Black Lives Matter has captured the attention of the nation and exhilarated the conversation on criminal justice in the United States to the point that presidential candidates have addressed their concerns on the national stage.
But activists are now worried that the government may be a bit too interested in their movement and they may be under surveillance.
DeRay Mckesson, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, recently pointed out this issue while conversing with Edward Snowden on Twitter—a decision that probably didn’t make the government lose interest in Mckesson.
The concern is not new, as The Intercept was able to obtain evidence in the past year showing both the Department of Homeland Security and the NYPD have spied on Black Lives Matter activists. However, a conversation over what to do about surveillance is growing, and certain activists are beginning to take steps to battle it. The types of surveillance can range from undercover cops attending protests, law enforcement watching the social media of the group’s leaders to the FBI doing surveillance of protests from planes.
“We’ve gone places, in St. Louis and especially Baltimore, and the police instantly know who we are,” Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, told The Daily Beast. She said she’s been concerned about surveillance since the end of last year, and she and Mckesson have been labeled as “threat actors” by a cybersecurity firm for unknown reasons. She’s worried that her phone has been acting up since the end of last year, and now assumes her electronic devices are compromised.
Elzie said she’s seen many activists face issues from law enforcement watching their social media.
“I know, for quite a while, people in the movement have changed up how they tweet or don’t say certain things, because we’ve seen that police are arresting people for months-old tweets about potential violence,” she said. “They’ll arrest them for inciting violence at a protest three months later.”
Dante Barry, the executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, told The Daily Beast he’s heard many activists express concerns over surveillance in the past year.
“I think activists and organizers are aware that they’re being surveilled and have been surveilled since protests started,” Barry said. He said he’s seen cops showing up to protests with printouts of certain activists’ social media accounts--a strangely antiquated system.
Activists are looking over their shoulders. There are pregnant pauses during phone conversations as sentences get edited in real time. Twitter statuses are deleted or drained of their fervor.
Barry and other activists pointed out the NYPD has engaged its counterterrorism units to watch Black Lives Matter protests, and New York police commissioner Bill Bratton has been criticized for talking about Black Lives Matter as if it’s a terrorist group.
Putting activists under surveillance as if they are assumed criminals concerns civil rights experts like Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. She said activists will speak out less and possibly protest less if they know they are under surveillance. “Protest is a part of what makes America’s democracy robust,” Choudhury said. “We shouldn’t let the government do things that we think are going to chill that kind of free exercise of political thought and speech.”
“When government surveillance chills people from expressing their First Amendment rights, then we have a constitutional problem,” she added. Choudhury also pointed out that since many of the Black Lives Matter activists are black, the surveillance efforts could lead to racial profiling.
Many activists have been learning how to communicate securely, including learning about encrypting emails and texts. Snowden highlighted the importance of this in his Twitter conversation with Mckesson.
ColorOfChange.org, a progressive nonprofit civil rights organization, is starting to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to dig into the surveillance issue. The organization recently started the process, and plans to send them to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. They also plan to file public information requests with police departments across the country, from New York to Oakland.
The Department of Homeland Security told The Daily Beast it “does not provide resources to monitor any specific planned or spontaneous protest, rally or public gathering” and that it “fully supports the right of individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
“We’re living in sort of a COINTELPRO 2.0 time, where movements are being tracked in a severe way, but there’s only so much we know,” said Brandi Collins, the media justice director at ColorOfChange.org. She pointed out they do know over 80 percent of police departments use social media for investigations.
The organization plans to learn as much as it can about who’s under surveillance and the technology being used for monitoring their movement . The possible widespread use of the Stingray device, a machine that imitates a cellphone tower and collects metadata from nearby phones, was one of the concerns raised by civil liberties groups when it was discovered planes have done surveillance over Baltimore and Ferguson protests. It is known law enforcement often equips planes with Stingray devices to get phone data from citizens.
Collins and her colleagues want to use the information they get to inform activists if they are under surveillance and to possibly question the legality of some of the surveillance being done. Free speech is less free when it’s constantly monitored, and so activists are learning how to work the system.
“Use of surveillance, historically, has always been framed as being about public safety, when often we’ve seen it used as a form of social control,” Collins said. “It’s a way to make activists look at each other and question each other, and it’s a way to break down movements.”