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Boston Police spy on peaceful, First Amendment-protected activity–but why?

By Christopher Ott, communications director, ACLU of Massachusetts

Why are Boston police spying on peaceful First Amendment activity? That’s a question being asked by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Massachusetts chapter, and others following revelations that Boston Police have been creating criminal “intelligence reports” on peace groups and local leaders.

This kind of surveillance of peaceful groups is nothing new, but it’s a surprise to many that it’s happening today in Boston and to ordinary citizens who are part of such unthreatening groups. Our “Policing Dissent Report” details how groups such as Veterans for Peace, United for Justice with Peace, and CodePink have had their peaceful protests characterized as “homeland security” threats and civil disturbances.

One police report, for example, dated March 23, 2007, details a church panel in Jamaica Plain organized by a former Boston city councilor and an anti-war rally on Boston Common featuring the late professor Howard Zinn under the label: “Criminal Act: Groups-Extremist.”

According to other documents that our lawsuit obtained, police track individual activists as well as political groups’ internal workings, and retain searchable records for years in violation of federal regulations, Boston Police Department privacy rules, and basic democratic principles.

Perhaps just as troubling as the fact that this kind of surveillance is happening in the first place is the difficulty we had bringing it to light. Boston police rebuffed initial public records requests filed by several organizations and activists in late 2010, seeking to understand the department’s surveillance practices and privacy protections. It took a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and NLG to obtain police documents and video recordings. Plaintiffs included Political Research Associates, Veterans for Peace-Chapter 9 Smedley Butler Brigade, CodePink of Greater Boston, the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, the Greater Boston Stop the Wars Coalition, and United for Justice with Peace, along with individual activists.

So far, responses from police officials to our findings have not been reassuring. Even if claims that police don’t do this anymore and don’t have time for this are taken at face value, it doesn’t explain why or how it happened in the first place. Also disingenuous are claims that the records we obtained are old; we began asking for them nearly two years ago. There has also been no apology.

We need to do more than take the police at their word that wasteful, intrusive monitoring of peaceful groups won’t happen again. We need legislative action to ensure oversight over the state’s two so-called “fusion” surveillance centers, where data being collected by police are being stored: the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) and the Commonwealth Fusion Center in Maynard. Release of our report came on the heels of a bipartisan US Senate investigation report Oct. 3, which found that the federal government’s work with state and local “fusion” surveillance centers “has not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.” The records we found — absurdly characterizing peace groups as a threat, even when there is no indication of criminal activity — seem to bear this out.

In addition to oversight, we also need further investigation. The lawsuit filed by the ACLU and NLG asked for records about only a handful of groups and activists, and raised more questions than it answered. If you are interested in pursuing other public records on police surveillance of peaceful organizations and First Amendment-protected activity, we may be able to assist and would be interested in learning what you find.

Ott can be reached at cott@aclum.org.

 

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