Oregon Surveillance of Black Lives Matter Spotlights Racial Profiling Challenge

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When Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum received a letter on November 10 from the Urban League of Portland alleging that the state’s justice department was conducting digital surveillance of Salem Twitter users who used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, she was appalled.

Among those monitored was Erious Johnson Jr., the director of the Civil Rights Division and a member of Rosenblum’s executive team. And Rosenblum herself was engaged in an effort to combat racially targeted surveillance—not promote it.

Rosenblum chairs a state task force that was created by a state bill enacted in July, which aims to end profiling by Oregon law enforcement agencies. The so-called Law Enforcement Profiling Task Force is scheduled to send a report on the law’s implementation to the Oregon State Legislature on December 1.

The fact that the very surveillance activities that Rosenblum and her task force had set out to combat were happening in her own agency highlights the tenacious, complex nature of racial profiling.

The bill in question, known as the End Profiling Act (H.B. 2002), was signed into law by Democratic Governor Kate Brown and requires all law enforcement agencies—the Oregon Department of Justice included—to adopt written policies and procedures that prohibit profiling by January 1. The task force created by the new law is made up of a Brown-appointed committee that includes law enforcement agents, community groups, and members of the public.

Black Lives Matter organizers in Oregon aren’t the first activists subjected to surveillance. Last December, 11 protesters who had been monitored by Mall of America security staff in Bloomington, Minnesota, were charged with criminal misdemeanors. The Intercept obtained documents showing that mall security staff made fake social media profiles—a practice known as “catfishing”—to monitor activists and gather information about them in dossiers.

“Surveilling people based on their political ideas undercuts the fundamental freedoms that our country was founded on,” David Rogers of ACLU of Oregon told Oregon Public Broadcasting shortly after the incident came to light.

The surveillance of black activists is reminiscent of the surveillance of civil-rights activists, namely Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. In 1956, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began COINTELPRO, an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program, to disrupt political movements and spy on law-abiding American citizens.  

In 1964, at the peak of the civil-rights movement, the FBI mailed to King secretly obtained recordings that proved his extramarital affairs, along with a letter urging him to commit suicide. Also among those targeted were Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, the national spokesman of the Black Panther Party, who was murdered while sleeping by the Chicago police as part of a COINTELPRO operation.

The recent Oregon incidents uncomfortably mirror the acvitities of COINTELPRO, which targeted activists thought to belong to black nationalist hate groups.

The Oregon employee accused of digital monitoring used an online tool called Digital Stakeout, which is often used by police and other agencies to “manage cyber risk and mitigate threats.” Along with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, the employee also searched “Fuck the police,” on the grounds that both of those phrases constituted threats against police.

Law enforcement officials in other states have also cast Black Lives Matter activists as a threat to police. New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie claimed that activists were calling for the death of police officers last month. “I don’t believe that movement should be justified,” said Christie, on CBS’s Face the Nation, “when they are calling for the murder of police officers.”

During the civil-rights era, Hoover and the FBI illegally and secretly infiltrated activists’ political movements for 15 years. It wasn’t until 1971, when a group of activists burglarized an FBI office in Pennsylvania, that the FBI’s illegal operations came to light.

By contrast, Rosenblum has responded quickly and transparently to surveillance allegations in Oregon. She has declared that the employee in question very well may have broken the law. “There is a statute that does make it, as a general matter, illegal to search for those kinds of things,” she told Oregon Public Broadcasting host Kate Davidson on November 11.  

Still, the mixed messages coming from the Oregon attorney general’s office underscore the challenge of eradicating racial profiling nationwide. 

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