Activist group exposes undercover officer
By JEREMY W. STEELE
The State News
University police used an undercover officer to
investigate a student activist group that was not charged
with any crime, a top department official admitted in
response to inquiries by The State News.
Members of Students for Economic Justice, an officially
registered campus group, said MSU police Officer Jamie
Gonzales posed as elementary education junior Samantha
Volare to take part in group meetings and activities for
months beginning on Feb. 19, 2000. Group members uncovered
the officer after she was seen on campus in uniform.
In its response to a Freedom of Information Act request by
The State News, the Department of Police and Public Safety
denied having records or other documentation regarding
investigations of the student group.
But MSU police Assistant Chief Jim Dunlap said in a
written statement that an investigation was ordered
because officials were concerned a scheduled visit by
World Bank President James Wolfensohn to speak at
commencement could spur violence from protesters.
A December 1999 protest at a World Trade Organization
meeting in Seattle and April 2000 protest of the World
Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington led to
thousands of arrests.
Several students involved with Students for Economic
Justice took part in those protests.
"Concerns were alleviated, and no further need for the
approach has been required," Dunlap said in his statement.
"Undercover investigations into student groups are seldom
conducted here. Indeed, no others have been similarly done
But history senior Michael Krueger, a member of Students
for Economic Justice, said police have no reason to fear
the group or its members, although some were arrested for
civil disobedience during the Seattle and Washington
Students for Economic Justice, formerly known as United
Students Against Sweatshops, has focused much of its
attention on protesting labor practices of university
apparel-makers. The group has not had a significant run-in
with police during its existence.
"This is happening to a group really trying to do a good
thing," Krueger said. "I wouldn't consider USAS radical -
we work for workers' rights, like a union."
Gonzales, a five-year veteran of the force who now serves
as the Brody Complex community policing officer, was
pictured in the March 15, 2000, edition of The State News
protesting with the group. She identified herself as
Gonzales declined to comment about her role in the
Police have a sordid history of targeting political
activist groups with undercover officers and other
surveillance, said Henry Silverman, president of the
Lansing chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and
a retired MSU history professor.
Silverman said he found something "creepy and
reprehensible" about the recent behavior of MSU police.
"I remember going to meetings of faculty to protest the
war in Vietnam and university police took photographs of
faculty," he said. "This was one of the lowest points of
police action to sort out 'radicalism.'
"This is another incident of when police crossed the
line," he said of the recent tactic.
The retired professor, who spent 37 years as a university
employee, said students should have an unrestricted right
to form groups and have protests.
"These aren't criminals," Silverman said. "If they do
something to break they law, they certainly should be
"It sends a terrible message to students about their right
to protest. Students ought to be outraged by this type of
behavior by police."
MSU President M. Peter McPherson, who spent most of the
weekend in Minneapolis at the Final Four, urged members of
Students for Economic Justice to take their concerns to
the university's Police and Public Safety Oversight
Committee. The committee of students, faculty and staff
members addresses complaints issued against the police
department or its employees.
"In the context of the particular issues raised, it is
crucial that we be mindful that at a university,
especially at a university, the marketplace of ideas must
be free and open," McPherson said in a written statement.
"I personally have a commitment to ensuring the rights of
our students to assemble and to discuss, without
impediment, issues and matters of concern."
The president has met with members of Students for
Economic Justice several times since the group was formed
to discuss university apparel labor issues. He most
recently met with the group March 27.
But despite the protests of members of Students for
Economic Justice, the use of undercover - or "plain
clothes" - officers is common practice for many police
agencies and sometimes the best way to combat crime, said
Chief Deputy Vicki Harrison of the Ingham County Sheriff's
The county police force often uses such tactics to
investigate stores or restaurants accused of selling
alcohol to minors, although Harrison didn't recall any
recent cases similar to MSU's.
She said undercover investigations are a proactive
approach to prevent crime, rather than simply
investigating after a crime has occurred.
"I've always been of the mindset that if you're ashamed to
have somebody know what you're doing, don't do it," she
said. "Clearly it's not an abuse of power and it's not a
setup. That's not their role and there are laws against
that. They're not encouraging or enticing anyone to do
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