From Bridgeview to Black Lives Matter, Targets May Change, But the Surveillance Remains the Same

Posted on November 19, 2017

Two new reports released in as many weeks, one by WBEZ and the other by Al Jazeera, vividly illustrate how politically motivated policing is a thread that runs through law enforcement from before the start of the war on terror through the present day. These stories make clear that intensive digital surveillance began long before 9/11, and that it has since proliferated to afflict other vulnerable communities with monitoring of the same intensity. 

In late October, WBEZ featured an interview with documentary filmmaker Assia Boundaoui and attorney Christina Abraham (who has worked with CCDBR’s Acting Free program) in which they discussed the longstanding and invasive campaign of FBI surveillance targeting the Muslim population in Chicago’s Bridgeview neighborhood. The FBI program, known as Operation Vulgar Betrayal, was started in the 1980s and heavily monitored Muslims in Bridgeview regardless of whether or not there was criminal suspicion. According to Boundaoui, not only were none of the subjects of the FBI program ever convicted of terrorism-related offenses, but the dossiers generated on these subjects were retained indefinitely by the bureau, the existence of which was only revealed after Boundaoui filed a FOIA request for them. 

A documentary short released by Al Jazeera aptly portrayed the present incarnation of the indiscriminate, politically motivated police monitoring of Black Lives Matter activists, which can trace its roots back to Operation Vulgar Betrayal and the FBI’s COINTELPRO before it. The piece documents the systematic manner in which local and federal law enforcement target participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with social media monitoring, communication snooping via stingray devices, and infiltration by undercover informants. Far from an ad hoc strategy which police employ to manage local demonstrations, internal FBI documents revealed through FOIA requests show that Black Lives Matter and other racial equality movements are frequently characterized as “Black Identity Extremists,” equating their activities with terrorism.

CCDBR actively participated in the “Chicago Red Squad lawsuit,” which for several years curtailed political policing by the Chicago Police Department “Red Squad.”  Archives of this effort are held by the Chicago History Museum and are available for researchers there.

When seen against the backdrop of the 1980s surveillance of Bridgeview Muslims, the blanket surveillance of Black Lives Matter organizers clearly represents a continuation of a longstanding practice of monitoring minority communities and political dissidents in America.  

You can listen to the full WBEZ segment here, and watch the full Al Jazeera piece here