SAVANNAH, Ga. -- New Jersey professor Trent Schroyer's activist group prefers round-table discussions to street protests. But when the group rented a conference hall for use next month during the G-8 summit of world leaders, police took notice.
Savannah detectives visited the real estate office that rented out the hall to see the group's contract. They also made calls inquiring about the hall's owners and the Georgia professor who signed the rental agreement.
"We have never had this degree of surveillance," said Schroyer, president of TOES, or The Other Economic Summit, who is a professor of sociology and philosophy at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. "I have no affiliation with any groups dangerous to the country in any way, unless rational discourse is a real threat."
With President Bush and other leaders of the world's economic superpowers coming to secluded Sea Island, 80 miles south of Savannah, for the Group of 8 summit June 8-10, sweeping security preparations are underway, including the gathering of intelligence on dissent groups that are planning workshops, protests, or other gatherings.
Some activists have accused the police of spying and using McCarthy-era intimidation tactics against groups that do not pose a terrorist threat.
But police say that given the violent demonstrations that upset the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, they cannot afford to overlook any G-8 protest groups, no matter how peaceful they seem.
"This is the largest event that's ever going to come to this city in my lifetime, and we can't stand by and assume an event is going to be a nonevent," said Captain Gerry Long, who is in charge of G-8 planning for Savannah police.
Marching through public parks in riot gear, police have drilled in anticipation of thousands of protesters in Savannah, the host city for 5,000 international delegates and journalists during the summit. More protesters are expected in Brunswick, the nearest mainland city to Sea Island.
The Secret Service will be in charge of security during the summit. Governor Sonny Perdue has said the president and his guests will be protected by 20,000 federal, state, and local law officers.
Federal agents will conduct sweeps of vehicles crossing the four-mile causeway to St. Simons Island, which links Sea Island to the mainland. Waterways will be off-limits to private boats and the airspace will be restricted over Georgia's coastline and into South Carolina and northern Florida.
Local police also have been investigating tips about plans for possible protests.
Savannah detectives visited Oglethorpe Speedway Park, a race track in nearby Pooler, after hearing that a local protest organizer wanted to rent the venue for a benefit concert during the summit.
Speedway general manager Ted Austad said he told the detectives he was leaning against the concert. A few days later, he said, Pooler Police Chief Clarence E. Chan also called.
"He just said he had concerns about that event and we might want to take a closer look before leasing it out to that person," said Austad, who backed out of holding the concert.
Kellie Gasink, head of the Chatham County Green Party, accused police of scuttling her concert plans. The local police chief acknowledged discussing the concert with Austad but denied saying anything to dissuade him.
Washington attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, cofounder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, accused police of using scare tactics that make protesters fear for their jobs and make property owners afraid to rent to activists.
"You have law enforcement conducting domestic spying operations, targeting individuals and groups purely based on those persons' political views," said Verheyden-Hilliard, who has sued on behalf of protesters in New York, Philadelphia, and Miami. "It's a McCarthy-era tactic."
Last month, the Progressive Recreation Center, a hall owned by black employees of
"Why are the Savannah police allowed to do that?" said Charles Nelson, manager of the hall, which is separate from International Paper. "We're not doing anything illegal."
International Paper and the Savannah College of Art and Design said they got calls from the police. Professor Margy Betz, who signed the rental agreement for the conference, said she is not sure why police called her college -- its name is not on the contract.
In nearby Garden City, where the professors' group plans to meet, Police Chief David Lyons checked into the TOES conference weeks after Savannah police began investigating. He concluded it is "a fairly peaceful organization."
"Nobody said, 'Hey, these are violent, flame-throwing Nazis coming to town,' " Lyons said.