Photo by Tanner Cole
When I heard the news,...
August 21, 2004
On August 16, Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times revealed that the FBI has been "questioning political demonstrators" about major events this election season. He mentioned Sarah Bardwell, a 21-year-old intern at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Denver. I spoke with Bardwell on August 20.
Four FBI agents and two Denver police officers came to her home on July 22, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, she recalls. "One guy was in all swat, dressed in black, with six guns on him," she says.
They gathered Bardwell's housemates together.
"They told us they were 'doing community outreach' but then they said they were doing 'preemptive investigations' into possible or suspected 'anarchists, terrorists, and murderers,' " she recalls.
"I told them maybe they should talk to the Denver police because they recently shot a man in my neighborhood," she says.
The FBI agents then began to probe about upcoming political events.
"They asked us if we were planning any criminal actions at the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, and the inauguration," she says. "And then they asked us if we knew anyone who was planning such actions. And they told us if we withheld this information, that was a crime."
Bardwell and her housemates refused to answer. (She says, though, that "no one at the house was planning on going to the conventions. It's really weird.")
She says the officers "were vigorously taking notes and looking into our house and at our bicycles."
One of her housemates asked them if they had a warrant, and they responded something like this, Bardwell says: " 'Oh, we don't need a warrant. We're just here to talk. It's a friendly visit.' "
There was some banter back and forth, she recalls.
"They asked us what our names were," she says. "We told them they probably knew our names, but we didn't give them to them. We asked for their names, but they said they wouldn't give us theirs if we didn't give them ours."
But then the conversation turned ominous.
"They told us they were going to have to take 'more intrusive efforts' because they took the fact that we were not answering their questions as noncooperation," she says. "I asked if that was a threat. They denied that it was. And they left shortly after that, saying something like, 'We'll see you later.' And me thinking, 'I hope not.' "
Looking back, Bardwell recognizes how scared she was.
"I was afraid the whole time, afraid of what they were going to do to my house, afraid of my safety and my future," she says. "It's a really scary thing to have the FBI say they're going to be more intrusive than coming to your house!"
When the FBI left, her roommates all expressed "shock and fear and anger," she says. One said: "I can't fucking believe that just happened," Bardwell recalls, adding: " 'Is this 1984 or what?' got said probably a million times."
While the FBI and Denver police were descending on Bardwell's home, another team appeared at their friends' house down the street.
"They had a much more aggressive experience than we had," she says. "The officers were more threatening. And one officer was moving to pull his gun out when one friend was trying to get their ID from the kitchen counter."
Joe Parris, an FBI spokesman in Washington, told The New York Times about the visits across the country: "No one was dragged from their homes and put under bright lights. The interviewees were free to talk to us or close the door in our faces."
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, says this case is "especially sensitive" because the Denver police settled a lawsuit with the ACLU of Colorado in the spring of 2003 with an agreement not to spy on Denver dissidents. Silverstein wants to know why two Denver police officers participated in this action.
So does Bardwell.
"The Denver police are not allowed to be spying on us, and yet they were at our house," she says.
Bardwell has since received an e-mail from Lieutenant Stephens of the Denver Police Internal Affairs Bureau.
"I want to assure you that the Denver Police Department takes these types of allegations very seriously," the e-mail reads. "If you feel that the Denver officers acted inappropriately, please contact the Internal Affairs Bureau at any time to discuss the incident."
Bardwell is not sure how she is going to proceed at this point. She says she is still trying to process what happened.
"I was so shocked through the whole thing," she says. "There's definitely a culture among activists of expecting this kind of behavior. But it's a completely different thing when it happens to you."