Cycle Killer

Why is the city putting the brakes on the Derailer Bike Collective?

The FBI was looking for a different type of criminal altogether on July 22, 2004, when two agents showed up at Villa Villekulla with four Denver police officers in tow. Bardwell was in the shop out back when she heard a commotion, then heard a friend call her name.

The men who identified themselves as FBI agents were wearing button-down shirts over what looked like bulging, bulletproof vests. Two of the Denver police officers were dressed in standard uniform, Bardwell remembers, and the other two were outfitted in black SWAT gear with bulletproof vests. "Both of the SWAT guys had six guns each," she says. "One under each arm, one on each hip, and one on each thigh." The officers gathered four residents of the house and two friends on the front porch.

The wheels keep turning: Sarah Graves helps a 
young cyclist fix his bike.
Anthony Camera
The wheels keep turning: Sarah Graves helps a young cyclist fix his bike.
What goes round comes round: Sarah Bardwell 
founded the Derailer Bike Collective.
photos by Anthony Camera
What goes round comes round: Sarah Bardwell founded the Derailer Bike Collective.

The agents asked the residents if they knew of anyone planning any criminal acts during the Republican and Democratic national conventions that were soon to be held in New York City and Boston, respectively. Bardwell, who was 21 years old at the time, says she didn't even know anyone who was planning on going to the conventions.

One of the residents saw an officer open a folder that contained photos of people who lived in the house. The agents asked for the residents' names, but everyone declined to give them. Bardwell remembers one agent saying that their "non-cooperation" meant that he was going to have to use "more intrusive efforts" to get his job done. But when she asked for their identity, the FBI agents and police officers also refused to give their names and badge numbers.

For the next 35 minutes, the front-porch gathering was at a stalemate. The agents and police asked vague questions about posters and artwork hanging in the house -- What do they do inside the house? Who lives here? -- and the residents declined to answer. Eventually, the officers left.

The next day, Bardwell went to her job as an intern at the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker-based peace and social-justice organization, and told her boss what had happened at the house on Lipan. She put Bardwell in touch with Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. Silverstein took the matter public, calling the FBI stop at 1065 Lipan an "intimidation tactic" by law enforcement to discourage activists from legally expressing dissent. An FBI spokesman described it simply as an "ongoing FBI investigation with the Joint Terrorism Task Force."

Two weeks later, the New York Times ran a front-page article detailing how the FBI, in conjunction with local law-enforcement agencies, was questioning political demonstrators across the country in an effort to forestall potential violence at the conventions. Their targets came from lists that various law-enforcement agencies had created to identify individuals or groups that might participate in, or have knowledge of, dangerous actions. But civil-rights advocates argued that the broad inquiries amounted to harassment.

The story quoted Bardwell and included a photograph of her with Graves and two other friends. After that, Bardwell was interviewed by media outlets nationwide and mentioned in publications as far away as India.

Silverstein thought the intelligence-gathering methods being used violated the agreement that the Colorado ACLU had reached with the City of Denver in 2002 to put an end to the DPD's controversial "spy files," which included intelligence on thousands of peaceful protest groups, political activists -- and average citizens. The DPD has two detectives assigned to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was created in 1997 to coordinate efforts between the federal government and state and local officials to combat domestic terrorism, and the ACLU noticed that some documents they'd obtained during the spy-files discovery indicated that the JTTF was collecting information from the DPD on political activities and associations. These included local groups such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, the Denver Justice and Peace Committee, the Rocky Mountain Independent Media Center and the Human Bean, which imports fair-trade coffee from indigenous farmers in Mexico.

"'Domestic terrorism' is blowing up federal buildings in Oklahoma City," Silverstein says. "Attending a non-violent protest is not 'domestic terrorism.'"

In the fall of 2004, ACLU offices across the country coordinated a joint Freedom of Information Act request delivered to the FBI in Washington, D.C., asking for documents that would shed light on these investigations. That December, Silverstein filed another FOIA request with the FBI in the names of ten individuals and sixteen organizations, including Sarah Bardwell, the Derailer Bike Collective and Food Not Bombs. The heavily redacted documents they received in response show that Derailer was a subject of interest to the FBI as early as October 2002, when their old location at the Spot served as a welcome center for out-of-town protesters who'd come to demonstrate at the Columbus Day Parade. "Several people were observed inside making posters," an agent's report noted.

Other documents point to Bardwell as a contact for a March 2004 anti-war protest organized by Coloradans Opposing War at the downtown Federal Building, at which three people were arrested.

Still more records obtained by the ACLU show that three agents staked out the now-defunct Breakdown Book Collective, at 1409 Ogden Street, for a meeting of Revolutionary Anti-War Response, a group planning to head to an anti-war protest in Colorado Springs. The agents took down the license plates of at least twelve vehicles.

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