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Testimony from Digital Fourth at the Boston City Council Hearing

Yesterday, October 4th, 2023, the Boston City Council approved acceptance of a total of $3.4 million in federal grants for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), “a BPD unit that collects data and video used to fight crime and terrorism – and which maintains a database of Boston residents accused of being members of local gangs.”

BRIC is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s office. It has also been heavily criticized by federal judges in their rulings.

The vote was split 7-5 in favor of approving the grants – the seven white council members voted for it and the 5 members of color voted against it. This is not a mere coincidence, but rather reflects the primary concerns about BRIC and BPD’s targeted surveillance and harassment of people of color in Boston.

Our National Chair, Alex Marthews, gave powerful testimony against BRIC funding. You can watch the full meeting at the link below. Public comment starts at 2:00:10.

A transcript of the testimony given by Alex Marthews is below:

“My name is Alex Marthews…I am the chair of Digital Fourth, we’re a civil liberties organization here in the Boston area. We’ve worked on BRIC issues for 10 years now. We oppose the acceptance of additional grants for BRIC. I’d like to refer back to something Counselor Mejia said. She asked the Commissioner earlier why they should be envisioning getting more funding if they’re having success and crime is down. The response of the commissioner is that BRIC and Boston PD are always behind. Note the argument here: you can bet that if crime were up in the city right now, they would be using that to justify receiving this money. It’s a “Heads they Win Tails we Lose” type of situation. They’re never going to come to the council and say “Things are pretty peaceful right now, we’d be okay with not getting this money.” They’re always going to say that they want more money and more resources for future and possible threats. They make ritual invocations of privacy, civil rights and civil liberties. They offer a narrow conception of discrimination, talking about employment and whether you get locked up. They say, “we’re not intending to vilify people of color in what we do.” There’s never going to be a document that the city council is going to get where Boston BD or where BRIC says “We intend by this policy to vilify people of color.” It’s the responsibility of the city council to understand what the impact of the policies are, on communities of color, on activists, and people more broadly in Boston. The simple truth is…part of what BRIC [does] is identifying threats of mass violence. But there’s not enough, in terms of threatening groups, in terms of terrorist groups, to sustain an organization of 50 plus… people. What we’ve seen over the years is a lot of mission creep – surveillance of protesters and activists, data-fueled harassment of young Bostonians of color, and a lot of what you might kindly call bureaucratic entrepreneurship – to extend the mission [from] being a specific unit to deal with counter terrorism outward towards the things the commissioner was describing – traffic matters, drug enforcement, big events, missing persons. BRIC is a hammer in search of a nail. It does not need this extra cash. It does not need these extra grants. As they have been at pains to say, “crime is down.” And, since 2021, when the city council started rejecting these grants, crime has fallen further…” 

Alex finishes his testimony by explaining the problem of external audits. DHS audits BRIC’s policies, but not their records. No one has ever gotten justice under BRIC’s redress policy. Digital Fourth has worked with journalists and activists that have been surveilled under BRIC and they have never received proper redress. It is not a real policy.