Originally publised on Medium.com.
Whether you ride public transportation every day to and from work or drive your own car.
Whether you go to a public school with security guards or an upscale private school.
Whether you pray in a mosque or at a church.
Whether you conduct your personal business on an old android cell phone as your only access to the Internet or on your rose gold colored MacBook.
Whether you or someone in your network has used the term #BlackLivesMatter.
These are not innocuous throwaway details about your everyday life, but rather a handful of carefully chosen factors that can determine whether you’re more likely to be surveilled. They are all also factors that are inextricably and tacitly linked to race, class and cultural identity. The narrative perpetuated by the media and law enforcement revolves around the belief that actions and behavior are the elements that trigger targeted surveillance. But the lived experiences of me and those in my community have proven that it is your identity, not your behavior that triggers surveillance.
The history of surveillance of movements for equity in this country and recent revelations about the actions of the FBI and Homeland Security bears out this truth, and just in the last few weeks, we’ve seen that this false narrative play out in a variety of ways. It was revealed that at the end of June, in what seems to be little more than an effort to intimidate activists of color the FBI and DHS went door-to-door in Cleveland questioning Black activists and other activists of color about their plans to engage in protected First Amendment activities at the upcoming Republican National Convention.
A few months ago at a public event, a high ranking FBI official told an audience that the Director of the FBI keeps a copy of COINTELPRO order — the surveillance program started by J. Edgar Hoover to track and degrade the civil rights movement — mounted in his glass desk. Supposedly, this is to remind the Director of what can happen when the FBI possesses a culture of political control. But from what has been revealed about the FBI’s surveillance of Black activists, it is clear that they have not learned from past mistakes. They continue to possess that same philosophy and lack the necessary restraint to avoid treating Black political activity as a national security threat.
Since Michael Brown’s death, the catalyst for the modern movement for Black lives, the FBI, and Homeland Security have repeatedly been caught using anti-terrorism resources to monitor and surveil the protected speech activities of members and participants of Black Lives Matter. And now, we are seeing significant efforts by these agencies to find new and creative ways to criminalize Black lives by making their practices of surveillance more secretive and requiring far less legal justification. Agencies have created non-disclosure agreements that hide local law enforcement’s use of ‘StingRay’ devices against protesters, pushed for Privacy Act exemptions that would bar civil rights challenges to their racially discriminatory facial recognition database, and used social media monitoring software to label Black activists as “threat actors”.
These recent revelations have led us to fear that the current surveillance of the Black Lives Matter movement is more coordinated, extensive, and systematic than has been reported, and that it is intended to silence the demands of Black activists and related movements. What we are witnessing is a very explicit form of surveillance happening at all levels of law enforcement, and it will require a coordinated effort to expose and rein in. We at ColorOfChange, in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights, are taking action to expose the surveillance tactics of the communities we represent so that we can better protect them and ensure that Black people can engage in safe activism.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), ColorOfChange and the Center for Constitutional Rights have jointly filed a FOIA request demanding documents and communications on the surveillance of Black-led protests from across the country. Our FOIA requests include access to a broad range of information on the surveillance of Black activism including the protests Minneapolis following the police-caused death of Jamar Clark, and the protest in Chicago following the release of dash camera footage of the police-caused death of Laquan McDonald.
Our goal with this project is to inform the public narrative around what surveillance actually looks like for people of color. Because being Black is not a crime and neither are acts of political dissent or protest. Most of all, none of these things are terrorist activities that justify being monitored or repressed by counterterrorism units.
With this project, we hope to expose a greater extent of the surveillance of our communities and lay the groundwork for policies that protect the rights of people of color.
Brandi Collins is Campaign Director at Color Of Change working on Media, Economic and Environmental Justice.