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“We’ve Never Had Privacy”: Hamid Khan on How the Surveillance State Impacts Marginalized Communities

Police officers in Los Angeles, CA.Police officers in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Brian / Flickr)Surveillance, spying and infiltration have a long history in the United States, from police red squads in the 1880s, to the FBI’s counterintelligence program Cointelpro, right up to the National Security Agency’s global snooping system today. While much of the public debate over data gathering has centered on questions of individual privacy, the impact goes deeper than that.

Hamid Khan believes this surveillance-industrial complex has profound but poorly understood impacts on our political, structural, economic and cultural lives and our relations with each other.

Khan is the coordinator of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. He works with, among others, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Political Research Associates and the Youth Justice Coalition. I had a chance to catch up with him recently in Los Angeles.

Hamid Khan: Thank you very much and welcome to LA.

Laura Flanders: Thank you. You’ll tell me how welcome I should feel in just a moment. Why don’t we start with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition? What are you up to? What do you do?

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition came together in the summer of 2011, a very diverse group of people who were extremely concerned about this rapidly expanding national security surveillance state. Knowing that this is nothing new – it’s not a moment in time, but a continuation of history – we started looking at the Los Angeles Police Department, particularly to see that what kind of programs and tactics they were using.

What did you find?

We found a massive apparatus and an architecture of surveillance, spying and infiltration where both human assets and the technology were being used very effectively to gather, store and share information, anywhere from the suspicious activity reporting program, which basically started on the heels of the 9/11 Commission Report, which was the foundation for this new type of intelligence-led policing that has become the main operational tactic for law enforcement agencies. It’s anchored in two concepts of behavioral surveillance and data mining, in essence, legitimizing speculative policing.

“The body cameras are not [focused] on the officer. They’re always looking outward. They’re always gathering information on people.”

If you’re out there taking photographs in public – very much a constitutionally protected activity – if you’re even walking into a building and asking about hours of operation, if you’re using a video camera, if you’re taking notes, you are deemed suspicious.

What’s interesting is the way the director of national intelligence defines suspicious activity. It’s “observed behavior, reasonably indicative of preoperational planning of terrorist and/or criminal activity”.

When you break it down, “observed behavior,” I’m watching somebody’s behavior, which reasonably indicates to me (that is, no probable cause) that somebody is thinking of doing something wrong in the future.

According to your interpretation.

According to the director of national intelligence.

We were all focusing on Google gobbling up our data. Maybe we should have been paying more attention to the police.

We should absolutely be paying more attention to the police. I think that’s where one of the, I wouldn’t say “myth,” but I think that’s where the lack of information lies as well. You started off by saying about the police red squads. Local law enforcement agencies predate the federal agencies by many, many decades, going back in the late 1800s right after the Haymarket strike and May Day and then the development of the police red squads, immediately in the aftermath of the Haymarket strike.

For people who don’t know what Haymarket is, what was it and why was that such a trigger point?

It was a pivotal moment in the US social justice movements and particularly labor movement because that was the demand of the eight-hour workday in Chicago. People fought hard for that. People gave up their lives. It was also a pivotal moment for local law enforcement and the national security state as well. How do we then look at this moment and the ramp-up of our structure, the national security state structure, the apparatus? Because people were gathering, people were mobilizing and people were engaged in militant revolutionary tactics.

A militant struggle organizing around the eight-hour day, at that particular occasion, bombs took the lives of seven police [and five civilians]. It’s never been clear who was actually responsible for what. It was blamed on anarchists. In that moment we see the start of the kind of policing you’re talking about.

Absolutely, and now linking it to today, in 2013, the Department of Homeland Security comes out with a memo declaring basically, anti-gentrification activists as anarchist extremists. There is a whole four-page memo that they put out, based on three low-level arsons, in Seattle, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in Vancouver, where they claimed that anarchists and extremists were involved in that. The memo goes on to say that if there is any rally or distribution of flyers and information on rights for homes and anti-gentrification, these should be considered a threat to national security and a suspicious activity report should be filed on people.

