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Dissent for Coffee

What will it take in the future to attract suspicion? Not much.

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Stories about the FBI and Secret Service becoming suspicious of Pittsburghers usually involve, quite literally, the usual suspects: the left-activists, punks and anarchists whom one would expect to attract attention in a country that touts dissent as a sign of democracy's health while distrusting the dissenters themselves.

But I can't help seeing Jeff Ritter's visit from the Secret Service as a harbinger of our future, with the PATRIOT Act up for extension and the Bush administration touting its warrantless wiretaps of U.S. citizens as an anti-terror program.

Jeff, who lives in Squirrel Hill, is associate professor and chair of the Communication, Media and Technology Department at La Roche College. He plays guitar with the Groove Pilgrims; I play drums. But I had never seen him outside our practice room. When I heard he'd been approached by the Secret Service before Dick Cheney's visit to La Roche last March, I wondered what he had done to prompt it.

His online resume gave me no clue. He's got a bachelor's degree in folklore and a doctorate in American studies from St. Louis University in Missouri. He sounded like an educated Huck Finn, or maybe Mark Twain -- he's also the former editor of Broadside, "The National Topical Song Magazine."

But he must have been very dangerous in his spare time.

"I haven't been to a protest since the anti-mall protest at Hampshire College in 1978, and it was definitely for the beer," he said.

A day or two before the vice president's visit last year, Jeff was trying to get into the college's gym, the site of Cheney's "town meeting" on Social Security reform. Jeff found it closed already. He remembers complaining about it to Ken Service, the college's spokesperson: "They closed the gym so early? What would happen if I had a protest on campus?"

"His joke was, 'You'd be shot on sight.' That's what he actually said," Jeff recalls. "I said, 'OK, I'll see you later.'"

Service says he remembers the conversation but doesn't recall whether he joked with Jeff about the protest remark. He certainly didn't request the Secret Service track Jeff down to investigate, he adds.

But that's what they did.

"I went home, and went down to the Starbucks," Jeff recalls. That's when he got a cell phone call from his wife, who was still at home: "'The Secret Service is here. Did you say something about having a protest at La Roche?'

"I had never mentioned it to her," Jeff says. "I had totally forgotten about it. She told them I was at Starbucks. She figured I'd rather get it over with than them hunting me down."

Before the agent could show up, Jeff says, he went into the bathroom to think over the situation.

"I was a little ambivalent about whether I wanted to talk to them or not," he says. When he came out, he spied the Secret Service agent wondering out loud whether he'd gone to the right Squirrel Hill Starbucks.

"I went up to him and said, 'I'm the guy you're looking for,'" Jeff recalls. He was asked about a possible protest. "So why is it called a town meeting when no one can go?" Jeff says he answered. He told the agent about a course he teaches, called "Media and Democracy," which includes the history of town meetings in New England from the Colonial era to today. He explained about the last town meeting he had attended, in Maynard, Mass., on a high school football field, concerning the merging of local school districts.

"He didn't seem that interested" in such models of democracy, Jeff notes. Instead, the agent asked again about the number of people to expect at the protest.

There was no protest, Jeff said. He had plans to take his grade-school-age kids on an out-of-town excursion during Cheney's visit, he said.

The agent left, but for the next couple of days, among La Roche faculty, "I had a little bit of notoriety," he says. He became known as the guy who had been "ratted out."

Maybe it was someone else on campus who notified the Secret Service about Jeff, Ken Service suggests. After all, he notes, Jeff is "pretty outspoken."

The PATRIOT Act will likely live on. The unwarranted wiretapping of U.S. citizens will probably continue. And finding the men in black at your coffee break may not require speaking very loudly.

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