Criminalizing Dissent: Civil Society Organizations Demand Inquiry into Domestic Surveillance of Political Activists
By Danielle Kerem
Over the past year, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed new details about the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security’s suspicionless surveillance of domestic advocacy groups. Significantly, the FOIA documents suggest that Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, School of the Americas Watch, and the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline movement were targeted based on these organizations’ First Amendment protected views rather than for valid law enforcement purposes. In light of the growing evidence of federal agency interference in constitutionally protected political activity, Restore the Fourth has joined with sixty seven other civil society organizations in calling on Congress to launch an investigation into the nature of, and justification for, F.B.I. and D.H.S. monitoring of non-violent activists and organizers.
The letter and petition, addressed to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, offer an outline of the F.B.I. and D.H.S.’s surveillance activities in relation to the four abovementioned advocacy groups. Evidence gleaned from the recently released documents indicates that in the aftermath of the police shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, both the F.B.I. and D.H.S. routinely tracked the physical movements and social media accounts of Black Lives Matter protesters – even soliciting intelligence on a planned, peaceful demonstration at the Mall of the Americas from a confidential informant. In recent years, New York City’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk program as well as expansive surveillance of Arab and Muslim Americans (whereby the NYPD spied on at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 retail stores, two grade schools, and two Muslim Student Associations in New Jersey alone) offer additional examples of communities of color disproportionately shouldering the burden of arbitrary law enforcement surveillance.
As the FOIA documents further detail, the F.B.I. – leveraging the agency’s counterterrorism authority despite acknowledging School of the Americas Watch’s peaceful organizational mission – actively monitored and infiltrated the human rights group. Similarly, in the absence of any suspicion of criminal activity, the FBI also surveilled and interrogated climate change activists coordinating efforts to oppose the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The federal government does, of course, have a lengthy history of targeting racial justice advocates and political dissidents, a history that extends back to the F.B.I.’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Established in 1956, COINTELPRO instituted a destructive regime of government surveillance, infiltration, and covert action aimed at obstructing and discrediting diverse expressions of domestic dissent. Martin Luther King Jr., in addition to other prominent civil rights leaders, was relentlessly surveilled and harassed by government agents in an effort to silence critiques of racial and economic inequality. Reverend Jesse Jackson, commenting on COINTELPRO’s onerous impact on civil rights advocacy at the time, remarked:
“When you have this feeling that the government really is watching you, you know, taps your telephone, maybe in your text files, it has a chilling effect. It takes away your freedom. And often for leaders, none of us are perfect, it neutralizes people.”
In spite of the renewed commitment to the protection of citizens’ First and Fourth Amendment rights that emerged out of the landmark findings of the Church Committee’s 1975 investigation, the F.B.I. and D.H.S.’s persisting surveillance of citizens engaged in lawful political expression highlights the continued need for greater transparency and oversight to mitigate the chilling effect that surveillance overreach has on political participation and counter the erosion of Americans’ civil liberties. A congressional inquiry into the revelations of government spying on Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, School of the Americas Watch, the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline movement, and other non-violent political activists is a key step towards ushering in the legal and institutional reforms needed to prevent the misuse and abuse of law enforcement power.