Friday evening was particularly noisy on Hillsborough Street, where N.C. State University students held the same Honk for Peace event they've been holding since the beginning of the war in Iraq. There was a lot of honking in response to the hand-painted signs and the unusually large crowd. Last Friday's protest drew more than 70 people to the Bell Tower, many of whom came in response to the organizers' call for backup. Activists on the NCSU campus say they have been questioned by police and FBI investigators who are looking into the vandalism of the N.C. Republican Party headquarters by self-described anarchists earlier this month. Both events took place on a Friday, though Honk for Peace happens at 5 p.m., and the vandalism took place after 11 p.m. Campus activists say there's no connection, and that the investigators are harassing them for peaceful and legal political activity.
Senior Brad Goodnight says he was questioned about two weeks ago. "Four officers came to my house and asked me if I would mind going with them down to the station," he says. Goodnight still has the business cards of two of the men: Raleigh Police Officer J.T. Nickel of the Threat Assessment Unit and FBI Agent Robert C. Powell of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Goodnight says he thinks at least one of the other men was from the Raleigh police, but he wasn't sure of their identities.
Goodnight decided to go with the officers, who questioned him for an hour and a half, he says. "They were asking questions about our organization, about other activist organizations on campus, like who is involved with it, and who I thought might be involved or have connections with anarchists or terrorist groups." Goodnight says such he knows of no such connections. But the questioners wanted names of people he knew. "It seemed like kind of a fishing expedition to get more information about all these activist groups on campus."
Nickel did not return calls for comment. Powell declined to comment.
What made these investigators seek out Goodnight? "Apparently they got my name because my name is on the permit for this, Honk for Peace. We've been doing this for a year and a half, ever since the bombs started dropping in Iraq. We do it every Friday."
Goodnight, who is co-chair of the Campus Greens, says he isn't the only one who's had visits from Nickel and Powell. "It wasn't just me they went to talk to, actually. There were other members of our group that they showed up at their doors, banging on their dorm room doors." Another student who had been questioned and attended Friday's event chose not to comment.
But other student activists remain outspoken. Elena Everett of the Campus Greens sent out press releases for the Friday Honk for Peace, asking for support from other activists "to defend freedom of speech in Raleigh." Within two days, e-mails of support poured in from all over the country. "My inbox is just flooding," she says. "Organizations and individuals want to support us and voice their opposition to intimidation. So that's been really positive."
"Our whole hope in this was to show that there is an anti-war community in Raleigh and around N.C. State, and they can't just harass and interrogate a few targeted, maybe more vocal opponents of the war," Everett says. "Hopefully it will send a message to whoever is doing the investigations that maybe they should chill out, and that dissent is not cause to send in the Joint Terrorism Task Force."
Mike Wallace, coordinator for the university's Student Organization Resource Center, issues permits for outdoor events. He says campus police recently asked him to add the Raleigh police department to the list of those he notifies of permit requests for the Bell Tower area. Wallace says the Campus Greens and the Student Peace Action Network are consistently responsible with their events. "They seem to really be intent on trying to do things properly and do things well," Wallace says.
Goodnight says his last contact with the investigators had been a phone call earlier in the day from Nickel. "This morning, he was asking why people were claiming that they were being harassed and why we were doing a rally against police harassment and the harassment of activists here."
Goodnight says he told the officer that the investigation of campus groups was having a chilling effect on campus activism. "They seemed a little put off by it," Goodnight says. "Maybe they think that we're acting inappropriately. But honestly, what they're doing and this investigation and the way they're conducting it is deterring young activists from participating in our group. Just yesterday, I was trying to get a girl to sign up on our listserv and she didn't want to because she was afraid the FBI was going to start bothering her, too."
Everett, a short young woman with wispy white-blonde hair, says she has not been interrogated. But investigators asked about her by name when questioning Goodnight. "I really want to know what they're asking about me," she says. As she stood on the green slope under the Bell Tower fielding questions from television news reporters, her friends told her that police cars were parked in front of her house. "Which I guess might make sense," she says, "because everyone in that house would probably be here tonight, so it would be the perfect time to go sneak and peek or whatever it is they do now. I don't know why they're down there."
Visibly shaken, she says police have been observing other activities she's been involved in. "We did Food Not Bombs last night too, which is what we do every Thursday night. And we had many bike cops just going back and forth, and undercover cops standing across the street watching us. It is intimidation," she says. "It's very intimidating to know that cops are standing there watching your every move. And for what? For feeding people? For opposing the war?" But she said she doesn't plan to let fear get to her. "It's even more important right now to keep doing this. We're bombing hospitals in Fallujah, and thousands of civilians are dying and more troops are coming home in body bags. We need to stay out here."