Who gets the privilege of being paranoid?
For a Black Muslim woman in America, surveillance is no conspiracy.
I learned about Jamar Clark's death in the middle of the night, when a friend texted me. He told me that police had shot somebody in the head while he was in handcuffs, and said, “We're coming to pick you up.”
This November marks the six-year anniversary of that police killing, which happened on Minneapolis's north side. I lived on the opposite end of Minneapolis at the time. The drive from my place to where Clark was killed must've taken at least 20 minutes, but it's a blur to me. Me and this friend, with whom I co-founded the Black Liberation Project, a grassroots collective of Black youth, after protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, were some of the first protesters to arrive on the scene. At the time, we didn't know who had been killed. While people speculated about the details of the shooting, firefighters came out and sprayed down the sidewalk. I heard people say they were washing away blood.
Clark's killing sparked an 18-day protest outside of the Minneapolis Police Department's Fourth Precinct. I lived outside of that building for two weeks, and I was arrested twice. But what I remember most clearly from that time, beyond the feeling of pepper spray burning the back of my throat, and the vision of a "less-than-lethal" rifle held right in my face, are the police who stood with cameras, recording the crowd.
Sometimes, my mom would call me while I was out at the protest. Once, when I answered, she started to complain about background noise. “Anytime I call you, there's a clicking in the background,” she said. “Like a machine. You can't hear that?”
No, I couldn’t.
As a Black activist, this wasn't the first time I thought about surveillance. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I might be watched due to my organizing work, or the people I hung out with. Looking back, the security measures we took weren't the strongest, but we tried. During organizing meetings, we stored our phones and laptops in another room. If new people wanted to join our work, they needed to have at least one or two trusted members of the group vouch for them.
But hearing my mom ask about a clicking sound on a phone call while I was at an active protest site with a heavy police presence — this was new. And it was as if I needed somebody outside of my organizing space to name it and make it real. I wasn’t paranoid — this was really happening.
In the years since Clark's death, I've become a journalist, reporting on surveillance for outlets like Vice and Teen Vogue. I've led workshops on programs like Countering Violent Extremism, and I've appeared on panels discussing surveillance's harm on Black Muslims. I’ve guest-lectured on the topic at colleges. On Memorial Day 2020, just hours before George Floyd was murdered, I launched NAZAR, my anti-surveillance newsletter.
You might think that with all of this expertise, I'd know exactly what kind of technology may have been used to tap my phone during the Clark protests. Perhaps you’d like this essay to give you some specifics on how I've been surveilled, to reveal and detail a shadowy government scheme to the world.
But to do that I'd need to have proof beyond one question my mom asked me six years ago that I only half-remember. And unfortunately, I have no fucking clue as to the full extent of how Minneapolis protesters were surveilled during the occupation of the Fourth Precinct, or how activists across the country have been monitored since.
I don't even know for sure if my phone was tapped like my mom suspected. Anytime it comes up, she tells me that after I got a new phone and stopped attending protests as regularly, our calls returned to normal. But I always wonder how many of my fellow protesters noticed weird shit happening to them too, and were too afraid to talk about it. How many dismissed themselves as crazy, or were dismissed by others because they couldn't meet an arbitrary burden of proof?
Surveillance is about much more than the infrastructure that allows for watching to take place. It’s also psychological.
That not knowing for sure, and the doubt it leaves behind, is part of the malice of surveillance. When most people hear the word "surveillance," they think of its overt forms, like a sketchy van being parked on your street. What many people don't realize is that surveillance is about much more than the infrastructure that allows for watching to take place. It's also psychological.
The panopticon is one of the most famous examples of architectural surveillance. Designed by 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, it's a type of prison with a central tower, from which an observer can see into every cell, but the cell's occupants can't see the observer. Because they can't tell if someone was in the tower, the prisoners assume they're under constant surveillance, and act accordingly.
How many times have you seen a security camera inside a store and adjusted your behavior, even though you didn't know for sure if someone was actually watching? Have you ever wanted to attend a protest or event, but you were afraid to because of the police presence? Even if you didn't know for sure whether that event was being watched or what technologies would be used to monitor it? Did that fear ever make you stay home?
To think accurately about surveillance, you have to be a little bit of a conspiracy theorist. No matter how surveillance tries to disguise itself — by masquerading as social services, or getting buried behind the privacy settings of some of your favorite apps — there's often a shifty vibe to it. You get a gut feeling, like when you can tell someone is lying even though you don't have any proof.
Still, no matter how much I learn about surveillance, I feel like I'm doing a bad re-enactment of Charlie Kelly's conspiracy rant from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia whenever I talk about it. I mean, on the surface, describing fingerprinting and biometric identification as essentially modern-day slave passes sounds like some shit I made up, right? Except it's not. As I dove deeper and began connecting surveillance back to topics I was already familiar with, I realized: Anytime you talk about conspiracy theorists, paranoia comes up. And people who are paranoid are often dismissed as "crazy." Part of why it's so easy to devalue conspiracy theories and their adherents is because believers often lack the "proper" credentials, and conspiracy theorists are often dismissed because of how they present their information. When I think of myself as Charlie Kelly, frantically connecting the dots with yarn and paper and bits of string, it's because I feel disheveled whenever I talk about surveillance. I'm not a calm, cool, collected professor at the front of the room. I'm the kid coming in halfway through the lecture with their backpack open and shoes untied.
Digging into recent surveillance programs like the New York Police Department's use of "mosque crawlers" to target Muslims, I come up exhausted. In particular, I've spent a lot of time researching Countering Violent Extremism, which encompasses a federal surveillance program as well as information-gathering done by local police departments, mental health services, universities, and more. CVE is a dangerously broad framework of how to address "extremism," but it manifests in really specific, targeted ways — like helping to fund the surveillance of Muslims on social media by the Boston Police Department.
I can't keep the emotion out of my voice when I talk about this; I'm furious, sad, and terrified for my friends and communities, all at once. It's tiring to read about how your communities are consistently targeted, to see yourself and your friends painted as "radical," and to see the flimsy justifications that keep us all under watch.
What frustrates me the most, though, are the demands for proof. As I mentioned earlier, there are some types of surveillance that you're supposed to know about, like cameras at a grocery store. But there are plenty that you are not supposed to notice, like the social media-enabled surveillance I mentioned above. Demanding proof that may not exist is how conversations about surveillance become stifled. We are always behind because we have to wait for Freedom of Information Act requests to be acknowledged, the government to trip up and expose itself somehow, or for something drastic to happen, like when an activist broke into the FBI's office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971, and obtained papers about COINTELPro. Worse, we may be waiting for someone to come forward to say they know for certain that they've been surveilled, and here are the times, dates, locations, the yellowing FBI files that prove decades later where, when, and why you were being watched. But that just isn't how all surveillance works.
In some instances, proof of surveillance only exists in the paranoia it fosters. And after years of this work, I'm at the point where I don't feel the need to deny that I'm paranoid. I don't know if or how I've been surveilled, all I know are the histories of how my communities have been targeted, in the past and today. Paranoia may be easy to dismiss because it makes others uncomfortable. But as a Black Muslim woman living in the United States, I have to stay on my toes. I have to be paranoid. If I wasn't, then I wouldn't be paying close enough attention.