Why Some Black Activists Believe They're Being Watched by the Government


The home of activist Patrisse Cullors was raided twice last year by law enforcement in Los Angeles. During one raid, officers told Cullors they were looking for a suspect who had allegedly fled in the direction of her house. But neither time did Cullors believe the officers had a strong rationale for invading her home. 

Instead, Cullors told Mic, she believed the raids were devised by police in response to the public campaigning of Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization Cullors founded that advocates on behalf of incarcerated people in Los Angeles. She also believes similar surveillance methods are used to monitor many black activists today.

"Surveillance is a huge part of the state's role. Surveillance has been used for a very long time, but some of the means, like social media account monitoring, are new," Cullors, who is also a cofounder of Black Lives Matter, told Mic. "Local enforcement surveils by tracking the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which allows law enforcement to show up at actions before they begin." Mic has reached out to the Los Angeles Police Department for comment.

Recent statements by FBI deputy director Mark F. Giuliano may give credence assumptions like Cullors that black activists are being watched. During a press conference on May 21 prior to the acquittal of Michael Brelo, a white Cleveland police officer involved in the shooting death of two unarmed black people, Giuliano addressed the potential for continued protests in response to the verdict. 

"It's outsiders who tend to stir the pot," Giuliano said. "If we have that intel we pass it directly on to the [Cleveland Police Department]. We have worked with Ferguson, we've worked with Baltimore and we will work with the Cleveland PD on that very thing. That's what we bring to the game." Mic has reached out to the FBI's Office of Public Affairs for comment.

John Minchillo/AP

A history of black surveillance: The "game" Giuliano is referencing — namely, the intricate workings of what some law enforcement units, like New York Police Department, employ in response to counterterrorism and protests — is not novel. Black movements have historically been watched by the state, and black activists have long been surveilled in response to their organizing. Half a century ago, J. Edgar Hoover used his powers as the FBI director to spy on black activists; as part of the counterterrorism COINTELPRO program in the 1960s and '70s, the FBI tapped phones and embedded spies in organizations and movements, including the Black Panthers. It is also now well-known that Martin Luther King, Jr. was extensively monitored by the FBI. 

"American history explodes with examples of state surveillance of black people and black activism," Harvard University historian Tim McCarthy told Mic. "From the Fugitive Slave Law and prohibitions on abolitionist 'propaganda' to black codes and wiretapping and the militarization of the police, the state has always employed diverse mechanisms of control in a deliberate effort to derail the long black freedom struggle. 

"Even the notion of U.S. citizenship itself has been a site of policing based principally on race, from the birth of the nation to the age of Obama."

FBI files on black activists like James BaldwinLorraine HansberryAmiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)Lucille CliftonW.E.B DuBois and Louise Thompson Patterson have recently been made public, as part of the FB Eyes Digital Archive. But despite the preponderance of evidence regarding state surveillance of activists in the past, it can be difficult to prove the existence of actions many activists assume are taking place in the present.

Potentially supporting their claims, however, are current surveillance protocols of security firms and local police departments. In March, for example, the Intercept obtained documents revealing that security members at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, monitored local Black Lives Matter activists by using a fake Facebook account to "befriend them, and obtain their personal information and photographs without their knowledge." 

Mall of America has previously declined to comment on the Facebook monitoring. Mic has reached out to Mall of America's public affairs department for comment.

While unconfirmed, measures that some activists assume are currently taking place, such as using activists as informants in movements, have been reported before. The New York Times reported the FBI used an Austin-based activist as an informant to provide details about potential protests leading up to the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, for example, though the FBI has yet to confirm or deny the allegation.

Personal stories: Some activists across the country, such as Ash-Lee Henderson, a black organizer from Tennessee, have personal testimonies of surveillance. Last year, Henderson participated in a series of direct actions in her hometown of Chattanooga led by Concerned Citizens for Justice, a grassroots organization that fights for black liberation and an end to police crimes, criminalization and mass incarceration. The actions were designed to bring attention to various forms of state-sanctioned violence, including police abuse, affecting black people across the country.

Henderson was arrested while participating in a protest on the National Day of Protest to End Police Brutality in October 2014. After her arrest, she recalled learning about a private Facebook group created by police officers in Tennessee and those supportive of police called "Police Lives Matter." 

"Police and their family members were constantly making threats and mean-spirited jokes [aimed at activists] on their page," Henderson told Mic. She said one police officer made a meme of her, which meant her image had been shared among other officers and that they would now know her by name and likeness. She obtained another meme of a different image of herself shortly after, and became more convinced that activists were being watched.

Henderson suspects she'd been targeted for speaking publicly about police abuse — a suspicion exacerbated by a series of events following her arrest. "During a day of action in December, my mother and 3-year-old niece were followed by the police from our church to my house (about a 30-minute drive), because they were in my car." Henderson said she believed "the police were attempting to see where our next action was. In the month of December alone, members of our leadership team were pulled over and harassed by police officers at least once a week in two different states."

The Chattanooga Police Department told Mic, "While we do not routinely follow specific hashtags, we do review all forms of publicly available information when current or anticipated events warrant it. We will continue to make every attempt to stay informed of potential exercises of free speech in an effort to supply activists, marchers, organizers and citizens with a safe environment to express their views."

Interference: The public must consider the long history of state surveillance and suppression of black movements as a specific problem of anti-black state violence and racial profiling. 

At stake is the extent to which state surveillance measures, whether they mean social media monitoring or following specific activists' actions, violate activists' First Amendment Rights, particularly the right to peacefully protest. Keegan Stephan writes at AlterNet, "For the FBI to interfere with civic act through their information-gathering techniques and by passing that information to police forces that cannot be trusted to use it without infringing on people's First Amendment rights is a clear violation of the FBI's own mandate."

Despite potential surveillance, activists are determined to continue their work. Their continued quest for liberation should encourage contemporary activists following their example.

"These allegations will not curtail the movement and only provide further evidence of the embedded institutional inequities," Monica Dennis, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in New York City, told Mic. "Furthermore, our movements are rooted in the black radical traditions of resilience and creative resistance which simply means we are capable of quickly adapting and shifting despite external efforts to disrupt our organizing."