We’ve just passed the 14th anniversary of the Patriot Act. That did provoke a lot of attention to these questions of intelligence, surveillance, our freedoms, and yet, poll after poll, at least the ones that get publicity, show that Americans support these measures. Is there something wrong with the polls? Do people just not know what we’re talking about? What does the Patriot Act have to do with the LAPD?

I think, first of all, culturally speaking, race and the creation of “the other” [are] deeply anchored in how society has evolved in the United States. This is the historical politics of this country. This is a cultural issue. This is a social issue. It’s an economic issue.

If you don’t actually have a racial difference, you make up one. They were all called “reds,” after all.

Absolutely, and quite frankly, preserving the white supremacist system of control and white supremacist system of social control as well. The Patriot Act was another piece. I think one of the things that remains missing in the conversation is how post-9/11 counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policies and programs have been increasingly incorporated and codified into domestic policing, which gives them immense power [and] a lot of immunity and which allows them to bypass local policing restrictions that would [otherwise] be placed on them, for example, warrant requirements.

“We’ve never had privacy. Our bodies have always been for sale or for abuse or violation of our rights.”

For example, the suspicious activity reporting program started off as a counterterrorism program. Predictive policing, which has gained a lot of momentum now, comes from a counterinsurgency tactic in Afghanistan. That’s where the US military gave a grant to a professor at UCLA to see if they can predict using algorithms and mathematical equations, if they can predict acts of insurgency. Professor Jeff Brantingham decided to bring it home and in 2009 did a presentation to the LAPD and the US military drawing parallels between Afghan men with their arms and weapons, then drawing parallels with Latino youth in East LA, and using these labels of terrorists and potential gang members and urban predators.

I think this is something that we need to be looking at very closely. And then, when you add the electronic technology around Stingray, which mimics the cell phone towers; and the digital receiver technology, which jams our cell phones as well; the automatic license plate readers; the high-definition cameras and now, drones are coming. Now, cops are going to have body cameras. You see this intersection of this rapidly expanding surveillance state.

Will the body cameras that we keep hearing about in response to community complaints improve anything?

Under the guise of community complaints, the body cameras are being instituted, but when you look at the use of the body cameras, number one, just technically speaking, the body cameras are not [focused] on the officer. They’re always looking outward. They’re always gathering information on people.

Who has access to the footage?

The police have access to the footage. When you look at data mining that’s how this footage, and going back to LAPD, which has this incredible structure of fusing all this information together, you’ve heard of fusion centers, which are warehouses of information gathering. There [are] about 85 of them around the country. One of the biggest one is in Los Angeles. LAPD itself is such a model of creating these programs and these tactics. Anything that is picked up from the body camera goes into their internal fusion centers. And it’s data-mined and captured.

If you were maybe jumping a turnstile or picking someone’s pocket in the background of the footage, could you get arrested?

Absolutely, Chief Beck of the LAPD is on record saying that all the information that is gathered through a body camera is up for evidence.

Talk a little bit about how you got into this. You were an organizer in the South Asian community, one of the founders of the first South Asian center here in Los Angeles. 9/11 happens. Many of the people that you’re working with are involved or targeted. Right now, we’re in a Black Lives Matter moment where this discussion is mostly taking place, at least at the media level, around African Americans’ relationship to the police. What does your coalition look like? Who is in it? What strategies are you following to try to make a dent in all this?

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition is an extremely diverse group of people. It includes people who were formerly incarcerated. It includes undocumented immigrants. It’s based out of Skid Row, so it includes a lot of poor people and people who are unhoused. It includes transgender and LGBTQ community members. It includes academics, lawyers, youth, teachers [and] artists.

Why do they all come?

They all come because people are extremely concerned about where this is going and they all feel targeted. They all feel as if they’re moving targets because people that I’ve just called out, most of them are always “the other.” Most of them are the undesirable. Most of them are the unwanted. It includes some faith-based and community-based organizations as well. The basic principles that the coalition came together [around include] that this is not a moment in time, but a continuation of history.

