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Police Targeted American Indians 

Spy file info on civil-rights group provided to Denver intelligence cops

Colorado Springs police monitored the local activities of an American Indian civil-rights group in the early 1990s and provided the information to the Denver Police Department, which included the reports in its controversial "spy files."

The information, contained in records obtained by the Independent, comes in the wake of the revelation last month that Springs police helped Denver police spy on local peace activists in the late 1990s.

Records from Denver's intelligence files show that Colorado Springs police also passed along information involving the American Indian Movement (AIM), which was active in the Springs at the time, in 1993 and 1994.

According to one document, Colorado Springs police told their Denver colleagues of a possible plan by AIM to use explosives against developer Lyda Hill, who was building a visitors center at the Garden of the Gods, which some American Indians considered a sacred place. The previous year, Springs police had also informed Denver that AIM members might be planning a dramatic "disturbance" to protest against local businesses selling Indian artifacts.

Neither action ever took place, and a leading member of AIM's Colorado chapter, Glenn Morris, says the reports were fabrications.

The extensive monitoring of American Indian activists by Denver and Colorado Springs police was unwarranted and illegal, Morris maintains.

"We believe it's a violation of our constitutional protections," he said.

Council wants answers

The records are part of at least 300 pages that the Denver police kept on AIM as part of the "spy files," whose existence became publicly known last spring, sparking a furor and a federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

As it turned out, Denver police had kept files on some 3,200 groups and individuals -- ranging from Libertarian Party to Tyranny Response Team to Right to Life activists -- many of whom had done nothing more than participate in constitutionally protected political activism.

The files label some organizations as "criminal extremist," including the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

The ACLU argues in its lawsuit that keeping files on law-abiding protesters creates a "chilling effect" on their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.

Last month, the Independent revealed that Colorado Springs police had helped Denver police gather intelligence on local peace activists in at least one instance.

In April of 1999, Springs police wrote down the vehicle license-plate numbers of some 30 people attending a peaceful demonstration at Peterson Air Force Base in southeast Colorado Springs and passed along the information to Denver detectives, who incorporated it into their intelligence files.

Several members of the Colorado Springs City Council have since expressed unease about such spying and have demanded an explanation from the police department. As of press time, police had not provided them with a report, and no planned public hearing had been scheduled.

Meanwhile, the Colorado chapter of the ACLU has filed a subpoena in federal court asking to see what intelligence files Colorado Springs police may be keeping on activists or may have shared with Denver police.

Springs police have denied keeping files on peaceful activists unless criminal activity is suspected.

This week, CSPD spokesman Lt. Skip Arms said police can no longer comment on the matter, because the subpoena means it is now subject to litigation.

Explosive allegations

In 1993, AIM activists picketed Colorado Springsarea businesses that sold Indian artifacts, due to concern that some artifacts may have been taken from gravesites or might otherwise be sacred.

But Colorado Springs police reported to Denver that AIM members might be planning a more dramatic action: "They are going to 'arrest' a Colorado Springs business which deals in Indian souvenirs on June 19th, by going to an unannounced location and causing a disturbance by shoplifting artifacts, hoping for national attention," states a report dated June 11, 1993.

Another report, dated March 21, 1994, focuses on a controversy then brewing over the construction of a visitor center at the Garden of the Gods. Some Indian tribes opposed the project, saying the park was sacred and a possible ancient burial ground.

According to the records, a local Indian activist turned informer, Cahuilla Red Elk, who was involved in a dispute with AIM leaders in Denver, told thenColorado Springs City Attorney Jim Colvin that AIM members led by famous activist Russell Means were planning to use explosives against developer Hill.

Morris said the Colorado AIM leadership wasn't even that involved in the Garden of the Gods debate. "It wasn't an issue that was really on our radar screen."

Red Elk could not be reached for comment.

The records also state that Colorado Springs police got their hands on internal correspondence between AIM leaders regarding the Garden of the Gods dispute.

"Springs will make copies available to us," Denver police wrote in the report.

No crimes committed

The Denver Police Department's files on AIM span a 16-year period, from 1986 through 2002. Though Colorado AIM members have sometimes been arrested during political demonstrations in that period, none of the arrests led to a conviction, Morris says.

"There's not one incidence of criminality in those files," he said.

By now, police should have figured out that AIM isn't a criminal group, and the files on the group should have been destroyed, Morris argued.

Morris claims the surveillance of AIM by Denver and Colorado Springs police violates not only the group's First Amendment rights, but also the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because American Indians seem to have been singled out as particularly worthy of monitoring.

Government spying on AIM dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the group was a primary target of COINTELPRO, a secret FBI program designed to monitor, infiltrate and destabilize civil-rights groups and other activist organizations perceived as "radicals."

After becoming publicly known in 1971, the FBI program was investigated and condemned by a U.S. Senate committee in 1973 and supposedly killed.

Morris, however, says it's clear monitoring of AIM has continued to this day.

"We do not believe it ever stopped," he said.

-- tlangeland@csindy.com

  • Spy file info on civil-rights group provided to Denver intelligence cops

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