FBI, Department of Homeland Security Sued over Documents on Surveillance of BLM Activists

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Black Lives Matter activists were called on to make an action plan for supporters of their movement. Photo by Getty Images.
Black Lives Matter activists were called on to make an action plan for supporters of their movement. Photo by Getty Images.

Human rights attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security Thursday for failing to release records on the surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists.

According to a Center for Constitutional Rights press release, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case was filed on behalf of racial justice group Color of Change after it was discovered that federal and local law enforcement had used counter-terrorism tactics to surveil protests, protesters, and whomever they perceived to be protest leaders.

“Government is supposed to protect our rights, not suppress our freedom — and yet for decades we’ve seen our government engage in a number of illegal surveillance practices that do just that,” said Brandi Collins, the campaign director at Color Of Change. “Despite their denial, it’s clear the Department of Homeland Security and FBI are continuing their disturbing legacy of employing secretive surveillance tactics with murky legal parameters to chill the Movement for Black Lives, along the way targeting individuals in a number of terrifying ways.”

The suit claims that government surveillance of BLM activists began after The Movement for Black Lives staged protests against the police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, the lawsuit asserts that government agencies have been teaming up with local law enforcement to spy on peaceful protests and monitor the social media activity of Black activists who speak out against police shootings involving African-Americans.

In August, the FBI released hours-long surveillance footage of the Baltimore protests that erupted following the death of Freddie Gray in response to an FOIA request from the American Civil Liberties Union, Atlanta Black Star reports. The footage was illegally captured using a thermal-imaging system with infrared cameras attached to the wings of a government plane.

The FBI deemed the aerial monitoring as “necessary,” and asserted that BLM activists had consented to being surveilled.

An exclusive report by the Intercept published last year also revealed that the DHS had been collecting information, such as location data, on Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The lawsuit went on to accuse local police of using a “cell site simulator,” better known as a “Stingray,” to monitor protests and identify certain activists as “threat actors” who require “continuous monitoring.”

“Recent litigation has revealed surveillance of the Movement for Black Lives by local law enforcement in various parts of the country; today’s suit seeks information on the federal government’s role,” it states.

In the filing, human rights attorneys argued that such surveillance by local and federal law enforcement agencies discourages activists from speaking out and assembling, both of which are their Constitutional rights. They also said the unlawful monitoring violated the privacy of protesters.

Attorneys even went so far as to draw comparisons to COINTELPRO’s surveillance of the Black Panther Party. According to the CCR press release, the filing of the lawsuit was timed to honor the 50th anniversary of the founding of the militant civil rights group on Oct. 15, 1966.

“Just like in decades past, fatal police shootings of Black people continue with alarming frequency, as does the unlawful government surveillance of those who speak out against it and protest,” said Omar Farah, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The public has the right to know how and why the federal government is surveilling constitutionally protected activity in response to police violence.”

Attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights and Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University are hoping to pull out another victory with this new lawsuit. According to Salon, CCR was also behind the litigation challenging the constitutionality of stop and frisk in New York City. A federal judge later found the policing tactic unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.

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