‘Our Identity Is Often What’s Triggering Surveillance’ – CounterSpin interview with Brandi Collins on Black Lives surveillance

Janine Jackson interviewed Brandi Collins about surveillance of the Movement for Black Lives for the October 28, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Brandi Collins

Brandi Collins: “This line between mass and targeted surveillance is being erased, particularly as it pertains to communities of color.”


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Janine Jackson: The civil rights director of the Oregon state Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against his employer. It seems the department got a new computer program that lets them search social media, and to test it out, they looked for hash tags related to Black Lives Matter and activism against police violence, turning up a tweet by Erious Johnson, which led his colleagues to start compiling a report on him without his knowledge. Johnson’s lawsuit claims racial discrimination and a hostile work environment for engaging in protected activity.

Well, the vivid irony at the core of this story might be that it all began because one of Johnson’s tweets included the logo of the group Public Enemy, and one of his white colleagues mistook the black man in crosshairs as a police officer, and wrote to his supervisor that Johnson might be a threat to police.

But it’s also a good illustration of how the targeted use of surveillance technology can be a threat both to civil rights generally and to black people exercising civil rights in particular. Joining us now to talk more about the issue is Brandi Collins. She’s the campaign director for media and economic justice at Color of Change, the online racial justice organization. She joins us by phone. Brandi Collins, thanks so much for joining us on CounterSpin.

Brandi Collins: Thank you for having me.

JJ: Color of Change, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, has just filed a lawsuit against the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about surveillance of Movement for Black Lives organizers, but it certainly has broader repercussions as well. What, first of all, do we know about what kinds of surveillance there’s been? What are we talking about here?

BC: You know, I think the kind of scary thing about it is that we don’t know the full extent of it. Most of what we have right now is anecdotal stories. So part of the reason why we started engaging in this work is not only because us at Color of Change and some of our colleagues had had different experiences that they weren’t certain—OK, is this surveillance or not?—but also, directly, things that we were hearing from people in the field, on the ground.

So we were hearing stories of activists being followed around grocery stores and being referred to by the police by their social media handle, not their name. We heard of movement leaders being preemptively identified and arrested before events, hoping to chill the atmosphere of the event. And we’ve heard of multiple attempts—of the police blocking attempts to livestream aggressive police behavior, through use of technology like StingRay, and also working hand in hand with Silicon Valley companies like Facebook to pull down livestreams.

We’ve heard of people being stopped at airports, and I’ve even experienced this myself, my bags being searched through literally every time I’m traveling to DC, in a manner that can’t be random. And then, also, we were hearing stories of people’s phones being tampered with after they were being arrested, often for pretty low-level crimes, like maybe jaywalking or something at a protest, and their phone was confiscated and tampered with and then returned to them.

And so we were hearing all of these things happening across the country, in a way that didn’t feel particularly accidental. So we started investigating both the activities of the police department, but also putting in these FOI requests to see what Department of Homeland Security could find, what the FBI could find, under the FOI Act, and would often hear from them—we’ve had a number of FOI requests that have either been rejected, or they’ve said, we can’t disclose this information, because this person may still be being investigated—about actual activists. So after being blocked at every turn, we finally decided that it was time to file a lawsuit.

JJ: Yeah. And the contentions of the suit include what you’ve just touched on, the idea that this kind of surveillance—some people I’ve heard say, well, it’s not exactly illegal. But it does broach the law, in terms of your First Amendment rights, and also Fourth Amendment rights, and it just seems that there are a number of points that might be made. But what does the suit itself—what are you saying the problems are, legally?

StingRay II

The StingRay device allows police to spy on cell phone calls.

BC: Some of it, as people said, they may think is not illegal per se, but we maintain that some of it is. So, for example, one of the things that we put a FOI request in is on use of StingRay devices. And for those who may not be familiar, StingRay devices are—it’s a device about the size of a suitcase the police are using nowadays, that can vacuum up all the data on your phone. So sites you’ve gone to, your emails, people you’ve called, all of this information. And every time it’s deployed, it can sweep up all of that information off of 10,000 devices at one time, all without a warrant.

