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100+ Racial Justice Groups Urge Congress to Defund 'Unconstitutional and Dangerous' Police Surveillance

"Use of these tools to monitor protesters is having a chilling effect against those exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and express their views."

A predator drone taxis towards the tarmac for a surveillance flight in Sierra Vista, Arizona. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

More than 100 racial justice and civil liberties groups are calling on Congress to end all federal funding for surveillance technology being used by law enforcement to spy on activists and demonstrators taking part in the ongoing protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

"Use of these tools to monitor protesters is having a chilling effect against those exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and express their views."
—Sandra Fulton, Free Press Action

In a letter (pdf) to House leaders on Wednesday, the groups said present-day police surveillance tactics and abuses evoke memories of "when civil rights protesters were savagely beaten for challenging Jim Crow, and illegal programs like COINTELPRO were established to disrupt the pursuit for civil rights and justice."

The groups demanded that Congress "take action to address the unconstitutional and dangerous use of surveillance by state, local, and federal police officers" by ceasing "federal funding for the surveillance technologies that are being used to militarize our communities and criminalize dissent."

"Black-led movements fighting for racial justice in America have always been met with violence and surveillance by police," the groups wrote. "We are seeing it now in cities and towns across the country as curfews and calls for 'law and order' by dog-whistle politicians encourage police to use aggressive tactics and 'dominate protesters."

The coalition—which includes the ACLU, Color of Change, RAICES, and Free Press Action—pointed specifically to U.S. law enforcement's use of surveillance drones and the Trump administration's deployment of Drug Enforcement Agency officials to protests as part of an alarming "pattern of criminalizing dissent."

To protect the constitutional rights of demonstrators and scale back law enforcement abuses, the groups called on Congress to:

  • Cease any state and local grants that can be used to purchase surveillance technologies by police agencies, absent community consultation, state/local authorization, and safeguards to prevent abuse;
  • Make clear that Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other federal agencies cannot use their intelligence assets for general policing, including surveillance of protests;
  • Prohibit federal funds from being used for mass unwarranted surveillance programs, including the Patriot Act, and technologies that are antithetical to the First and Fourth Amendment; and
  • Close loopholes in existing domestic terrorism and national security laws that are vulnerable to being exploited to target activists and communities of color.

"Millions of people in the streets are demanding dramatic changes to law enforcement, including defunding the surveillance infrastructure and technology that have contributed to the escalation of police brutality," Free Press Action government relations director Sandra Fulton said in a statement. "Use of these tools to monitor protesters is having a chilling effect against those exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and express their views."

In addition to calling for the defunding of police surveillance technology, the ACLU and MediaJustice—two of the letter's signatories—filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request Wednesday demanding documents and information on how the FBI is currently surveilling and investigating Black activists.

"The government has a long, terrible history of using secret surveillance programs to target and surveil Black civil rights activists—a practice that still exists today," ReNika Moore, director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, said in a statement. "Through our FOIA litigation, we're aiming to learn more about the baseless investigations of Black people by our federal government that we know continues to this day."

Read the full letter to House leaders:

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Dear Speaker Pelosi, Leader McCarthy, Chairman Nadler and Ranking Member Jordan:

The undersigned civil rights and civil liberties groups urge you to take action to address the unconstitutional and dangerous use of surveillance by state, local, and federal police officers against demonstrators protesting the murder of George Floyd and so many others perpetuated by systemic police brutality. Specifically, we urge you to cease federal funding for the surveillance technologies that are being used to militarize our communities and criminalize dissent.

Black-led movements fighting for racial justice in America have always been met with violence and surveillance by police, but there have been moments in our history where a spike in tensions have seen increasingly dangerous tactics. We saw this in the 1960s, when civil rights protesters were savagely beaten for challenging Jim Crow, and illegal programs like COINTELPRO were established to disrupt the pursuit for civil rights and justice. We are seeing it now in cities and towns across the country as curfews and calls for "law and order" by dog-whistle politicians encourage police to use aggressive tactics and "dominate protesters."

The First Amendment rights of racial justice protesters are once again being chilled as physical interactions with officers intensify, and increasingly invasive and largely unregulated surveillance technologies are used to monitor, disrupt, and map those that seek to protest abusive policing practices. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drones have been flown above protestors fighting against police brutality. The DOJ has wrongly temporarily expanded the authority of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and likely other federal police agencies, to respond to current protest activities, including allowing them to engage in "covert intelligence." And, FBI agents are reportedly questioning individuals arrested at protests about their beliefs, raising First Amendment concerns. These interrogations appear connected to President Trump's statements indicating that antifa has prompted violence at protests and is a terrorist group. To be clear, President Trump has no authority to make such a designation and there is no evidence to support his theories.

These abuses mirror efforts we have already seen in this administration to surveil racial justice activists—from creating the fictional and dangerous term of "Black Identity Extremists" to surveil Black activists under the pretense that any individual that has a “perception of police brutality and racism” is a threat to officers, to operating a covert surveillance program called "Iron Fist" to specifically infiltrate supposedly "Black Identity Extremist" groups. The FBI has falsely testified to Congress that the bureau is no longer using this term, but documents recovered under FOIA prove the agency continued to target black activists.

Additional leaks have also exposed the FBI for surveilling journalists and those protesting Trump's inhumane border policies as well as monitoring the family separation rallies. The countless streams of videos exposing police officers using excessive use of force against protesters, coupled with the reporting of surveillance tools used to target and identify activists, further underscores that the police are not neutral actors and are being deployed to undermine today's movement for racial justice. This is not about preventing "looting," this is a pattern of criminalizing dissent.

Congress's failure to effectively address systemic police abuse and update privacy laws to protect people from unjust surveillance has allowed us to get to this dangerous point. From the militarization of state and local police agencies to the failure to include significant reforms to massive surveillance programs like those contained in the deeply problematic PATRIOT Act, Congress has failed to take sufficient action to prevent increased surveillance of communities of color and those fighting for equal rights.

It has become abundantly clear that we need a dramatic change to policing in our communities,including divesting from police. This reform must also include dramatic changes to our surveillance infrastructure, which has also contributed to increased militarization and policing abuses. Thus, we urge you to:

  1. Cease any state and local grants that can be used to purchase surveillance technologies by police agencies, absent community consultation, state/local authorization, and safeguards to prevent abuse;
  2. Make clear that Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration,Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other federal agencies cannot use their intelligence assets for general policing, including surveillance of protests;
  3. Prohibit federal funds from being used for mass unwarranted surveillance programs,including the Patriot Act, and technologies that are antithetical to the First and Fourth Amendment; and
  4. Close loopholes in existing domestic terrorism and national security laws that are vulnerable to being exploited to target activists and communities of color.

Protesters are in the streets fighting for the lives of Black people and racial justice in the face of a deadly pandemic that is ravaging our most over-policed communities. Meanwhile, the actions of police are undeniably escalating under a Commander-in-Chief tweeting out calls to get tough and shoot "looters." It is time for Congress to respond with bold plans to protect Black people in America.

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