed in a separate "spy file" document that contained a roster of people associated with the Justice and Peace Commission.
In addition to those lists, court documents indicate the Denver Police Department may have kept separate, individual files on as many as 10 Colorado Springs residents, most of them involved in peace activism.
The information has prompted members of the Colorado Springs City Council to request that the local police department explain its intelligence-gathering practices. The department is scheduled to give a presentation at a Council meeting on Monday, Jan. 13.
"I do feel like something should be done about it," Finn said.
She says she had no idea she was being secretly watched when participating in demonstrations.
"It's troubling that there's someone watching and taking down my name," Finn said. "Knowing that I'm on some list that typecasts me as some kind of subversive, troubles me."
A chilling effect
The existence of the Denver Police Department "spy files" sparked a furor when it became publicly known last spring. As it turned out, the department had kept files on some 3,200 groups and individuals, many of whom had done nothing more than participate in constitutionally protected political activism.
In November, the Independent revealed that Colorado Springs police had helped Denver police gather intelligence on local activists and that Denver detectives had also traveled to the Springs to monitor the activists.
The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Denver, arguing that keeping intelligence files on peaceful protesters creates a "chilling effect" on the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. As part of the lawsuit, the ACLU has also asked to see what similar files Colorado Springs police might be keeping. Springs police are fighting that request.
According to documents filed in the lawsuit, the ACLU believes the "spy files" may contain individual files on as many as 10 Colorado Springs activists. The people believed to have individual files tend to be ones who have been arrested for civil disobedience, mostly in protests against nuclear weapons at Springs-area military installations.
The King Soopers comparison
Several of those activists have already taken advantage of a decision by the city of Denver to allow people to see their own files. Loring Wirbel, a member of the local anti-nuke group Citizens for Peace in Space, obtained his personal file in November. The file includes four pages with information such as his birth date, appearance, hobbies, occupation and contact information, and an outdated photograph.
Barbara Huber, another local peace activist who has been arrested for entering military installations, received just a one-page file, listing basic personal information and noting her association with the Justice and Peace Commission, as well as her participation in civil-disobedience actions.
Colorado Springs police -- who are currently not discussing the matter with the press because it's under litigation -- have previously said that monitoring demonstrations may be justified because sometimes, they involve criminal conduct such as civil disobedience.
But Bill Sulzman, who heads Citizens for Peace in Space and also found himself in the spy files, compares that to stalking the parking lot outside King Soopers and writing down all the license-plate numbers, just in case someone decides to rob the store.
Besides, he says, he and others have engaged in civil disobedience locally for more than 25 years and have yet to do anything violent or even resist arrest.
"You would think the police would have us figured out by now, and realize that we're not suddenly going to turn violent," Sulzman said.
"They called us a 'militia' "
In addition to individual files, Denver Police also kept files on organizations. A list submitted in court by the ACLU suggests those organizations included just two Colorado Springsbased groups -- the Justice and Peace Commission and Citizens for Peace in Space.
However, the list also names some statewide groups with significant membership in the Springs area, including Colorado Right to Life and the Libertarian Party.
"They called us a 'militia,'" said John Berntson, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Colorado, who lives in the Springs and has seen the party's "spy file."
The national Libertarian Party traces its roots to meetings held in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s, and it has more than 500 registered voters in El Paso County.
"We're the third-largest political party in the country and the state," Berntson said. "What gives the police the right to conduct surveillance of political parties?"
Cleta Jasper of Colorado Springs, who serves on the board of Colorado Right to Life, said her organization -- which has more than 3,500 people on its local mailing list -- had not yet asked to see if it has a "spy file."
"I wouldn't be one bit surprised," Jasper said.
Though some extreme anti-abortion activists have bombed clinics and assassinated doctors, Colorado Right to Life doesn't even engage in civil disobedience, Jasper said. "Our organization has never been associated with anyone who does violence."
The Colorado Springs Police Department is scheduled to give a briefing on the "spy files" to the City Council during a meeting that begins at 1 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13. The meeting, at City Hall, 107 N. Nevada Ave., is open to the public.