Recently released documents reveal the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the Black Lives Matter movement since summer 2014, following the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the surveillance includes keeping tabs on protests, gatherings, peaceful marches and social media activity.
Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Intercept, DHS released memos, emails and other documents indicating that the department frequently collects information, including location data, on Black Lives Matter activities even activities that are expected to be peaceful. “The reports confirm social media surveillance of the protest movement and ostensibly related events in the cities of Ferguson, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and New York,” according to The Intercept.
The documents came from DHS’s Office of Operations Coordination, which combines information from intelligence and law enforcement agencies to provide “situational awareness” among its agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In an email to The Intercept,DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee said the department does not intentionally infringe upon the rights of citizens under the First Amendment and only seeks information for “situational awareness” purposes.
For example, according to The Intercept report, “a high-importance Joint Intelligence Bulletin created by the FBI and sent to DHS officials noted that ‘a review of social media suggested that an unidentified group planned to conduct a First Amendment-protected event to protest the death of Freddie Gray.’ The bulletin claims that it ‘is not intended to associate otherwise protected First Amendment activity with criminality or a threat to national security, but instead is included only for the purpose of providing situational awareness of activities that may lead to violent action ‘”
“What they call situational awareness is Orwellian speak for watching and intimidation,” said Baher Azmy, a legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, to The Intercept. “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 Black Lives Matter movement has strategically employed social media to disseminate information and coordinate protests, as a rapid-response infrastructure capable of immediate deployment to address Black priorities.
“It is concerning that the government would be diverting resources towards surveilling citizens who are assembling and expressing their First Amendment rights,” said Maurice Mitchell, an organizer with Blackbird, a group that helps support activism against police violence in communities across the country, in the report. “The fact that our government is doing this I can only assume to disrupt us is pretty alarming. … Directly after 9/11, people said, ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about.’ Well, now we’re fighting back against police brutality and extrajudicial killings, yet they are using this supposedly anti-terrorist infrastructure against us.”
This isn’t anything new, however. In fact, many feel this is a continuation of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO surveillance operation, which spied on and disrupted activities of the Socialist Workers Party, the Black Panther Party and Dr. Martin Luther King for years in an effort to “infiltrate, disrupt, sabotage, and destroy activist movements for ethnic justice, racial emancipation, and real economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines.”
Although Lee said in his email thatthe department “does not provide resources to monitor any specific planned or spontaneous protest, rally or public gathering,” some of the documents show that the DHS has produced minute-by-minute reports on protesters’ movements in demonstrations. And, according to reports, at least 400 DHS officers were on hand at recent protests in Baltimore following the police killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
DHS also used Google Maps to create maps of planned activities in order to visualize protest activity and coordinate with federal, state and local law enforcement, often through minute-by-minute monitoring of protesters’ locations.
In an interview with Mother Jones,Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, says that while this type of surveillance may not be illegal, “it may have significant chilling effects that do infringe on people’s rights.”
“There’s no question at all that the kind of mapping identified by the documents provided to The Intercept chills people’s First Amendment-protected activities,” she says. “Of course it makes people feel afraid to go to these kinds of protests because of the impact it might have in terms of law enforcement’s ability to gather intelligence about them.”
With the ever-present distrust of police, these revelations of surveillance by DHS have added fuel to conspiracy theories that, if not true, have the perception of being very plausible. For example, some are saying that Sandra Bland, who was killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop in Texas last month, was an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, and that it is entirely possible that upon checking Bland’s license, the police officer obtained information about her social media postings, affiliations or political activity.