Human Rights

Black Activists Know Feds Are Monitoring Them, Yet Refuse to Be Intimidated

Not much has changed since COINTELPRO and the Black Panthers.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com

When Erika Totten returned to protesting in the DC area after taking a few months off last winter, law enforcement officers were waiting to greet her.

"We’ve been looking for you,” she recalls officers at several protests telling her. “We wondered where you were. We haven’t seen you in a while." Totten can’t remember what law enforcement agencies the officers were from. After a while, they all began to look the same to her.   

Totten, who is a member of the Washington, DC Black Lives Matter chapter, believes she is being monitored by the feds, but has decided not to worry about. A recent report from The Intercept made it even clearer.

The Intercept reported:

The documents, released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Operations Coordination, indicate that the department frequently collects information, including location data, on Black Lives Matter activities from public social media accounts, including on Facebook, Twitter, and Vine, even for events 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.

They also show the department watching over gatherings that seem benign and even mundane. For example, DHS circulated information on a nationwide series of silent vigils and a DHS-funded agency planned to monitor a funk music parade and a walk to end breast cancer in the nation’s capital. 

And while surveillance of the Black Lives Matter movement is likely to increase now, especially in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson in the past few days, anyone who was around in the '60s and '70s knows that groups fighting for justice and liberation for black people are often the target of such monitoring. 

“For many of us who know history, we know this isn’t new,” Totten told AlterNet. “So, now we are seeing the same thing, like COINTELPRO in the Black Power movement."

For those who need a history brush-up COINTELPRO was the acronym (standing for COunter INtelligence PRograms) for a series of secretive and illegal FBI programs aimed at destroying domestic political organizations including the Black Panthers that lasted from 1956 - 1971.

Larry Fellows III, one of the more active protesters in Ferguson last year, said reading The Intercept report left him with the impression that the government seems peace protesters as national security threats.

 

“They made it seem like we were domestic terrorists,” Fellows III said. “We’re just basically showing up in cities protesting and I don’t see that as terrorism at all.” Taurean “Sankofa" Brown, a community organizer in Durham, NC, who goes by his nickname, says his first experience with police monitoring came a few years ago in downtown Durham. He and two friends noticed the cops stopped a car full of black and brown youths. The three men stopped to observe the officers in case they became aggressive. Immediately, another cruiser rolled up on them and an officer began video recording. The cops didn’t say a word and neither did Brown and his friends. The cops eventually let the car full of young men go after 15 minutes, and the cops who were recording video also left the scene.

Brown is known on Twitter for starting the hashtag, #WeWillShootBack, which advocates for black people to take up arms and defend themselves against racists who target them. Though he never encourages anyone to initiate violence, Brown knows his style of advocacy can be viewed as extreme and can draw the scrutiny of law enforcement.

Like other activists who spoke with AlterNet, he says he doesn’t let the possibility of being monitored get to him.

“Not really. There is nothing I can do to be truly safe here,” Brown told AlterNet. “I don’t fear death. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m not encouraging it, but I don’t fear it. The only thing I do fear is that my personal involvements will affect my loved ones. So, I have to worry about those kinds of things. That’s why I never really talk about my personal life. People don’t know my relationship status, where I truly live, how many brothers I have, these things. I try not to leak any of that information.”

While no federal or local law enforcement agency has openly admitted to spying on the Black Lives Matter movement, documents obtained by The Intercept show that the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring protests since the Ferguson uprisings. The department has been collecting data from activists’ social media accounts and watching gatherings that were deemed peaceful.

What some find disturbing about DHS surveillance of the Black Lives Matter movement is that the department was created primarily to fight terrorism. 

A DHS spokesperson told The Intercept that the department does not monitor any specific protests or gatherings, but documents provided to the national security site clearly show it has monitored many of them over the past year.

In a report, private security firm ZeroFOX identified protesters Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie as "high" severity, "physical," and "#mostwanted" threats during the Baltimore protests earlier this year. It also monitored more than 250 “actors” and “influencers” during the protests. The firm said is provided the city with a security assessment pro bono. A spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told Mother Jones that several of its official systems were the targets of cyberattacks. He would not comment further, citing "the existence of confidentiality agreements.”

The Associated Press reported in November that the NYPD sent detectives to Ferguson to collect data on “professional agitators” to prepare for the protests following the Eric Garner grand jury decision that December.

The monitoring of the Black Lives Matter movement reminds many activists of the 1960s, when COINTELPRO began keeping tabs on black organizations. The Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party, among many others, are referred to as “hate groups” and “anti-white” in COINTELPRO documents. The program was initially set up to disrupt the activities of the U.S. Communist Party, but expanded to what it deemed “black extremist” activities. One field report dated March 15, 1968 details the dues members paid per month and other financial issues of the New York City branch of Nation of Islam. 

Before the program was ended in 1971, it also sought to “foment discord between H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael,” according to a memo dated April 11, 1968. Another report (page 13) dated March 4, 1969 says that the program “has aggressively pursued a policy of disrupting and neutralizing the local chapter of the Black Panther Party in San Diego through Bureau-approved counterintelligence maneuvers.”  

For Erika Totten, the monitoring of Black Lives Matter is just history repeating itself. 

“It comes with the work that we’re doing,” she said. “We understand the threats. We understand the risks. These risks aren’t new. We’re educated enough to know that this is a part of history. It’s a tactic. We’re not surprised. We’re going to continue to keep fighting.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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