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Boston Police Caught Spying on Local Peace Groups

ACLU reveals mass of surveillance data on First Amendment activities

Common Dreams staff

Boston police amassed surveillance videos of peaceful protestors (Photo from the ACLU of Massachusetts Report)

Boston police have been caught red-handed spying on citizens engaged in lawful, protest activities. Documents and surveillance videos show local law enforcement routinely monitoring demonstrations and "internal dynamics" of activists groups, even if there is no indication of criminal activity.

The ACLU cites a specific report detailing an anti-war rally at a congregational church featuring the late Boston University Professor Howard Zinn, former city councilor Felix D. Arroyo and war activist Cindy Sheehan. The document was categorized under the label: "Criminal Act: Groups-Extremist."

According to a press release from the ACLU:

The documents reveal that officers assigned to the Boston Police Department's regional domestic spying center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), file so-called "intelligence reports" mischaracterizing peaceful groups such as Veterans for Peace, United for Justice with Peace and CodePink as "extremists," and peaceful protests as domestic "homeland security" threats and civil disturbances.

"The collection of information by BPD contributes to Homeland Security fusion centers storing of details on constitutionally-protected activities being engaged in by citizens", writes Kevin Gosztola for Firedoglake. The officers are said to monitor activities such as "protestors plans to 'pass out fliers promoting their cause,'" and document communication "between officers from BRIC and the Metro DC Intelligence Section during which the officials discuss how many activists from the Northeast attended a Washington, DC peace rally."

"Spying on church groups and peaceful, non-violent, political gatherings violates civil liberties, wastes scarce police resources and doesn't keep us safe," said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

After the BPD initially refused public requests to see their surveillance files, the documents were turned over the to ACLU and National Lawyer's Guild (NLG) when the organizations sued for access on behalf of local peace groups and activists. The files had been retained for years, violating federal regulations that reports must be purged in 90 days if they are not connected with criminal or terrorist activity.

"We are becoming a country with characteristics typically seen in the most undemocratic states—where police and other law enforcement forces assume unlimited powers over the people," said Urszula Masny-Latos, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild.

This comes on the heels of a recent Senate subcommittee report that found regional fusion centers had not “produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts" and, instead, amassed documentation described as "oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and Privacy Act protections."

Along with their report, the ACLU released a video in which they feature individuals who were either targeted or are part of groups that appeared in the “intelligence reports.” They discuss the threatening nature of this surveillance and the growing reluctance and fear against taking part in lawful, first amendment protest.


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