The FBI's House Calls
|Learning Centre: Case Histories, Freedom, Globalization, Law, Privacy, Rights|
If you want to know how strange it's getting in America, talk to Barry Reingold. Reingold is a 60-year-old retired phone-company worker from the Bay Area who's old enough to withdraw from his IRA without penalty. His parents are Jewish. But Reingold prefers to be known as your basic, average American.
Reingold works out every day at a gym in San Francisco, and has done so for the last six years. Since Sept. 11, he's been exercising not only his muscles but also his right to free speech. Reingold recalls conversations he's had with people in the weight room about the war.
"It gets pretty heated," he told me over the phone last week. "People say what dogs those terrorists are. But I've said, 'Look at what a dog George Bush is.'"
That's not exactly a popular position to take these days.
"Look at all the hundreds of thousands of workers being laid off in the United States," Reingold continued. "This war is not just about getting terrorists. It's also about money and corporate oil profits."
Ahem. This is the kind of talk that gets people's heartbeats racing even without a Stairmaster.
"People question my loyalty," Reingold continued. "They say, 'You don't support America.' And I say, 'Sure I do. I work here. I was born here. I pay taxes. I just have a problem with the ruling class.'"
Reingold's not sure, but he's next to positive that his First Amendment workout got him a visitation from the FBI.
The FBI, you will recall, has begun knocking on the doors of an estimated 85 people in the Bay Area who are among 5,000 in the nation singled out as "potential witnesses." They are men ages 18-33 who possess visas and passports from Arab and Muslim countries where there are known Al Qaeda operatives.
As it turns out, the list of 5,000 is a much smaller subset of an even larger group of people being interviewed. From Sept. 11 to November alone, the FBI received more than 435,000 tips.
And, as Reingold found out, you don't have to be Arab or Muslim to get nominated for a house call.
"I have a speaker downstairs in my apartment building to let people in," Reingold said. "One afternoon, someone buzzes. And I said, 'Who's there?' And they say, 'The FBI.' And I'm thinking, 'Why is the FBI here?'"
He buzzed them into the building and met them in the hallway. There were two young men, one white, one black, apparently in their 20s. Reingold asked them for ID, and the two flashed him their badges.
"And so I asked them what this was all about," Reingold recalled. "And they asked me if I was a member of the gym [in San Francisco]. And I said yes.
"And then they said someone in the gym had reported that I had been talking about terrorism and Sept. 11, oil profits, capitalism and Afghanistan," Reingold said. "And I said, 'Oh, really.'"
Reingold didn't think about calling a lawyer. "At the time, I was sort of shaken up," he admitted to me. "If I were in my right mind, I probably would have met them outside the building, where I could have witnesses for all to see this. Or at least have pencil and paper to take the agents' names and notes."
But he didn't.
"And then the FBI guy said, 'You know you have the right to freedom of speech,'" Reingold recalled. "And I said, 'Yes, I know I do, don't I? And that's the end of the conversation. I don't wish to talk to you any further.'"
What did they say to that?
"That they had to write a report," said Reingold. "And I said, 'I'm sorry.' And they said, 'But we really have to write a report.' At that point I just closed the door, and that was it."
The agents didn't force the issue, nor were they coercive. But Reingold was bothered and upset. Here he was, just a regular guy expressing his opinion. You know, one of those freedoms we are supposedly defending in the war.
Reingold confronted the gym about his privacy having been violated, but the gym manager at the 24 Hour Fitness Center on Folsom Street in San Francisco never officially responded. When I called the club, manager Chris Robinson responded to inquiries with a chilly, "No comment." Calls were also placed to the FBI, but were unreturned.
The only thing Reingold has done to date is file an affadavit with an attorney to commemorate the FBI visitation. It wasn't until then that he understood the true nature of what had happened to him.
"It's like we're becoming a police state," Reingold said.
Reingold firmly believes that had he been Arab or Muslim, it would have been much worse for him. He's certain he would have been taken in for more vigorous questioning, maybe even jailed. Then, he said, he'd have to decide which was worse, fascism or racism.
Reingold isn't sure what recourse he has now, if any. But at the very least, his story should serve as a cautionary tale for those concerned about what's happening on the domestic front in this war on terror.
Lucas Gutentag of the National ACLU's Immigrant Rights Project believes most people aren't concerned about what's going on with internal security in this nation because they're under the impression that the FBI is targeting and profiling mainly noncitizens.
"It camouflages the full effects of the [Justice Department's] policies because [citizens] don't feel directly affected, " Gutentag said. "But the principles the government is relying on result in the same kind of practices against everyone."
If you don't think it can happen to you in America, just ask Barry Reingold, an average American with a strong opinion.
Emil Guillermo's book, "Amok," won an American Book Award 2000. He hosts "NCM-TV: New California Media," seen on PBS stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.