And we found that in places like Baltimore, it had been deployed like 4,300 times since 2007, and that it was being disproportionately deployed in black communities. And so to us, one of the things that we’ve maintained is that this is, first of all, this is digital stop and frisk. It’s more scary. So it’s already running into constitutional issues, not just chilling First Amendment rights, which is also important.

But also we believe use of those devices violates the Communications Act. And one reason why is because there’s a study out there that says that every time this is deployed, it actually blocks 911 calls. So that people are not able to call for help, which we think it means that this should be monitored at a higher level.

So not only do we have these FOI requests in, but we also have a notice in with the Federal Communications Commission where we are calling on them to take action as well.

JJ: Right. Well, some of this, I know, is based on some work that was done by George Joseph for the Guardian and The Intercept that talked about the monitoring. And it was interesting, because—we often talk about there’s the law, and then there’s enforcement. And one of the things that was revealed was that it wasn’t monitoring just Black Lives Matters protests, for example, but also a breast cancer walk and also candlelight vigils, but only in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

I want to ask you, what about the role of Facebook and Twitter themselves? Part of what we’re talking about is the monitoring of social media. But social media companies have some role in that, and what has that been?

BC: Right. It’s so funny, because we actually have a number of campaigns right now that are running—which folks can find at ColorOfChange.org—around Facebook and Twitter and their relationship with these companies. One of the things that’s recently been turned up by ACLU Northern California, who we’ve been working with, is that Twitter has had a partnership with Geofeedia. We also—one of our FOI requests that came in found that they reaffirmed that they have a relationship with Media Solar. But these are companies that market themselves as being able to target, track and give police, law enforcement, information about activists based on their social media accounts, and touting the relationship that they have with Twitter and Facebook.

And so it never ceases to fascinate me how we have kind of leaders, in Mark Zuckerberg and in Jack Dorsey, who constantly go out and talk about how much they care about the Movement for Black Lives. We know that this 21st century movement has in some ways been powered by these platforms, and they know that as well. And so they continue to benefit off of black pain, as one would say, without actually doing anything to prevent black folks from being targeted by law enforcement, in fact having a relationship to make that easier. Or doing anything about, for example, the online bullying that many of these activists also endure, which is another issue we’ve been working on.

JJ: It wasn’t a coincidence that the lawsuit that Color of Change and CCR filed about FBI and Homeland Security surveillance, that that came on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. There are certainly analogs, of course, between the Panthers and the Movement for Black Lives, but there’s also this thing called COINTELPRO, and it seems as though it’s almost an unbroken legacy. I wonder what would you tell listeners, or have listeners know, about the connections between history and today?

BC: Interestingly, I’ve been reading this book News for All the People, written by Juan Gonzalez and Joe Torres, and one of the things they talk about in the book was that when Fred Hampton was being assassinated—and a lot of research has shown now that the police and the FBI were working hand in hand to target him, and that it was in fact an assassination by the government against a leader in the Black Panther movement—they actually worked with AT&T to cut off all the phone lines, so that nobody was able to call in or out of the house before they went in. And, in fact, that became a moment which led to the discovery of COINTELPRO as it exists. And once the government was called out and publicly shamed about this, they, quote unquote, “dismantled” the program.

But I feel like what we’re seeing right now in the level of surveillance, how that’s being used, some of the technology—so for example, facial recognition technology is another thing that we FOIed and looked into. And it turns out that 80 percent of the people in the FBI facial recognition database don’t even have a criminal record or any interaction with the law. It’s disproportionately targeted and used and deployed in black communities, and it also is not good enough technology to accurately identify black folks, so they misidentify black folks at a significantly higher rate than other groups.

