During President Obama’s recent speech about the pressing need to reform the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk data collection programs, he acknowledged that the US has exceeded the bounds of lawful surveillance in the past. In particular, he pointed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) secret directive to spy on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., further making the point that he would very likely not hold the office he does today had activists like Dr. King not continued to fight despite the presence of government repression.
Left out of his speech was any hint as to why the FBI might have monitored Dr. King in the first place. His work threatened a racist system of discriminatory social control.
Our government kept tabs on him, jailed him and attempted to discredit him because force was the only option left to a government that had abandoned the principles of fairness and equality in the cotton and tobacco fields of the south. The same governments, both state and federal, which tolerated a legacy of lynching did not willingly change when Dr. King brought the struggle to them.
Today the realities of Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and drone attacks an ocean away now define our daily lives, even if they go unseen by most Americans. The gaps between the rich and the poor have split as wide as they were during the industrial revolution. As in Dr. King’s time, activists are seeking not incremental change but a drastic dismantling of the status quo.
This is why the President’s remarks fail to satisfy civil liberties advocates. Mass governmental surveillance and free political discourse are mutually exclusive, because mass surveillance inevitably has a chilling effect on expression. When President Obama failed to call for an end to bulk data collection, settling instead for reorganizing the standards under which it is conducted, he left open the door to abuse, misconduct and oppression.
Government surveillance undermines social justice as much as it does privacy. Wherever movements for social change flourish, the power to monitor will be attractive to agencies that defend the status quo. Intelligence agencies, from the KGB to the NSA, always prioritize defending the dominant party line over public welfare.
Today, “national security” serves as an opaque justification for force and surveillance, but as a simple matter of fact, poverty, gun crime and environmental disasters are far greater threats to the American public than terrorism. Meanwhile the NSA gets billions to monitor Americans while programs that serve them, like food stamps and public housing, are cut.
Surveillance programs are not merely the business-as-usual wastes of money common to national politics. They also serve to reinforce systems of oppression. Surveillance technologies are routinely developed in poor communities, often communities of color, for later use against the broader public.
For example, biometric tracking software uses cameras to read the contours of a person’s face to track their movements anywhere a CCTV network exists. The technology is currently being developed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which uses it to police immigrant communities.
The legacy of Dr. King cannot be found simply in the text of a speech or the memory of a march. It lives instead in the constant struggle against injustice that transcends prison cells, tear gas, mass surveillance and insecurity, even death. MLK day is a time to reflect not on whether or not government spying is appropriate, but on whom they are spying and why.
Our society needs visionaries like Dr. King. When we are all being watched, no matter what we have done, the likelihood declines that someday another person can have as profound an impact on our culture as Dr. King.
That is why it is so crucial for those concerned with racial, social and economic justice to become involved in the struggle to preserve the Fourth Amendment and dismantle the surveillance state. That is also why this struggle transcends traditional political divides, regardless of one’s concern for racial, social and economic justice.
On the one hand, it is disappointing to hear the President invoke the name of Dr. King—who suffered at the hands of the surveillance state, and largely enabled President Obama’s later political opportunities—in a speech essentially declaring his lack of political will to pursue real surveillance reform.
On the other hand, well beyond Washington, real reform has begun.
The Fourth Amendment Protection Act in California, modeled on a joint effort by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Tenth Amendment Center, would prevent state resources from enabling federal bulk data collection. Similar legislation has been offered in several other states, including Washington where the NSA operates the Yakima Listening Post, while still more consider it.
Meaningful reform can be a start, but lasting social change will only come from the grassroots—from We the People. The ability to speak freely to one another, to advocate freely for change, to organize openly in our communities, these are fundamental to the cause of justice. Only by dismantling the surveillance state can we ensure that movements for justice, equality—or whatever other values one might prefer—will have a chance to continue stretching onward across history.