Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

FBI, Homeland Security Sued Over BLM Surveillance Records

A lawsuit has been filed against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for not releasing information regarding surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters and activists.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law filed the suit, stating that DHS has been unlawfully collecting information on peaceful BLM protests.

“Surveillance undertaken by Defendants and LEAs [law enforcement agencies] to monitor MBL [Movement of Black Lives] activities has relied on tactics and measures commonly reserved for counterterrorism and national security related purposes,” the suit states.

Further, the surveillance violates First and Fourth Amendment rights to free speech and assembly and privacy, respectively.

Attorneys also argue that protesters are being targeted based on their race and political viewpoints. According to the suit, surveillance began during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. After Ferguson, the FBI and DHS have continued working with law enforcement to monitor other protests across the country. The suit mentions Chicago, California, New York and Baltimore as other sites where the monitoring took place.

“Such monitoring is reminiscent of the surveillance of the Black Panther Party, which was a target of the FBI’s notorious illegal COINTELPRO program,” the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement.

Related Story: Police Tracked BLM Protesters Through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: ACLU Report

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Color Of Change, which is an online network dedicated to racial justice.

“Despite their denials, it is clear the Department of Homeland Security and FBI are continuing their disturbing legacy of employing secretive surveillance tactics with murky legal parameters to chill the Movement for Black Lives, along the way targeting individuals in a number of terrifying ways,” said Brandi Collins, campaign director for Color Of Change.

“Just like in decades past, fatal police shootings of Black people continue with alarming frequency, as does the unlawful government surveillance of those who speak out against it and protest,” said Omar Farah, staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The public has the right to know how and why the federal government is surveilling constitutionally protected activity in response to police violence.”

The group filed the lawsuit last week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, on October 15, 1966.

Given the racial tensions that have escalated over the past several years, the lawsuit states, “it is imperative for the public to understand the extent to which Defendants are surveilling the very movement and individuals that have pushed this discourse into the spotlight.”

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report revealing that law enforcement used social media to track activists and protesters during the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. Police received information from Geofeedia, a social media surveillance vendor that had special access to specific feeds on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Information including posts, topics, events, locations and photos was available to over 500 law enforcement agencies in real time.

The ACLU cautioned that while technology can often be used in a productive way to advocate for social justice, access like Geofeedia’s can be easily exploited.

Surveillance ‘a tool of fear’

An exclusive report from The Intercept last year reported that DHS had been monitoring protesters’ activity since Ferguson. According to the report, DHS had been monitoring social media accounts to track protests — even ones that were predicted to be peaceful. A DHS FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) “WatchOps Officer” was able to gather information via Twitter and Vine to create a map of “conflict zones” in Ferguson in August 2014.

At the time The Intercept was publishing its report, a DHS spokesperson said the department “is limited to providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture for the federal government, and for state, local, tribal governments as appropriate, in the event of a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster, and ensures that critical terrorism and disaster-related information reaches government decision-makers.”

Despite this response, The Intercept reported that “some of the documents show that the DHS has produced minute-by-minute reports on protesters’ movements in demonstrations.”

Further, the meaning behind “situational awareness” holds certain implications, according to Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“What they call situational awareness is Orwellian speak for watching and intimidation,” he said. “Over time there’s a serious harm to the associational rights of the protesters and it’s an effective way to chill protest movements. The average person would be less likely to go to a Black Lives Matter protest if the government is monitoring social media, Facebook, and their movements.”

The counterterrorism surveillance tactics use power by creating a sense of fear, according to Maurice Mitchell, who works with Blackbird, an anti-police violence activist group.

“Surveillance is a tool of fear,” Mitchell said. “When the police are videotaping you at a protest or pulling you over because you’re a well known activist — all of these techniques are designed to create a chilling effect on people’s organizing. This is no different. The level of surveillance, however, isn’t going to stop us. After all, we organize because our lives depend on it.”

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