Tracy Molm sometimes has a hard time paying rent, so it came as a surprise when American security forces banged on her door at 7am one morning, and searched her apartment under suspicions she provided material support to a terrorist organisation.
Warrants indicate that investigators believe Molm and at least seven other activists from the Minnesota anti-war committee and other groups provided material support to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), groups the US considers terrorist organisations.
"My assumption is that material support means money and guns, but they [police] wouldn't explain anything," Molm told Al Jazeera. "I think the real thing is that they are trying to intimidate those of us who are standing in solidarity with the people of Palestine and Colombia."
Activists from Minneapolis and Chicago have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigation in October, after coordinated police raids on September 24.
Despite the searches and seizures of computers, cheque books, mobile phones, documents and photographs, Molm and other activists have not been charged with committing a crime.
"The searches were conducted pursuant to a warrant issued by a federal judge," Royden Rice, a special agent with US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Chicago, told Al Jazeera.
"No arrests have been made or charges filed in connection with this investigation," he said, leading activists to call the searches a trolling expedition targeting Americans who object to their government's foreign policy ventures.
More than 200 people demonstrated in Minnepolis on Monday, denouncing the raid, according to the Minnesota Daily, while at least 100 rallied in Chicago on Tuesday to support the anti-war activists. More demonstrations are planned in other American cities and activists expect the numbers to increase drastically, as they only had three days to plan the first round of protests.
"The FBI does not investigate any person or group because of their political views," said agent Rice. "We investigate allegations that federal criminal law has been violated."
'Suppressing political activity'
Bernardine Dohrn, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, thinks the police are trying to do one of two things. "Either it is a fishing expedition, as there is not enough evidence to indict [formally charge] anyone; or it is an attempt to suppress political activity. Neither are good news," she said.
As a legal scholar, Dohrn worries about the vague nature of national security laws instituted after the September 11, 2001 attacks on US targets.
|US anti-war protests have gotten smaller since the Iraq war began in 2003 [GALLO/GETTY]|
"If you write articles, is that material support [for terrorists]? If you contribute resources for computers or healthcare clinics in occupied territories, or territories resisting government control, is that material support?"
She says grand jury investigations, the legal manoeuvre activists are facing, represent a way to "circumvent other constitutional protections."
People who appear before a grand jury "cannot bring in a lawyer. It is the prosecutor, you [the person being investigated] and a group of grand jurors … in short it is a coercive method to get information."
Jessica Sundin, a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota, also had her belongings taken by security forces in the coordinated searches and seizures. Like Molm, she denies providing material support to any group and says she has done nothing illegal or unethical.
She believes that the "biggest task of our anti-war movement [in the US] is to educate our own people."
Visit to an occupied country
In that spirit, Molm and other American activists travelled to Palestine in 2004 to see the conditions there for themselves. "Every day people [in occupied lands] go through checkpoints with guns pointed at their heads and they have this horrendous situation, but they continue to live and laugh," she said.
"The occupation of Palestine is as brutal as it is because US tax dollars, my tax dollars, support that. Sending people there to bring back [personal] accounts and pictures is important to building solidarity."
Israel, the power responsible for occupying Palestinian land, received $2.55bn in American military aid in 2009, according to the US State Department. That number is expected to increase to $3.15bn per year from 2013 to 2018.
"I don't know why it would be a crime to have a scarf with the Palestinian flag on it, but they [police] took that," she said.
As for Colombia, the country has received at least $5bn in US military aid since 1999.
Amnesty International USA, a human rights group, said it "has been calling for a complete cut off of US military aid to Colombia for over a decade due to the continued collaboration between the Colombian Armed Forces and their paramilitary allies."
Justifying terror cash
Rather than a vast attempt by security forces to intimidate critics of US foreign policy, the searches may have a simpler motive: an excuse for police to justify the massive infusions of federal cash they received under the pretext of 'fighting terrorism.'
"In Minnesota [the state containing Minneapolis where most searches took place] a lot of money was put into anti-terrorism efforts," says Sheila Regan, a reporter with the TC Daily Planet who has been covering issue for a local audience.
|American police have received large injections of public money for the 'war on terror' [AFP]|
"It has one of the biggest terrorism bureaucracies anywhere; they [security forces] need something to do to justify their salaries," she told Al Jazeera.
Like other subpoenaed activists, Molm works for a group called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had been critical in organising major demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam back in the 1960s and 70s.
Dohrn was a national leader of the group from 1966-70 and has direct experience with the grand jury subpoenas which a new generation of activists is now facing.
"When I was called before a grand jury and refused to collaborate … I went to jail and was released eight months later by the same judge, who said 'apparently there is no evidence against you.' It is a strange way to have to prove your innocence."
Back in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, a few US activists did travel to Vietnam to see the affects of B52 bombers, toxic Agent Orange and support for the western-backed government in South Vietnam.
Jane Fonda, the former activist and work-out video queen, famously stood next to an anti-aircraft gun with North Vietnamese communists, and decried the US for what she called its "illegal" bombing campaign against the country.
New activist tools
But today, travelling to places which face foreign military interference - Palestine or Colombia, Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen - is far easier, due in part, to technological innovations and the cheap prices for transportation fostered by global capitalism.
Travel makes human connections easier. And activists in the US say they are struggling to educate average people about injustices committed, in their name, in places far from Minnepolis or Chicago.
When Molm went to Palestine in 2004, she says the American media were not at all interested in the public talks she gave or the "injustices" she witnessed. “Now I have major media stations asking what I saw there. Now I can talk about home demolitions and [Israel’s separation] wall.”
On this front, she says, the grand jury subpoena may prove helpful in the battle for the hearts and minds of average Americans.