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Tuesday, May 6, 2003 02:20 pm

The mystery of the street corner spy

Every Saturday for the last few months, Pax Christi Springfield--the local chapter of a national Catholic group--has been holding a noontime "peace vigil" in front of the Illinois State Capitol. Organizer Diane Hughes says these vigils have been held "in solidarity" with antiwar demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and around the world.

Hughes had already secured a permit for last Saturday's vigil, which was to be held in front of the Federal Building at Sixth and Monroe. But then she learned the group would be meeting at the same time as the St. Patrick's Day parade.

"I had thought the parade was at 10 a.m.," she says. "When I found out it was at noon, I called the Springfield police to tell them we'd be out there."

On Saturday morning, the group decided to change locations, moving to the Seventh Street side of the building and out of the parade's path.

"We didn't want to antagonize people," Hughes says. "We didn't want to spoil anyone's fun. After all, it wasn't a Memorial Day parade--it was St. Patrick's Day."

Gathering on the southwest corner of Seventh and Monroe, the group noticed someone in a dark-blue suit standing on the opposite corner. He was taking photographs of the demonstrators.

Peg Knoepfle wondered why: "We asked him who he was, and he said he was a federal officer and it was his job to take photos of all demonstrations."

A longtime peace activist, Knoepfle is co-chair of the Springfield section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, an organization founded in 1915 to oppose World War I. The local WILPF branch began holding regular peace vigils on Wednesdays at the Old State Capitol after September 11, 2001. Knoepfle assumed the officer's photos were intended to identify opponents of the Iraq war. "I'm sure he didn't mean demonstrations about pig farming or abortion."

But no one discovered where the officer was from. Knoepfle says his suit appeared to be a "uniform the same color as the police," but she doesn't think the man was from the SPD. "The police were very accommodating," she says.

The SPD denies knowing about the photographer. "That could be just about anyone," says SPD spokesperson Sergeant Kevin Keen. Calls to the U.S. attorneys' office and the FBI were not returned.

"After it happened I wished I had been more alert and asked him his precise title and under what law he was doing this photographing," Knoepfle says. "Was it the Patriot Act, the Patriot Act II? And I also wished I would have taken a picture of him.

"What happens to the photos? I was part of a permitted, nonviolent demonstration. Why should we be photographed?"

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