One year later, Boston police surveillance of antiwar activists not accounted for

new-boston-police-department-car-630The New York Police Department (NYPD) has been scrutinized following the revelation one month ago that it designated entire mosques as “terrorism enterprises.” This allowed  them to conduct surveillance on anyone praying at these mosques, including sending  undercover informants into them. NYPD confidential documents even peddled the idea of placing agents in leadership positions at mosques and Arab cultural organizations. Such actions are part of a national context in which police departments violate the first amendment rights of citizens in the name of fighting terrorism. A prime example is the lack of accountability or explanation from the Boston Police Department (BPD) one year after its surveillance of local anti-war organizations became public.

In October 2012 it was revealed that the BPD placed local anti-war groups under surveillance with no plausible connections to criminal activity. One year later many questions remain about the scope of the BPD’s breach of privacy. What was the purpose of such surveillance and how was it done?  Are antiwar activists continuing to have their protected free speech rights violated?  Has information on antiwar groups been passed on to national databases, perhaps stored permanently?

A year earlier, in August 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Massachusetts Chapter, filed a suit against Commissioner Edward Davis of the BPD on behalf of several activist groups and four individuals seeking documents pertaining to their activities. The specific groups included: United for Justice with Peace (UJP), Veterans for Peace, CODEPINK, and others. The BPD released the requested documents and the suit was dropped as part of an unofficial settlement. In October 2012, the ACLU made the documents public and summarized their contents in a report entitled “Policing Dissent.”

The documents revealed that Boston police officers were systematically gathering intelligence on purely political activities. The BPD did this in its work with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), a “fusion center” of the BPD, US Justice Department, and Department of Homeland Security.  Fusion centers were created in the aftermath of 9-11 to share intelligence on terrorist threats between federal, state, and local governments.  The documents described investigations into nonviolent actions, historically protected by our first amendment right, but were nonetheless labeled as criminal.  For example, a March 26, 2008 “intelligence report” described how two detectives monitored a Boston demonstration marking the four-thousandth US soldier death in Iraq. The report cited that it was organized by UJP and the Stop the Wars Coalition. The report categorized the criminal act it was investigating under the heading “Groups-Extremists.” It makes no mention whatsoever of any potential violence.

An October 1, 2008 report discussed a planned antiwar rally to mark the anniversary of Congress’ approval of the “Iraq War Resolution.” The report discusses the sentiments of the activists, stating, “Activists are hopefully [sic] an Obama victory in November will speed up the withdrawal from Iraq.  Activists are also hopeful that current financial/housing crisis will increase the number of participants at this years [sic] rally.” At best this information was gathered through informal conversations with activists and at worst, the BPD may have had officers masquerading as activists within their organizations. If it was the former, it is difficult to imagine a plausible reason for such questioning and if it was the latter, there was a clear violation of First Amendment rights.  The concern with political activity, as opposed to violence, was revealed by the fact that this particular report had one sentence about “an anarchist Blac[k] Bloc” before turning to activists’ hopes for an Obama victory. A report concerned about potential violence would have focused on such security concerns rather than politics, as Black Bloc tactics are known for taking provocative actions against police.

Since the release of the documents, the BPD has not made it clear that such surveillance has ended, nor sufficiently addressed the concerns of activists.  This is especially concerning since BRIC shares information with national databases such as the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.  Given how the Edward Snowden leaks revealed the National Security Agency’s massive collection of raw Internet data, it is unnerving that documentation of first amendment protected activities could be permanently stored or searchable.

The cover letter the BPD attached to the released documents gives no indication that the BPD would stop or modify the above described activities. A representative from the ACLU stated his belief that no such assurances were given as part of its unofficial settlement. In February 6, 2013, several of the targeted activist groups and the NLG sent a letter to BPD Commissioner Edward Davis requesting a meeting to discuss “concerns regarding the years of surveillance of our events and activities.” They stated “we are particularly concerned about being labeled extremists, and having our events categorized as criminal acts” (italics original).  An activist associated with the groups sending the letter stated that an initial voicemail response was given by Commissioner Davis’ staff in April that they would be hearing from a BRIC representative. According to this source, the activists never heard from BRIC and intended to follow up, but postponed after the Marathon bombing and are considering whether they wish to pursue the matter further. Commissioner Davis announced his resignation this past Monday, September 23, which is to take effect in thirty to sixty days. It’s essential that his yet unknown replacement enforce BRIC’s own privacy policy that it “will not seek or retain…information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political, or social views or activities.”

Visit the ACLU of Massachusetts website to view the released documents.

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When I attended a recent antiwar protest in Boston, I noticed some police officers documenting who was participating. Check out the third video here: