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Racial justice groups sue feds for monitoring activists in the movement for black lives

Surveillance has been one of the federal government’s longstanding intimidation tactics.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, demanding information about the federal government’s surveillance of activists in the movement for black lives.

Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed the lawsuit Thursday at the US District Court of the Southern District of New York.

According to the court filing, the groups filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on July 5, “seeking records related to federal government surveillance and monitoring of protest activists related to the Movement for Black Lives.” By as late as September, the organizations had yet to receive a response.

Journalists have documented government surveillance of activists in the movement for black lives across the country. George Joseph reported for the Intercept last July that DHS monitored the Twitter and Vine accounts of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. In December 2014, reports emerged of the Chicago Police Department using stingray technology to eavesdrop on local protests.

Mother Jones reported that Zero Fox, a cybersecurity firm, identified activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie as "threat actors" during protests in Baltimore last year. And in August 2015, Vice reported that DHS was monitoring Mckesson's activities on social media.

“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,” Color of Change campaign director Brandi Collins said in an official statement to Colorlines.

Surveillance has been a longstanding intimidation tactic by the federal government, particularly against racial justice movements.

Martin Luther King Jr. is idolized for his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. But just two days after he delivered his oration, FBI Domestic Intelligence Chief William Sullivan wrote a memo calling King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Black Panthers as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country” in 1969 after they began giving free breakfast to children.

Nearly half a century later, as a new generation of activists carry on the fight for racial justice, the same government resistance strategies persist.

These actions raise a number of concerns, notably possible violations of privacy. But as noted in the briefing, “monitoring [the movement for black lives’] legitimate protest activities with the same surveillance methods used to target and disrupt potential terrorists undermines the First Amendment’s robust protection of political speech.”

Racism and police brutality continue to be major issues in America. At least 2,195 people have been killed by police since Mike Brown was killed by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson two years ago. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black. And despite the high frequency with which officer-involved killings take place, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available.

At a bare minimum, activists in the movement for black lives are demanding accountability. Nonetheless, this latest lawsuit only shows how federal agencies can undermine activists’ message.