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If Protests Are ‘Terrorism,’ What Are State Brutality And Surveillance?

Above photo: Jen Byers.

We analyzed the expansion and impact of police surveillance.

NOTE: This article was originally published in January of this year. We are posting it because the technology and tactics are important to understand today.

On Wednesday, January 18, 2023, Georgia State Troopers shot and killed an Indigenous anarchist and forest defender named Tortuguita, who was protesting to stop the construction of a police training facility. Tortuguita was described as “kind,” “fierce” and “attentive to others’ needs.” Over the following weekend, vigils and protests with the cry “Stop Cop City” erupted across the country — from Los Angeles to Hamburg to Wet’suwet’en territory and more. In Atlanta, anti-fascist protestors set a police car on fire and vandalized a bank — actions which were decried as “terrorism” by Atlanta’s Police Chief Darin Schierbaum.

However, activists and forest defenders are rebutting Chief Shiernaum’s declaration, arguing that it is the police shooting that was “terrorism.” They believe the destruction of the forest is “terrorism.” Instead, activists declare that the construction of “Cop City,” an 85-acre police training facility that Tortuguita was killed fighting against … is the true “terrorism.”

In attempt to contextualize this debate, we investigated the expansion and impact of police funding and state surveillance technologies, focusing on 2020 — the present.

In 2020, in Canarsie, Brooklyn, a gunshot detection technology, called ShotSpotter, reported a gunshot fired. It alerted the NYPD and sent them to a street address. The officers arrived at the location, and a Black man named Fitzroy Gayle happened to be walking past it, on his way home. The officers got out of their cars, targeted and detained him and started hitting him, causing serious injuries to his neck, knee and ankle.

“If the robot tells you, ‘GO,’ you’re already scared and amped. They just beat this guy mercilessly,” said Matt Mitchell, a digital technology expert who studied the case. “The guy was saying ‘What did I do?’ This is an example of when digital surveillance and tools go wrong.”

Wrongful detentions and arrests are not uncommon after alerts from ShotSpotter and other surveillance technologies, and these misfires seem to disproportionately impact men and boys of color. In 2018, a New York City man was arrested after facial recognition software falsely identified him in a robbery. In 2019, a Black man from New Jersey spent 10 days in jail after being falsely identified by surveillance technology. Currently, Michael Williams is suing the city of Chicago for spending almost a year in jail after police, responding to a ShotSpotter alert, arrested him for a murder he says he didn’t commit. In 2021, a 13-year-old Latino boy in Chicago named Adam Toledo was shot and killed by police, who responded to a ShotSpotter alert. He hadn’t fired the gun and was not given due process.

Despite thousands of stories and multiple reports of these technologies leading to undue brutality or dead ends, increased police surveillance and technologies like ShotSpotter are quickly proliferating across the country, largely under the guise of quelling “terrorism.” But what, really, is the impact?

Despite 2020′s resonant calls to Defund the Police, recent polls from 2022 suggest that almost 50% of people support funding the police more. The government has delivered on that; in the past two years, spending on police and counterterrorism has gone up, significantly. Under the Biden administration, political wariness of “terrorism” and radicalism has swelled, too, and the U.S. is currently under a “heightened threat environment.” Homeland Security declared white supremacist extremism and domestic terrorism to be “one of the most major threats to America.”

Though proponents of increased police budgets and surveillance believe funding is the best way to fight increasing crime, critics believe that this declaration will have severe ripples to already over-policed communities. Researchers believe increased police funding will increase surveillance predominately in Black, brown and working class neighborhoods, more so than in areas reft with white supremacist militias. As a result, activists and organizers are tightening up their ranks and security — in what they see as a protective response to state crackdown via increased policing and surveillance.

“If you put ‘wear black’ on a protest flier these days, CounterTerrorism will show up. There’s two to three times the amount of officers at protests, vigils, everything … way more than there used to be,” said Code, an anarchist from Pennsylvania, who prefers to use an alias to protect her anonymity and safety. Code has participated actively in community mutual aid and organizing for years, since long before 2020. She explained that she’s noticed an extreme uptick in policing of protests, especially since the uprising against George Floyd’s murder and even more so since January 6.

With recent increases in budget and spending, policing and surveillance technology are growing across the country — in some cities, doubling or tripling. Since entering office, Biden has promised to recruit 100,000 new police officers and requested an additional $35.3 million to “make America safer.” Dovetailed with this funding is an increase in federal government and private company unity, with corporations like Amazon collaborating with police and federal intelligence agencies, to share once-private consumer information and data to the state.

“When you research surveillance tech, it helps to start by looking at what [law enforcement] does to the ‘worst of the worst,’” said Mitchell, who is also a hacker and fellow with the Ford Foundation. “No one’s going to feel bad for what they did with those guys. So, an overzealous law enforcement shows their hands.”

In January 2021, right-wing militants stormed the U.S. Capitol, and Washington, D.C. was shut down by the National Guard for weeks. Police and federal intelligence tracked rioters with cellphone data, license plate readers, facial recognition, social media monitoring and civilian tips.

Since then, radical protests in the U.S. have, by and large, gotten a lot fewer and further between.

