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Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

Soup kitchen subversives

A Catholic Worker reports on the government's surveillance of his group


Do you have a comment on the fact that your organization has been under surveillance by the federal government?” The call came early in the morning to our Skid Row soup kitchen, and the journalist from NCR wanted to know why I thought the FBI antiterrorist unit was spying on the Catholic Worker, a religious organization that serves food to the homeless.

Like most Americans, I had watched closely the unfolding story about domestic spying and applauded the U.S. Senate’s commendable rejection of the onerous Patriot Act. But until that early morning phone call from NCR, I had no idea that I was actually a member of one of the domestic terrorist groups whose actions had provoked government spying, subsequently leading to the demise of the Patriot Act.

I was not shocked that the government of the United States would spy on peace activists. It has happened in the past, most notably to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to Dan and Philip Berrigan. And even Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and currently a candidate for sainthood, had, before her death in 1980, accumulated a 600-page FBI file, with agents going so far as to volunteer to serve soup to the homeless to spy on her. I just didn’t think the meager efforts of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker warranted such government attention.

In his report on us, the unnamed FBI agent wrote, “The Catholic Workers advocate peace with a Christian and semi-communistic ideology ... They advocate a communist distribution of resources.” He got the first part right. But the part about being communistic is true only if you think of our soup kitchen as a communistic redistribution plan.

Nevertheless, we’re pretty good at running a soup kitchen, but we’re terribly inept when it comes to being a terrorist cell or a threat to national security -- something like the guys in that old movie “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

Apparently we were nominated for terrorist status because of a 2001 civil disobedience protest against the Star Wars Missile Defense Shield at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The antiterrorist report implies that we had attempted to prevent a test launch of that missile. While we did, in fact, enter the base through a broken-down fence and wander around lost for a number of hours, our peaceful, though admittedly illegal, efforts were hardly terrorist in nature, or even a threat to the Star Wars project, much less to national security.

If the FBI operatives had been decent spies, they would have known how completely inept we were. For 12 hours we slogged through the trackless wilderness of Vandenberg, often in the dark, climbing over small mountains, falling into ditches, hoping that we would not meet a mountain lion or a rattlesnake, all the while with only the vaguest idea of where we were. Our terrorist tools did not include so much as a compass or a map, or even food or water. We were hopelessly lost. Finally, in desperation, cold and hungry and thirsty, we made ourselves known to the authorities, hoping for speedy deliverance from our wilderness peril. We accomplished nothing but a sprained ankle and a few deflated egos.

While being labeled terrorists and communists can have a chilling effect on the activity of public protest, governments often take their desire for security too far and produce unintended consequences by their extreme measures. And in this case, these extreme measures of spying on U.S. citizens caused the Senate to finally stand up to an imperial presidency that has significantly eroded the constitutional rights of Americans in a misguided effort to preserve its security. While the bumbling efforts of soup kitchen subversives like us could never interfere with national security, or even interfere with the launch of a Star Wars missile, we are grateful that, thanks to an overzealous government, we were able to play a small part in helping to stop the Patriot Act.

Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

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