On Tuesday of this week, it was revealed that the Criminal Justice Division of the Oregon Department of Justice has secretly surveilled Oregonians who use the Black Lives Matter hashtag — including the state’s own director of civil rights, Erious Johnson. This is deeply disturbing and offensive — and it is a serious threat to our democracy.
Surveilling people based on their political ideas undercuts the fundamental freedoms that our country was founded on. If people can be targeted for speech and activities protected by the First Amendment, then they will be reluctant to speak or write openly about their beliefs. And let’s not miss that this surveillance is targeting people who use #BlackLivesMatter on social media throws open the door to racial profiling because the movement is Black-led.
We have serious questions for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum: How did this happen? At whose direction? How long has this been going on and how many Oregonians have been caught up in this likely illegal surveillance? How can we ensure that this will not happen again?
Political, racial, or religious minorities cannot enjoy the equality and dignity afforded them by the Constitution when they are routinely subjected to discriminatory profiling and surveillance by the government. History has taught us that many levels of government employ invasive, and at times unconstitutional, surveillance tactics. Now, it seems the Oregon’s own Justice Department is also involved in unconstitutional surveillance of its citizens.
The government has a long history of targeting activists. Ninety years ago, it was foreign "subversives" and labor organizers. Sixty years ago, the targets were government employees, entertainers, writers, and academics suspected of being Communist "sympathizers." In the ’60s and ’70s, the targets were anti-war protestors and civil rights activists. Post 9/11, the targets were Muslims, people of Middle Eastern and Arab descent, and “radical” environmentalists. And now the Black Lives Matter movement is the latest target.
This is not the first time law enforcement in Oregon has been caught surveilling innocent people. In the 1970s, we uncovered Portland Police investigations of the ACLU of Oregon and many other nonprofits and community groups. This discovery led us to help pass a law in 1981 — the only law of its kind in the country — that prohibits our state and local police from collecting information about the political, religious, or social views of any individual or group unless that information directly relates to a criminal investigation.
Having a good law on the books is clearly not enough. We need meaningful oversight of law enforcement intelligence activities to make sure these important safeguards for our freedoms won’t be ignored again. The simple act of expressing concern about racial justice on social media should not be enough to trigger information gathering by the Oregon Department of Justice. (I can’t believe I had to just write that sentence.)
We hope this situation is limited in scope and the revelation allows our state attorney general to make reforms that prevent this from ever happening again. Although we hope for the best outcome possible, we are not waiting on the sidelines to see what happens.
We signed on to a letter from the Urban League of Portland and others encouraging Oregon’s Attorney General to take immediate action and support a full and transparent investigation into these activities. Oregonians need to know the full extent of the state’s involvement in this likely illegal and racially based surveillance. In addition to calling for an investigation, we are preparing to file records requests we hope will help reveal the scope of the program and who else has been caught up in this dragnet.