Recap: Panel Discussion on Social Movements and the Surveillance State

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As part of our ongoing Activism is Not Terrorism campaign, BORDC/DDF hosted a panel of activists last week to discuss how social movements should fight against the ever-expanding government-sanctioned surveillance state.

The event was made possible with help from DC Jacobin and the DC National Lawyers Guild, and was held in the Mount Pleasant Library in Washington, DC. The panel was broadcast by WPFW Pacifica Radio’s On the Ground and the show Act Out!, which airs on Free Speech TV and

The title of the panel was Social Movements and the Surveillance State, and the panelists included Brandi Collins from the Color of Change, Hendrick Voss from the School of the Americas Watch, Dr. Maha Hilal from the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, and Chip Gibbons from the BORDC/DDF.

Gibbons began the panel by pointing out that a discussion of FBI surveillance abuses is always timely, since the FBI is always in the middle of some sort of scandal involving surveillance overreach. For example, Gibbons explained that the week of the panel the scandal was questioning protesters that were expected to demonstrate outside the upcoming Republican National Convention. He then went on to recount the history of FBI surveillance, a history that cemented his conclusion that “from its inception to the present, the FBI has been the political police of the United States of America.”

Dr. Maha Hilal spoke about the impact of surveillance on the Muslim community, and how Muslims have been targeted “not because they are part of social movements, but just because they are Muslim, just by virtue of the religion they adhere to.” Hilal detailed how the FBI was sending informants into Muslim communities to monitor practitioners and to entrap Muslim Americans by encouraging criminal activity. She drew parallels to Foucault’s panopticism, since Muslim Americans were forced to modify their behavior (not attending mosques and giving charitable donations) because of a constant fear of being watched. She ended by saying that the FBI had created a culture of distrust towards the Muslim community that has permeated throughout other law enforcement agencies and society at large.

Collins told the story of how Color of Change was founded out of outrage over the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and the absence of an organization that could provide a platform for black voices. She then delved into her work on Color of Change’s Not to be Trusted report, which analyzed how local news was misrepresenting minority communities by over-reporting black crime and underreporting white crime. Collins then talked about how police brutality and surveillance are interlinked by being police overreach, and said that she can only wonder “how history would be different had social justice movements not been aggressively snuffed out over time” by law enforcement.

Voss provided a history of the School of the Americas Watch, which was founded as an advocacy group to protest human rights abuses committed by graduates of the School of the Americas. School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is an institute founded by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1946 to train Latin American military personnel. School of the Americas has been a part of numerous controversies, including training individuals that went on to be military dictators and teaching torture in its curriculum. Voss told the audience about how his organization did not have any problems with the local police department until the FBI came in 2005 to brief the department on the threat that the organization supposedly posed. SOA Watch, fed up with the FBI sending infiltrators and arresting peaceful protesters, decided to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. SOA Watch learned through the FOIA request that they were being monitored as part of counterterrorism efforts, despite the fact that the FBI had always found them to be peaceful and nonviolent.

The panel highlighted the BORDC/DDF’s mission to unite activists from all sorts of organizations in order to fight unwarranted government surveillance. Each organization represented on the panel has signed a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees urging them to investigate the FBI for abusing their counterterrorism authority in spying on movements and groups like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and School of the Americas Watch. Gibbons said during the panel, “it’s important to not only think about the way in which the surveillance state threatens social movements, but the way in which social movements can take on the surveillance state.”

Thanks to Eleanor Goldfield, producer of Act Out!, you can watch part of the panel discussion: