Jen Davison
Members of Peace Fresno were bewildered when they saw the obituary for Aaron Kilner. The photo accompanying the article was familiar: Mid-20s, short cropped hair, and shaggy goatee. But the activists in Peace Fresno, a progressive California-based organization, knew the man as Aaron Stokes, a regular at their meetings and peace vigils. He died in a motorcycle accident on August 30.

What surprised the activists most was that Kilner was identified in The Fresno Bee obituary not as an activist, but as a member of the Fresno County Sheriff's department. Although the sheriff's department has not been forthcoming with further details about how and why Kilner was working undercover to infiltrate a peaceful political organization, activists have pieced together most of the story. They believe Kilner was a member of that area's Joint Terrorism Task Force, a collaborative effort between federal and local law enforcement to track down terrorists.

Over the past several years, most major cities in the U.S., including Portland, have organized Task Forces. The activists in Fresno suspect Kilner was there either to take notes on the group's leaders or, as more paranoid theory holds, to sow seeds of discontent within the group.

For years, activists have complained that Task Forces from Boston to Portland have been used to monitor political groups--usually groups that have no more to do with overthrowing the government than the Lion's Club. But for the most part, FBI and local law enforcement have remained mum about Task Force practices. Though it's just a glimpse into how the Task Force works, Kilner's death confirms activists' suspicions they are being spied on.

This Wednesday, Portland's city council will undertake their annual vote on whether to re-authorize the agreement between federal agents and local police. Last year's vote was a rambunctious affair, with activists packing city council chambers to the rafters. But this year most activists have already resigned themselves to the outcome.

"I think I know how it will go," says Alan Graf, a local civil rights attorney. He adds that because of their shadowy and slippery nature, the Task Force has remained elusive to precise criticisms. "It's a hard position to criticize, because they are so secret," he pointed out. "We really don't know what they are up to."

During last year's public hearing, former police chief Mark Kroeker flashed photos of the burning World Trade Center to illustrate his point that our nation is under siege. The crowd reacted with jeers, many saying that the Task Force is focusing on the wrong groups. Yet in spite of the vocal opposition, most activists believe they no longer have political clout with city hall.

"There's a lot of pressure on city council not to appear to be on the wrong side of this issue," said Dave Mazza, editor of The Portland Alliance, a progressive paper in town. Mazza points his finger at the Portland Business Alliance, a conservative business association that has lobbied city council vigorously for increased police presence downtown.

"They are hearing more from these people than from the progressives," Mazza indicates. "They are in a very powerful position."

A large bulk of political donations to mayoral candidate Jim Francesconi, for example, has come from members of the Business Alliance and other major downtown corporations. "Progressives are simply not in the position to punish city council if they cross us," indicates Mazza.

Newly appointed police chief Derrick Foxworth will also be on hand to issue his first public words on this controversial topic during the Task Force vote. Although Mazza expresses optimism about the homegrown police chief, he does not believe Foxworth is in a position to buck the current powers that be.

"I believe this guy is much more interested in concrete problems," says Mazza, "but to de-emphasize the Task Force, that's a big political leap to make."

Hearings on the Task Force begin on Wednesday at 2 pm at city council chambers, 1221 SW 4th.