The FBI's Response To Another Killer Cop Set Free? More Surveillance of Protestors

FBI gives ominous press conference detailing their monitoring of #BlackLivesMatter.

On Thursday, FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano gave a press conference about how his agency was preparing for the soon-to-be announced verdict for Michael Brelo, the white Cleveland Police Officer charged with two counts of voluntary homicide for shooting 49 bullets at two unarmed black victims, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, at least two of which were fatal shots for each victim and many of which were fired as he stood on the hood of their car.

However, Giuliano mentioned nothing about the details of this case or how the FBI may be mandated to investigate the state agents involved depending on the outcome. Instead, he mentioned other activities in which the FBI was engaged in the lead up to the Brelo verdict that are far outside of the FBI’s mandates, and possibly in violation of those mandates, against U.S. citizens engaged in First Amendment activity.

The FBI is charged with investigating Color of Law violations to “prevent abuse of authority” by “law enforcement officers and other officials like judges.” In November of last year, the Department of Justice announced that it had found the Cleveland Police Department guilty of “a pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force.” Considering this, one would think the FBI should have been preparing an investigation into Color of Law violations by Officer Brelo and Judge John O’Donnell, who yesterday announced his decision that Officer Brelo was guilty of no crime, before that verdict was announced. After all, police departments cannot establish patterns or practices of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force without the entire criminal justice system being complicit in such behavior.

If the FBI had any such plan, Guiliano didn’t mention it at his press conference.

What he did mention was that the FBI has been tracking the movements of people protesting these types of miscarriages of justice around the country, and that if the FBI became aware of any of those protesters going to Cleveland, they would tell the Cleveland Police:

When asked about local law enforcement's concerns over protesters coming to Cleveland, Giuliano said, "It's outsiders who tend to stir the pot. If we have that intel we pass it directly on to the PD, we have worked with Ferguson. We've worked with Baltimore and we will work with the Cleveland PD on that very thing. That's what we bring to the game.”

The fact that the FBI is tracking U.S. Citizens engaged in First Amendment activity is problematic, outside of their mandate, and possibly a violation of the law. Furthermore, the methods with which the FBI has lately been caught tracking U.S. Citizens, from warrantless wiretaps, to tracking devices on vehicles, to Stingray cellphone towers and planes have been ruled unconstitutional by an increasing number of courts.

Most concerning was an additional piece of information that Giuliano provided without solicitation:

Giuliano added that the FBI will be a significant support role for security when the [Republican National Convention]  comes to Cleveland:

"I feel very good that this will be a well protected event. I believe Cleveland will be very well prepared.”

In addition to the widespread monitoring of #BlackLivesMatter, it appears the FBI has admitted to using these infiltration measures as a sort of testing ground for the upcoming Republican National Convention next year. Again, despite the throw-away assertions about how the FBI respects "lawful first amendment activity" (it's unclear what unlawful first amendment activity would be), their ethos is clear: prevent unrest at all costs and assuring Cleveland's largely white power classes that everything will be business as usual regardless of how many killer cops go free.

It is now well documented that the FBI embedded an informant named Brandon Darby in activist networks across the country in the lead up to the 2007 Republican National Convention in Michigan to gather intel on, and track the movements of, protesters:

Mr. Darby carried out a thorough surveillance operation that dated back to at least 18 months before the Republican gathering…provided descriptions of meetings with the defendants and dozens of other people in Austin, Minneapolis and St. Paul. He wore recording devices at times, including a transmitter embedded in his belt during the convention. He also went to Minnesota with Mr. Crowder four months before the Republican gathering and gave detailed narratives to law enforcement authorities of several meetings they had with activists from New York, San Francisco, Montana and other places.

Since then, within activist communities it has been considered a given that the FBI embeds informants within local organization in the run-up to large events such as the RNC, and leaves them in place long after these events have left town to collect information and to disrupt organizing efforts in other, more damaging ways.

The chilling effect that spying has on First Amendment activity is hard to overstate. People who worked closely with Brandon Darby said that, “The emerging truth about Darby’s malicious involvement in our communities is heart-breaking and utterly ground-shattering.” The revelation that Darby was a federal informant sent shockwaves through activists circles across the country, not just because he had worked with many groups in various cities, but because it made the idea that other activists with whom we work may be informants, provocateurs, or undercovers that much more real.

After the 2004 RNC was held in NYC, many activists believed that others activists were informants who were involved in protests exclusively to gather information and disrupt. Those who have been deeply involved in activism in NYC since then know that this created a toxic environment for organizing that was, at times, completely debilitating. By planting one confirmed informant and thousands of other seeds of doubt, the FBI effectively limited the ability of activists to peaceably gather and work with those with whom they would otherwise organize, severely restricting the power to plan effective political speech, a crucial component of a healthy democracy.

This brings us to the last mandate that the FBI failed to fulfill and likely violated in their preparations for the Brelo verdict and the 2015 RNC as outlined by Giuliano: the FBI has a mandate to “protect civil rights.” In this case, that would mean actively protecting citizens rights to travel between cities with the intent of engaging in First Amendment activity, not tracking their movements by legally dubious means that have a chilling effect on the First Amendment and conveying those movements to a police force that the Department of Justice has found guilty of a pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force.

Anyone traveling to Cleveland to protest the Brelo verdict is seeking to gather in public space to reproach the government for civil rights grievances. For the FBI to interfere with civic act through their information-gathering techniques and by passing that information to police forces that cannot be trusted to use it without infringing on people’s First Amendment rights is a clear violation of the FBI’s own mandate.

Had the FBI wanted to help keep the peace after the Brelo verdict, they could have lived up to their own mandates to publicly investigate the Cleveland criminal justice system for its Color of Law violations and to protect the people’s right to protest those violations against a proven, unnecessarily violent police force.

Keegan Stephan is a writer, artist, activist, and organizer in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @KeeganNYC

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