Code explained that in late spring 2021, as the warm weather came out again to roost, police began cracking down on housing activists in Philadelphia before protests even began, arresting people within 10 minutes of setup. “People weren’t even really protesting. They were standing on the sidewalk having a BBQ. And then the police just swept in, all aggressive. It’s like they didn’t even want us to assemble at all,” Code said.

She said that, since then, people in Philadelphia have been less active in radical street protest. Instead, preferring, a peaceful occupation and community building. “People are mostly organizing mutual aid and are licking their wounds,” Code said.

However, in cities like Portland, Oregon, which saw ample police brutality against protestors in 2020 and extended street marches that continued through 2022, the local police have lately been taking a more hands-off approach to protestors. Instead of acting or disrupting marches, police have preferred to sit back, watch the marches and let non-protesting civilians’ frustration with protestors increase. This may indicate their current tactic: surveillance.

Despite the ample anti-police protests in Portland and the minor street action from the PPD, the police budget is higher than its ever been, at $249 million. Even so, violent crime and gun violence have increased significantly in the past few years. With this extra funding, Portland police are adopting surveillance technologies, including ShotSpotter.

But, again, this surveillance technology is not exactly new. There’s just a lot more of it now. And the prevalence of these technologies is increasing in most American cities.

“You have a mass proliferation of tech that were once localized only in big cities, now being played out in smaller, local battles,” said Sanjin Ibrahimovic, a surveillance technology expert and researcher at the Lucy Parsons Labs in Chicago.

Technologies like gunshot detectors, license plate readers, social media surveillance and biometric readers are now expanding across the country. They’re getting more sophisticated, too, with facial recognition software being able to identify people even with face masks on.

“Identifying a person with facial recognition data is so much easier than using fingerprints, and this is the new fingerprinting,” Mitchell said. “First off, with fingerprints, you actually have to have someone touch something. You have to be near them, have them touch a glass, something. With facial recognition, I could get it from just about anywhere.”

In October 2022, a team of truck drivers won a suit against the BNSF railway and were awarded $228 million. BNSF was taking their fingerprints without consent or awareness, against Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act. Once acquired, without the proper protections and encryptions (which BNSF did not provide), these fingerprints could have been linked to their driver’s license and other personal data.

Attorney Jon Loevy, whose firm handled the case, explained, “If we don’t fight back, this is going to go farther and farther. The truck drivers in this case ended up in a database without their consent. You can’t put people in a database without their consent.”

Loevy’s firm is also representing a case called Mutnick v. Clearview, which is focusing on fighting against facial recognition databases. Mutnick claims Clearview “built a searchable database of the scanned images enabling database users to instantly identify unknown individuals using nothing more than a photograph.”

Loevy’s concern is that databases like these can result in people being “tracked in public,” which could have particular consequences for activists. He explained, “If you go through to a sporting event or intersection or building, there could be a camera that instantly scans your face. if you’re a political dissident or critic of the government, they could arrest you. Science fiction has arrived. Dystopia has arrived.”

Though the states of Illinois, Texas and Washington and 17 cities, led by San Francisco, have passed laws to limit use of biometric data like facial recognition, not everywhere has. Given that Amazon, maker of the camera Ring doorbell (which is owned by about 10 million people nationwide), has a history of collaborating with police to hand over security footage, the amount of opportunities to surveil is not only ever-rising, but it’s normalizing as a regular function of society.

Despite the laws on biometric data, San Francisco’s police force has recently gained access to use Amazon Ring’s footage as needed. This allows police to submit “emergency requests” to use the footage to detect potential criminal activity — even misdemeanors.

The Ring doorbell, which video records and digitally analyzes its surroundings, is also compatible with a new app, called Ring Neighbors, akin to the Citizen App. Like Citizen, Ring Neighbors is a community engagement app that crowdsources data about neighborhood crime activities and sends alerts to users of potential crimes where they live. Recently, the Ring Neighbor app has begun to allow collaboration with police in places like New York and Florida. This includes allowing the police in some cities to ask civilians for “help.” As many cities have Fusion Centers, wherein police and federal agencies can share technology and intelligence, if the police have access to the Ring surveillance, it also likely means federal bureaus like Counter Terrorism do.

Loevy is skeptical of this type of recording paired with facial recognition, saying, “This technology should scare people. They can track you in public based on having your photograph or your fingerprint.”

However, proponents of the technology say it helps keep the country safer, for example, from domestic terrorists. A website called Pimeyes allowed civilians to help recognize and trace January 6 rioters. Some of that data lead to their arrests and to holding the rioters accountable.

However, it’s been well-documented that facial recognition is less accurate on non-white faces. Faulty facial recognition via video surveillance has also been known to result in arrest of the wrong person. So, the proliferation of these technologies begs questions about their efficacy, too.

Along with facial recognition proliferation, cities and suburbs have been increasing the presence of license plate readers. They’re expected to be added nationally at a rate of 9% per year, with the goal of “eliminating crime.” There is ample concern that these plate readers will criminalize people seeking out-of-state abortion care, and it could also be used to track protestors.

