Because I am predisposed to take everything with a grain of salt and was born with the inability to have delusions of grandeur, when friends and acquaintances tell me, “You know they are watching you,” I usually dismiss it with the same relative inattention I pay to accusations of reverse racism or white oppression.
After all, who the hell is “they”?
a. The feds?
b. The cops?
c. Our fairer-skinned, “MAGA” compatriots who order dry whole wheat toast?
The answer is d—all of the above.
And if all of this sounds like a vast, paranoid conspiracy theory, I point you in the direction of the Boston Police Department.
Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union reveal that for years, the Boston Police Department has been using a sophisticated social media monitoring program to spy on the social media posts of Black Lives Matter activists, Muslims and even high school students in the area, according to Privacy SOS.
After the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., major cities across the country began creating special intelligence units dedicated to preventing acts of terrorism. These interdepartmental units are basically local versions of the FBI, employing the same kinds of surveillance techniques. They are ostensibly local spy agencies.
The New York City Police Department’s intelligence unit monitored text messages from Black Lives Matter members. Baltimore’s version used high-definition cameras attached to planes flying above the city 24 hours a day to monitor activists after the uprising over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. But maybe none were as sophisticated as the Boston Regional Intelligence Center.
The BPD used a program called Geofeedia that monitored Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms used by any activists with more than a pinch of melanin in their skin. It collected information about political beliefs, social activism, religious activities and regular conversations that had no importance related to criminal activity. It tagged anyone who spoke out against law enforcement.
What it did not do is solve a single crime.
First, let’s make this clear: Geofeedia and the Boston Police Department were not targeting criminal suspects. They were not trying to solve or prevent crimes. The people they surveilled were not even suspected of any past or future wrongdoing. They were just regular black people. They were just ordinary Muslim citizens.
Take a man named Tito Jackson, for instance. In November 2014, Jackson wrote a Facebook post about being thankful. He talked about helping the citizens of his community pass out turkeys in the days prior to Thanksgiving. He told people to be thankful that they weren’t homeless. But Jackson made a grave mistake in his Facebook post. He mentioned the words “Ferguson” and “police brutality.” He was now under surveillance.
Jackson is not a criminal. Most people wouldn’t even consider him radical. But he was black, which made him a target of the Boston police. There is one more thing that is important to know about Jackson and his targeting:
He was also a Boston city councilman.
In March 2016, over 1,000 students walked out of Boston public schools to protest budget cuts. Forty-two percent of students in the Boston Public Schools district are Latinx and 35 percent are black. Only 14 percent are white. Of course, Geofeedia was watching them. The software cataloged the students’ social media communication. As intricately detailed as the program seemed to be, it did not differentiate between harmless private conversation and serious threats. Maybe because “they” didn’t care. Or perhaps stopping violence was never the purpose of the software.
The program also tracked Muslims who used everyday terms in regular communications. Two of the most frequent “trigger words” that popped up alerts in the system were “ummah”— which roughly translates to “community” in Arabic—and “Muslim Lives Matter” because ... of course. The Islamophobic algorithm resulted in almost every religious service and charitable activity in Boston’s Muslim community being spied on, including events like a Muslims Against Hunger fundraiser.
Supposedly a crime-fighting tool, Geofeedia was used by the BRIC as a virtual, online version of stop and frisk. There is no evidence that the data resulted in a single arrest. (Although, to be fair, a number of teenagers were arrested for recklessly driving their bicycles. Some people suspect it was because the hashtag #BikeLife was a trigger word in the software.) Instead, the software targeted individuals based mainly on their political beliefs and religion.
The BPD no longer uses Geofeedia—not because it was ineffective or because there is no evidence that it ever helped prevent a single incident of violence, but because Twitter, Facebook and Instagram banned its use.
This is not an isolated occurrence in a single municipality. It is part of the invisible cost of being black or Muslim and speaking above a whisper. Even if you have no nefarious intentions, you will be watched if you are a person of color who uses his or her voice to do ... well ... anything. It is not even about crime prevention, protecting or serving. It is about control. It is about forcing brown mouths to shut the fuck up.
Whether it is giving away food, fighting for education reform or even thanking God, not being white is cause for suspicion in and of itself. The first right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is freedom of speech, religion and assembly because, without it, none of the others are possible. If the people entrusted with enforcing those laws are the ones who violate them, then who in this country is really free?
a. White people.
c. Not you.
The answer is d—all of the above.