And so when you look at all of this, and you see all the ways in which technology is coming together, and this line between mass and targeted surveillance is being erased, particularly as it pertains to communities of color, what you see is actually scarier than what was happening in COINTELPRO. There’s a clear through-line in how the government continues to act and chill movements for justice, but I think where we’re heading now is something that could be even worse than what was experienced 50 years ago. And so we filed the lawsuit at this time, not just to remind people of where we were, but also what could be coming on the horizon if we don’t act now.

JJ: It’s very important to say, when you look at the documents, you see law enforcement referring to activists as “threat actors,” and these terms that are very much associated with terrorism. And, you know, when it’s Martin Luther King Day, everyone talks about protests, and it’s this American value, your ability to protest and to speak your mind. When people actually do it, we get a different kind of vibe. And what we’re seeing, it seems, is this equation or conflation of protest—legal, peaceful protest—with crime and with terrorism. And we can see that from law enforcement, but I worry when we also see that in the public conversation, the idea that it’s OK to monitor protests because they are somehow threatening, inherently. And that seems to me like this core conflict about, what do we really value? Everyone says they love the First Amendment; just don’t try to exercise it, it seems.

Martin Luther King at the March on Washington

The head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division called Martin Luther King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.”

BC: Right. It’s fascinating, right? Because even when we talk about—it’s so interesting to hear people talk about MLK today with this level of reverence, and they say things like, well, if Martin Luther King was alive today, he would never stand for this. And conveniently forget that when Martin Luther King, Jr., was alive, he was called by the FBI the most dangerous man in America, or one of the biggest threats to our country, and that’s how he was treated. And he had a huge file on him—as did Cesar Chavez, as did a number of people in the environmental justice movement and the second wave of feminism.

And so what we’ve seen throughout history is the role that the media has played, when convenient, in forwarding a police PR narrative that reinforces the need for surveillance in our community, and conflates safety with surveillance in ways that I think everybody should find alarming.

And so you take a movement—now, the Movement for Black Lives has been very clear that they are for freedom, that what they are talking about has nothing to do with killing police or terrorizing our community. And yet the fact that police officers across the country are being trained to see these activists as terrorist threats speaks volumes.

JJ: And then just, finally, we keep saying, well, it’s chilling, it’s chilling. And I think it’s important sometimes to spell out what that means. There are people who will tell you they might protest, they feel strongly about police violence, for example, or war or, frankly, anything. But they are concerned that if they go out into the street that that will mean that basically a file will be opened on them, and maybe that will impact their ability to get a job or get a mortgage or things like that, and they’re not really off base to think that. So when we say “chilling,” it really comes down to an individual level.

BC: It does and it doesn’t. I think the thing to remember about it is that, again, that line between mass and targeted surveillance is extremely blurred, particularly when it comes to black and brown folks in low-income communities. So, for example, the majority of the buses across the country are equipped with audio and visual surveillance technology. And we know from stats about public transportation that, overwhelmingly, the majority of the people that take public transportation are people of color from low-income communities. So they’re coming under the microscope.

If you’re in a black school or low-income community, there’s chances that there are school employees or security guards that are walking around wearing body cameras. And some of our work, by our partners at Muslim Advocates, have shown that a dizzying level of surveillance takes place in mosques. And we know, in looking back historically, that a lot of surveillance during the civil rights movement took place in churches, where a lot of organizing was happening.

And so this false narrative that our actions trigger surveillance, when in the reality our identity is often what’s triggering surveillance, I think is the thing to keep in mind.

And it doesn’t have to be that way, is the other thing, too. I think what we’re fighting for, and part of the reason why we do the work that we do, is because we believe another world is possible. I have a friend that often says, once upon a time people smoked on planes, and it never seemed like there would ever be a day where you couldn’t smoke everywhere. And some of that changed because we saw that it was a danger to our public health.

And I think that’s the same case that we’re trying to make around the way surveillance technology is being deployed in our communities, and that we do believe that there is another option on the other end if we act now.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Brandi Collins. She’s campaign director for media and economic justice for the group Color of Change. You can find them online at ColorOfChange.org. Brandi Collins, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

BC: Thank you for having me.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.