Number two, that there is always “an other.” That’s how the other is created; we’ve seen the faces that have been paraded throughout history; that’s how those faces are now then deemed criminal, the “criminal” Black face, the “savage” Native face, the “illegal” Latino face, the “manipulative” Asian face, the “terrorist” South Asian face.

I’m reminded of the Japanese internment, concentration camps. The reason was General DeWitt, who was arguing for it, says that persons of Japanese ancestry contain enemy race blood, hence, [he considered them] inherently disloyal and [believed they] shall always stay unassimilable. The otherness is very deep. This was the other coming together and building that power, and exposing this and engaging in broad-based community education and outreach with the goal to dismantle this.

What kind of things do you do?

We do a lot of community outreach and education. We do town halls. We do teach-ins. We do surveys. We put out reports. We do a lot of research. We’ve done a lot of public records act requests, looking at the legal angles as well. One of the other principles was that traditionally what we have seen is that while there is a lot of movement building in the United States around immigrant rights, around housing rights, on gender justice, around sexual rights; around the national security state and the police state, there has not been a grassroots movement. We’ve always deferred to law firms or civil liberties, privacy-type organizations like the ACLU.

… Until Black Lives Matter.

People are building this thing. People are coming together and saying, “Wait a minute. We need to take control of this thing. We cannot just defer to the court system because the courts have completely absolved themselves of any of the responsibility.”

What about the big frame in which we have discussed these matters of surveillance, at least in the media, the white-dominated media, has focused typically on questions of privacy.


I haven’t heard you say that word once.

Because when I spoke of all the “others,” privacy, we’ve never had privacy…. Our bodies have always been scrutinized. Our bodies have always been for sale or for abuse or violation of our rights. I think it’s also necessary for us to understand that information gathering, information storing and information sharing become a key tool for social control. Now, increasingly, what we are seeing is also that how this information gathering, for example, Palantir, a software that is used by the CIA and the LAPD and various agencies, is also hooked up to Medicare. It’s also hooked up to social services. Now, what we are also looking at is this interconnectedness within surveillance and public benefits.

NNU, National Nurses United, has been sounding an alarm around electronic medical records.


It sounds very benign but they’re another form of information gathering.

When you are on public benefits, when you’re out in the street being a poor person and just being unhoused, you are constantly being surveilled. You go to a caseworker and your information is gathered. Individuals are being impacted whether it’s Section 8 vouchers, now the EBT cards, food stamps, or [other] issues.

Your organization is also committed to imagining effective alternatives. We’re interested in that here, too. When it comes to community safety, community cohesion, good relations, what have you come up with?

Several things, I’m on the board of the Youth Justice Coalition. One of the key mandates of the Youth Justice Coalition is that they have a 1 percent campaign. They have identified, looking at all the budgets in Los Angeles County, whether it’s probation or DA or the Sheriff’s [Department] or 46 other LA police departments in LA, that over $100 million can be allocated out of these and can go to investing in the lives of young people in the city and county of Los Angeles.

These are young people who did “real search,” as they call it, did the surveys, did all the research on the numbers and came up with this thing. They have brought this proposal to the county, how it would create 25,000 jobs, how it would create 500 peacekeepers, how it would create alternatives for young people.

Similarly, looking at, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department’s own budget, it gets 52 percent to 55 percent of the general funds of the City of Los Angeles. We are demanding that those monies should be reallocated.

This fall, the mayor and the City Council members just announced a state of emergency when it comes to housing or homelessness in the City of Los Angeles. They said that they were going to allocate $100 million – they don’t know where that money is going to come from, but what they didn’t say was that the existing $100 million that goes to homeless services – out of that, 87 percent goes to the LAPD for policing the homeless. And only $13 million goes to other kinds of services – and these are the numbers that come from the city controller, Ron Galperin, himself, earlier in the spring of this year. So I think these are the types of things that we need to be really lifting, exposing and putting a spotlight on, and organizing around and demanding that this is unacceptable.

Hamid Khan, thank you so much for coming in. If you want to find out more about the coalition, we’ll have information at our website. I hope we get to talk to you again, soon.

Thank you very much.

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