Fifty years from now, what will the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibit on the Movement for Black Lives look like? Will the exhibit feature videos from the hundreds of protests that erupted around the United States and the world, alongside pictures of children with signs that say “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Say Her Name?” Will there be displays of the canisters of tear gas thrown by police at protestors, and a copy of the Vision for Black Lives policy plan for visitors to read? And, most important, will the exhibition describe how the US federal government monitored and secretly surveilled protests, vigils, leaders and movement participants? Or will that part of the history — how the government used early 21st-century social media sites against nonviolent protestors — remain hidden?
The new Smithsonian museum opens its doors in Washington, DC, in the midst of the Movement for Black Lives. Its exhibits and events include discussions of the Black Panther Party — discussions that surely include some mention of the state repression that the Panthers faced — but will it also acknowledge that the same government that harassed and surveilled the 1970s Black Panther Party 50 years ago continues to spy on today’s activists and organizers?
At a time in which the Smithsonian museum is working to document American history, the US government is repeating American history. This October, reports revealed that 500 law enforcement agencies used Geofeedia, a site that collects data, to sift through and gather social media posts. While the data compiled was meant for advertisers, it is being used to surveil and monitor Movement for Black Lives protesters and actions. In 2015, The Intercept obtained documents, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, demonstrating that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and state and local law enforcement agencies began routinely surveilling and sharing information about protests as early as August 2014 after the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked the movement.
The reports show that DHS took information from social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter and Vine, and shared information with local law enforcement agencies about vigils for Mike Brown in major cities throughout the country. Following arrests of demonstrators in Boston in November 2014 reports surfaced that local law enforcement agencies prepared for the protests by monitoring Movement for Black Lives-related social media posts at the Commonwealth Fusion Center, which provides “information sharing among local, state and federal public safety agencies and private sector organizations … of intelligence relevant to terrorism and public safety.”
Reports also describe how the New York Police Department, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s counterterrorism unit and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force coordinated efforts to surveil protests against police violence in New York. In July 2016, activists and community organizers in Cleveland were visited by DHS and FBI agents prior to the Republican National Convention. In short, the federal government is using counterterrorism tactics and measures employed for national security purposes to surveil a movement that was in part a response to violent policing and surveillance of Black people.
The contemporary surveillance of the Movement for Black Lives fits neatly within the well-documented history of federal government-led efforts to destroy Black social movements through the use of monitoring and secret surveillance. In August 1967 the FBI initiated a covert action program known as COINTELPRO (from Counter Intelligence Program), to disrupt and “neutralize” organizations it deemed subversive. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover instructed his staff to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the Black Panthers, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), The Young Lords Party (YLP) and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Federal agents infiltrated the Panthers (often through illegal measures) with a mission to destroy them from within. Under COINTELPRO, throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Black Panthers faced intense repression and violence, through sabotage, misinformation, agent provocateurs and lethal force.
The ongoing mass surveillance of legal protest activity by and for Black people raises serious constitutional and moral concerns. On October 20, Color of Change, along with my organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a complaint in federal court under FOIA against the FBI and DHS, seeking to expose this ongoing aggressive government surveillance of Movement for Black Lives activists, organizers and protests. The public deserves to know what the federal government is doing to silence and “destroy” protests against police violence, criminal justice and racial inequity.
The Black Panther Party commemorated its 50th anniversary last weekend and posed the question: “Where do we go from here?” Certainly, in 50 years, museum displays and archival footage documenting surveillance and “counter-terror” tactics used against Black people and Black-centered movements should be relics of history rather than reminders of how little has changed. We should fight for a country in which there is no use of surveillance to silence and “destroy” movements that declare “Black Power!” or “Black Lives Matter!”