As we’re seeing a major increase in surveillance technology, “There’s also been a major increase in the secrecy of these technologies,” Ibrahimovic said. “It’s harder to find information about what tech they’re bringing in. When we request information about it, say from the Chicago PD, moreso now, they won’t comply with our requests because they’re saying, ‘It’s a security risk.’ They’re claiming we could use the information ‘for terrorist purposes.’”

Ibrahimovic said that the increase in security and threat-based language is swaying court decisions regarding information, too. “We’re seeing more and more cases side with police departments, over the peoples’ right to information access. But, this technology is being purchased with public dollars — we should be able to know about this.”

Despite this, technologists have been able to collaborate to find information, as aforementioned, about what technology exists — the bigger, moral questions that linger are “Where are they being placed?” and “What, really, are they being used for?”

“You don’t see things like ShotSpotter installed in wealthy neighborhoods, but they will put it in the hood, where it was redlined,” Ibrahimovic said. “You see the biggest abundance of these technologies in places that are already experiencing harm.”

“In New York, Black and brown communities are already dealing with visual Stop and Frisk, stopping without probable cause, databases with peoples’ names … just these huge networks of policing and networks of information,” Mitchell said.

Like in Canarsie, there have already been situations where the increase in technology has led to unjustified violence against innocent people of color. With DHS’s budget ballooning to almost $100 billion in 2023, organizations like the Action Center on Race & the Economy are worried that the introduction of more surveillance tech and policing will cause more harm than good.

“ShotSpotter doesn’t stop gun violence. It doesn’t prevent gun violence. It’s a probable cause generator,” said Ed Vogel, a surveillance tech researcher in Nashville. “There’s a high correlation of use of Stop & Frisk with ShotSpotter deployment. The police will arrive from the alert and will stop and frisk people because they think they have a gun. Then, they will put their name in the gang database.

In light of this, some radical activists are fighting back against this expansion of policing. They are warring directly at its breeding grounds — by opposing police training and education centers.

Just outside of Atlanta, an abolitionist movement grows, to “Stop Cop City — a military police base.” In taking direct action to stop the increase of police training, and thus presence, activists have been occupying the forest, blocking the 85-acre proposed construction site of a police training base.

As a land defender explained on the Stop Cop City public blog, “On the evening of Saturday, November 19, chainsaw-wielding militants took action to close down the Atlanta Police Department’s shooting range inside the Weelaunee Forest, where APD trains weekly to kill and maim the people of Atlanta.”

Details of this action was confirmed by local news reports in Atlanta. It’s common for activist groups to not speak to the media, but instead, announce their anti-state actions and reasoning on public channels, like the Scenes from the Atlanta Forest site. This is done, by and large, to express their point of view while preserving their anonymity and safety, from fear of arrest or police apprehension.

To cite their reasoning behind the militant closing down of the shooting range, Stop Cop City said, “The only ‘protection’ police offer is violence and death.” Activists claim this knowledge of policing and its harms and impacts directly inspires their work, fundamentally pushing back on Biden’s idea that increased policing and surveillance will “make America safer.” Embedded in their direct action, they explained, is a reverence for the dead — people who have been the casualties of policing. People for whom more police did not mean “safe.”

As for the action on November 19, the Stop Cop City activists explained, “We took this action for the dead — for Rayshard Brooks and every person killed by the Atlanta Police, for every murdered revolutionary, for the Muskogee who were forced from this land, for every enslaved person who lived and died on the plantation here, for every prisoner killed by guards at the old prison farm and buried in unmarked graves in the forest. This forest is theirs and we will not allow the police to desecrate it with their presence.”

However, since the action in November, there has been a significant uptick in brutality against the forest defenders. On December 13, five people were arrested for domestic terrorism during a police raid of the camp. Again, on January 18, police raided and killed Tortuguita while also arresting seven other defenders on domestic terrorism charges. At the Atlanta protests the following weekend, six were arrested for domestic terrorism, in what the Atlanta Solidarity Fund calls “utterly baseless,” as they, and the ACLU believe “there is no basis for such a case.” While legal experts are working to analyze the situation, Stop Cop City activists are calling for an independent investigation by journalists into Tortuguita’s killing. Activists and legal experts alike are concerned that the widely-circulating police narrative is “a cover-up,” as the Georgia State Troopers have not released body camera footage – despite photographic evidence that the Troopers were wearing body cameras.

While Biden’s expansion of policing and surveillance technologies intend to “make America safer,” activists and experts are worried about what their impact will be on already over-policed communities. In response to this dissonance, anti-police and police surveillance movements continue — through direct action, community organizing and lawsuits. This resistance speaks to deep fears and concerns from radical populations and experts alike.

According to Mitchell, this union of private corporations, police and federal agencies and civilian watch, could result in increased violence towards civilians. Though some communities are fighting back against it, it’s unclear to many what the next few years will bring.

“Typically, in authoritarian situations, first we see streets full of blood,” Mitchell said. “Then, after that, surveillance becomes a regular part of the society. After a while, it’s so normalized people feel no reason to push back. Then, surveillance becomes so palatable, brought on with such a slow boil that people will rely on it, they’ll befriend it, they’ll be buddy-buddy with it.”

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