America's Least Trusted
How a Clermont stripper ended up under FBI surveillance
Tabby Chase works nights as a dancer at the Clermont Lounge, so she was asleep the morning of Thurs., March 17, when she says FBI Special Agent Dante Jones called her.
Chase says she didn't know what the FBI wanted. When she awoke, it was late afternoon, and she had five messages from three numbers. She says each was from Jones, telling her the FBI needed to ask some questions.
Chase is tall and thin, with hair buzzed to about a quarter-inch, except for long blond bangs that routinely fall in her face. She describes herself as a flaky anarchist, somebody who has an inherent distrust of government and big business but who is "terrible at outreach" and "not involved in any organizing."
She says she has never been arrested, and her FBI file confirms that. The file, which CL obtained from the ACLU, is five pages long, but three pages were withheld. It reads like a rap sheet with no raps. Chase's age, Social Security number, and history of participation in various human rights groups is detailed.
The FBI declined to talk to CL about its investigation.
After Chase received the messages from Jones, she called her friend Ken Driggs, a lawyer with the DeKalb County public defender's office, who set up a meeting with the FBI. The next day, Chase and Driggs went to the FBI's Atlanta field office in Decatur. Three agents — Jones and two other men — met them.
Driggs says the meeting lasted for an hour-and-a-half.
"When it broke up," he says, "the language was, 'You have not satisfied our concerns; you are likely to hear from us again.'"
Chase says it took awhile to get to the point. "First they brought out a sheet that they were filling out with my personal information. They wanted to know my full name. Where do I live? Do I have any tattoos? Then they started asking me who I date and who I live with."
After questioning her for 20 minutes about her personal life, Chase says the agents finally told her that somebody had informed them she was planning a trip to Iraq. They said they were concerned she might be a domestic terrorist.
Chase isn't alone. In July 2003, Marc Schultz, who was an Atlanta bookstore employee at the time, wrote a first-person account published in this newspaper about being questioned by the FBI after somebody reported him for reading an article titled "Weapons of Mass Stupidity" in a Caribou coffee shop. Since Sept. 11, 2001, local human rights groups such as Atlanta WAND, the Georgia Peace & Justice Coalition, and School of the Americas Watch have complained about increased monitoring. And earlier this month, President Bush confirmed that in 2002 he authorized the National Security Agency to conduct wiretaps without first acquiring a warrant.
Though Chase's case differs from the NSA monitoring in that it was another agency watching her, and one that apparently did not use a wiretap, her experience speaks to the intensity — some say wastefulness — of the government's homeland security initiatives.
Yet for Chase, showing up on the FBI's radar wasn't a complete shock. She concedes that some aspects of her life could appear suspicious, if viewed through a certain lens. She doesn't have a car, a driver's license, or a bank account. Tabby Chase isn't even her birth name. She was born Jeanette Helen Winsor but changed her name five years ago when she moved to Atlanta. Chase made the change after she and her mother, who has the same name, had a falling out.
Then there's Chase's professional life. As an exotic dancer, she does draw attention. Before she worked at the Clermont Lounge, Chase worked as head dominatrix at the Chamber, the now-defunct S&M club. She also models for S&M photos posted on the Internet.
Finally, there is Chase's protest work. In February, Chase traveled to Washington, D.C., to work for a group called Action Medical Research at President Bush's 2005 inauguration. Chase says she was a "street medic," someone who dispenses first aid at progressive rallies and marches. Chase says she also worked as a street medic at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004.
What troubled Chase wasn't that the FBI was asking questions. It was what prompted them to ask that bothered her.
In the summer of 2004, Chase had been kicking around the idea of joining Circus2Iraq, a group that performs for children in war-torn countries. But she says she couldn't scrape together the money for a plane ticket and, after hearing that several members of the group were killed while in Iraq, decided against going. She never got around to applying for a visa. "I said [to the agents] that I didn't even have a passport, and they said that they knew that."
Driggs described the questioning as "testy."
"My take on the whole thing is that it had to do with her politics," Driggs says. "Tabby has strong opinions."
Gerry Weber, legal director of the Georgia ACLU, says that Chase's case is evidence that the federal government is casting too wide a net in its war on terror.
"They are investigating folks who have no realistic threat of being involved in terroristic activities," Weber says. "They're targeting citizens who are doing nothing but exercising their right to free speech."
The most damning line in the released portion of Chase's FBI file states: "WINDSOR [sic] is a member of the INDUSTRIAL WORKS OF THE WORLD."
Chase says she is a member of a group called the Industrial Workers of the World, whose biggest ambition, according to its website, seems to be reducing the length of the standard workweek.
"The IWW is one of the country's oldest unions," Chase says. "They'll take anyone. They're the only union that takes strippers. That's why I joined. For a while I was thinking about organizing the strippers in Atlanta, but I ran into some hostility when I was trying to do it."
After the meeting, the FBI appears to have continued its investigation of Chase.
Santiago Velasquez, a photographer who has known her for more than two years, says agents tried to contact him the next day.
Because Chase didn't have a bank account or credit card, Velasquez says he had agreed to buy her a cell phone and pay the monthly bill, provided Chase reimbursed him in cash. Velasquez says three FBI agents wanted to know about the cell phone.
"They asked me how much I knew about [Chase], and I said, 'Well, I know she's not much of a fan of George Bush, but who is these days?'" Velasquez says. "They said to me, 'Mr. Velasquez, do you expect us to believe that you would take out a cell phone for somebody and risk your credit history without knowing anything about their politics, their religion or personal beliefs?' One agent said, 'Well, maybe you should find out a little more about your friend, delve a little deeper.'"
Chase and Velasquez say they haven't heard from the FBI since. And while Chase says that, at the time, the experience caused her a lot of stress, it now seems almost comical.
"During the interrogation, they kept asking me my political affiliation," Chase says. "And one of them would interject every so often, 'This is the United States of America, you have the right to believe whatever you want to believe. We just need to know what that is.'"