Document Raises Questions About Escalating Government Surveillance and Criminalization of Black Activists
March 19, 2018, New York, NY – Today, racial justice organizations filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release the contents of the agency’s blacked-out memo referred to in government documents as the “Race Paper.” The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Color of Change, the groups suing today, first uncovered the existence of the “Race Paper” via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to DHS, which sent them a fully redacted version with only the name of the attachment visible. Advocates argue that the existence of the “Race Paper,” among other documents they obtained, confirms the targeted surveillance that many Black activists and organizers around the country have reported, and raises alarming questions about the agency’s approach to Black people engaging in protected First Amendment activity.
“The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are at war with Black activists,” said Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change. “The documents we’ve forced the federal government to release expose how these agencies are demonizing and intimidating Black activists – people who are rightly demanding that our country be more just – through coordinated and systemic surveillance.”
The redacted “Race Paper” is the newest of a slew of documents the groups have obtained that reveal how DHS and the FBI have both monitored and surveilled the Movement for Black Lives and pushed a state-sanctioned narrative that criminalizes Black protestors. The documents the groups received consist of a number of emails from the DHS sub-agency, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, each with an attached, fully redacted, version of the “Race Paper.”
Another set of DHS and FBI documents revealed in November 2017 show how federal agencies characterized Black protestors as “Black Supremacist Extremists” and portrayed protected First Amendment protest activity as violence-inciting as a justification to surveil activists. The documents were in stark contrast with the agencies’ communications regarding white supremacist groups, whom they deemed as engaging in “lawful” protest activity. Between May and December of 2017, DHS and the FBI turned over hundreds of pages of emails, reports, policies, and surveillance documents to the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change as a result of the FOIA request, many partially or fully redacted. Briefing guides are available online.
“Black and brown activists and the public in general should not be left to speculate as to why DHS prepared a document called the ‘Race Paper,’ circulated multiple versions of it, and called for in-person meetings to discuss its contents, but now fights to keep every word from seeing the light of day,” said Omar Farah, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “But given the long-standing and unconstitutional pattern of state surveillance of Black-led political movements, it bears repeating that FOIA is about transparency, not protecting government agencies from embarrassment.”
The Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights first filed the FOIA request to the agencies in October 2016 to uncover how DHS and the FBI were monitoring and surveilling the Movement for Black Lives, and Black protestors and organizers exercising their First Amendment constitutional rights at protests across the country. The request was specifically directed at the monitoring of protest activity whose subject matter or theme involved police violence, criminal justice, racial injustice, or the Movement for Black Lives. The request followed the many instances over the previous two years of military and counterterror resources being used to surveil protests as well as first-hand accounts of surveillance of protests and activists.
Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson continued, “Black communities know all too well how poisonous this kind of surveillance and intimidation is for social justice movements. During the civil rights era, agents with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program vigorously sought to discredit and destroy Black leaders and movements while they did nothing to address the injustices our communities were protesting. We can’t allow the FBI to essentially operationalize COINTELPRO for the twenty-first century without a fight. Up until recently, we’ve known very little about the government’s surveillance of our communities. But, by forcing the disclosure of more information about these surveillance efforts, including our demand today for the full and unredacted ‘Race Paper,’ we can better understand these attacks on Black activism and fight to prevent a new generation of Black activists from demonization, incarceration, intimidation, and punishment.”
“The very purpose of FOIA is to inform the people, check government corruption, and ensure accountability. DHS’s refusal to share any information without adequate explanation about the ‘Race Paper’ undermines the law’s critical principles, so vital to a democracy,” said Avidan Cover, Professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law. “Without more, we should be highly skeptical of the government’s invocation of national security as the basis for secrecy when it comes to surveillance, race, and the right to speak, assemble, and protest.”