If you want to know how strange it's getting in America, talk to Barry
Reingold is a 60-year-old retired phone-company worker from the Bay
Area who's old enough to withdraw from his IRA without penalty.
His parents are Jewish. But Reingold prefers to be known as your basic,
Reingold works out every day at a gym in San Francisco, and has done
so for the last six years.
Since Sept. 11, he's been exercising not only his muscles but also his
right to free speech. Reingold recalls conversations he's had with people
in the weight room about the war.
"It gets pretty heated," he told me over the phone last week. "People
say what dogs those terrorists are. But I've said, 'Look at what a
dog George Bush is.'"
That's not exactly a popular position to take these days.
"Look at all the hundreds of thousands of workers being laid off
in the United States," Reingold continued. "This war is not
just about getting terrorists. It's also about money and corporate
Ahem. This is the kind of talk that gets people's heartbeats racing
even without a Stairmaster.
"People question my loyalty," Reingold continued. "They
say, 'You don't support America.' And I say, 'Sure I do. I work here.
I was born here. I pay taxes. I just have a problem with the ruling
Reingold's not sure, but he's next to positive that his First Amendment
workout got him a visitation from the FBI.
The FBI, you will recall, has begun knocking on the doors
of an estimated 85 people in the Bay Area who are among 5,000 in the
nation singled out as
"potential witnesses." They are men ages 18-33 who possess
visas and passports from Arab and Muslim countries where there are
known Al Qaeda operatives.
As it turns out, the list of 5,000 is a much smaller subset of an even
larger group of people being interviewed. From Sept. 11 to November alone,
the FBI received more than 435,000 tips.
And, as Reingold found out, you don't have to be Arab or Muslim to get
nominated for a house call.
"I have a speaker downstairs in my apartment building to let people
in," Reingold said. "One afternoon, someone buzzes. And I
said, 'Who's there?' And they say, 'The FBI.' And I'm thinking, 'Why
is the FBI here?'"
He buzzed them into the building and met them in the hallway. There
were two young men, one white, one black, apparently in their 20s. Reingold
asked them for ID, and the two flashed him their badges.
"And so I asked them what this was all about," Reingold recalled.
"And they asked me if I was a member of the gym [in San Francisco].
And I said yes.
"And then they said someone in the gym had reported that I had
been talking about terrorism and Sept. 11, oil profits, capitalism and
Reingold said. "And I said, 'Oh, really.'"
Reingold didn't think about calling a lawyer. "At the time, I was
sort of shaken up," he admitted to me. "If I were in my right
mind, I probably would have met them outside the building, where I
could have witnesses for all to see this. Or at least have pencil and
paper to take the agents' names and notes."
But he didn't.
"And then the FBI guy said, 'You know you have the right to freedom
of speech,'" Reingold recalled. "And I said, 'Yes, I know
I do, don't I? And that's the end of the conversation. I don't wish
to talk to you any further.'"
What did they say to that?
"That they had to write a report," said Reingold. "And
I said, 'I'm sorry.' And they said, 'But we really have to write a
report.' At that point I just closed the door, and that was it."
The agents didn't force the issue, nor were they coercive. But Reingold
was bothered and upset. Here he was, just a regular guy expressing his
opinion. You know, one of those freedoms we are supposedly defending
in the war.
Reingold confronted the gym about his privacy having
been violated, but the gym manager at the 24 Hour Fitness Center on
Folsom Street in San Francisco never officially responded. When I called
the club, manager Chris Robinson responded to inquiries with a chilly, "No
The only thing Reingold has done to date is file an affadavit with an
attorney to commemorate the FBI visitation. It wasn't until then that
he understood the true nature of what had happened to him.
"It's like we're becoming a police state," Reingold
Reingold firmly believes that had he been Arab or Muslim, it would have
been much worse for him. He's certain he would have been taken in for
more vigorous questioning, maybe even jailed. Then, he said, he'd have
to decide which was worse, fascism or racism.
Reingold isn't sure what recourse he has now, if any. But at the very
least, his story should serve as a cautionary tale for those concerned
about what's happening on the domestic front in this war on terror.
Lucas Gutentag of the National ACLU's Immigrant Rights Project believes
most people aren't concerned about what's going on with internal security
in this nation because they're under the impression that the FBI is targeting
and profiling mainly noncitizens.
"It camouflages the full effects of the [Justice Department's]
policies because [citizens] don't feel directly affected, " Gutentag
said. "But the principles the government is relying on result
in the same kind of practices against everyone."
If you don't think it can happen to you in America, just ask Barry Reingold,
an average American with a strong opinion.
Emil Guillermo's book, "Amok," won an American Book Award
2000. He hosts "NCM-TV: New California Media," seen on PBS
stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle