From the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter, surveillance technology has changed but the targets have remained the same. The excuses used to justify spying on Black social movments remain strikingly similar throughout the decades. Now, the very tools that movements have used to organize themselves – technology and social media – are being used against them. For Black History Month, teleSUR looks back at the ever-present state surveillance of Black social movements.
Black History Month
The FBI’s infamous “counterintelligence program,” or COINTELPRO, was originally set up as a secret intelligence program in the 1960s as a way for the state to target those who they deemed as dissidents. At the time, this included radical Black movements, such as the Black Panthers, but also included Black artists and musicians.
The program was used to break up these movements, which were commonly seen as a threat to the social, racial and political status quo of the state. According to British scholar Arun Kundnani, racially based surveillance stretches beyond COINTELPRO.
Kundnani draws on a number of examples throughout history where racial groups, from Native Americans to Black slaves, were constructed as “others,” and so surveillance was justified to help maintain the status quo. The application of surveillance in recent history “is inseparable from the history of U.S. colonialism and empire,” according to Kundnani.
“It is racist ideas that form the basis for the ways national security surveillance is organized and deployed, racist fears that are whipped up to legitimize this surveillance to the American public, and the disproportionately targeted racialized groups that have been most effective in making sense of it and organizing opposition,” he wrote in a report.
Again, this trend continues in response to present-day Black social groups. Spawned from a viral hashtag, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged following a jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. As the movement’s struggle against police brutality and killings of people of color has grown in prominence, so too has surveillance of the group by authorities.
Following the deaths of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD and Michael Brown at the hands of a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrations by the group created national and international waves. Many have also pointed to these two events as what spurred closer spying by authorities.
Recent examples show that surveillance of the movement is widespread across the U.S. and involves bodies from city police forces to federal organizations. Last year, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Security were met with a lawsuit by a group of human rights lawyers after authorities failed to release information regarding their surveillance of Black Lives Matter members.
According to the lawsuit, state surveillance has violated protesters' privacy and freedom of speech and has targeted members based on their race and politics. Police were also accused of using phone surveillance on activists, who they identified as “threats.”
The lawsuit was purposefully filed on Oct. 15, 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. The Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the groups which helped file the suit, noted that current monitoring and surveillance is strikingly similar to how COINTELPRO was used against the Black Panther Party.
Another lawsuit shows similar echoes to surveillance of civil rights groups in the 1970s. Decades ago, the ACLU sued the Memphis Police Department for surveying civil rights activists, and the MPD was slapped with a federal decree in 1978. Now, Black Lives Matter activists have been subject to a watch list by the same police department. Names, race, gender, body types and photographs of known activists from the movement are all part of the list. While the department has justified the list on security reasons, lawyers argue it infringes the civil rights of many activists.
In New York, there have been similar fears that police have been creating watch lists of “dossiers” on peaceful protests, including the “die-in” protests held at New York’s Grand Central Station following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police.
In a victory for the movement, however, the NYPD was ordered by a court to hand over surveillance video from both uniformed and undercover officers who filmed protesters. Those behind the lawsuit said that the surveillance could be a violation of their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The police even said that turning over the videos could jeopardize their terrorism investigations and claimed that some of the protesters could have links to terrorist organizations.
Recently, surveillance has also taken a more subtle form, targeting the very tools that have helped facilitate the organization and Black Lives Matter movement throughout the U.S. and beyond: social media.
In October, the ACLU uncovered how the world’s popular social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, funneled their user data into “Geofeedia,” a controversial Chicago-based social media monitoring company, which has been supported by the CIA.
A host of law enforcement agencies from around the U.S. used the Geofeedia to access the personal data of potential “threats” in the hope that they could stay steps ahead of protestors. The company uses the “data firehose” of social platforms to sift through everything from text, photos, messages, likes, followers, GPS locations and demographic information.
While Facebook, Twitter and Instagram revoked access to Geofeedia following the ACLU investigation, social media platforms still collect user data and sell it off to third parties for marketing and advertising.
Many have become increasingly wary that any user's supposedly private data can be easily manipulated without them knowing. In many cases, this can happen by consent, but also unknowingly, when users update their social media applications to the latest version without being fully aware of how the application will use their information.
“When it comes to suppressing insurgent tendencies among Black people, the National Security State and the Mass Black Incarceration State share a common mission, no matter which side of the duopoly is in power,” Black Agenda Report's Glen Ford wrote in January.
Trump, his supporters and state jurisdictions throughout the U.S. have demonstrated their disdain towards protests movements such as Black Lives Matter with policies in support of “Blue Lives Matter” and a rhetoric of “All Lives Matter.”
Ford explained that while the Obama administration had already been watching Black Lives Matter activists and Trump is expected to be hostile to the movement, the state as a whole has always sought to suppress such movements, no matter what party controls the White House.