Mapping Resistance to Surveillance

Police Surveillance, January 10, 2009 (Photo: James Stewart, Flickr)

As pundits await the release of the full Mueller Report and speculate about its final contents, the FBI enjoys greater popular sympathy than it has in decades. The bizarre feuding between the petulant president and former FBI heads James Comey and Andrew McCabe have generated hours of coverage sympathetic to two of the country’s former top cops, who oversaw extensive monitoring of Black activists and Muslim communities, among many others, while Comey’s memoir complains that the term “mass incarceration” is “inaccurate and insulting.” There was, for some, a strange delight in CNN televising the FBI’s early morning raid on the home of Trump ally Roger Stone during the government shutdown in late January.

The surprising pageantry of the FBI seemingly at odds with the presidency has invited comparisons to the 1970s, when Mark Felt, the former number two at FBI, provided Woodward and Bernstein information that aided their investigation into the domestic crimes of the Nixon administration, ultimately leading to Nixon’s downfall. Felt revealed his identity in 2005; like Comey, his seemingly principled stand in the face of executive dissemblance masked a career of covert surveillance and repression.

The comparisons to the 1970s are perhaps inevitable, given the echoing familiarity of a divide between a corrupt presidency and a shadowy secret police force. Yet the undeserved support the FBI currently enjoys in some quarters is a dangerous laundering of the dirty deeds that comprise not only the agency’s history but its core mission. Though the FBI is most scandalously known for encouraging Martin Luther King to commit suicide and supporting the Chicago police murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the agency poses a more fundamental threat. A secret police force by design, the FBI has spied on and attempted to disrupt every progressive social movement over its 111-year history. As the FBI does not engage in street-level policing, its most pernicious function has been at the level of surveillance.

Surveillance is an expansive concept, ubiquitous but often opaque in ways that at times render it intangible. Surveillance is a central feature of the carceral state, and one carried out by everyone from police and probation officers to social workers and corporate video cameras. Surveillance can feel overwhelming and all-encompassing, seemingly harder to resist than police brutality or mass incarceration. After all, unlike the violence carried out by police and prisons, much of today’s visual economy revolves around surveilling ourselves and others through social media.

Yet even in its wide reach, surveillance is not all powerful. And as scholar Simone Browne shows in her award-winning book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, blackness is not just the subject of surveillance but also its antagonist. She describes this effort as one of “dark sousveillance,” a watching-the-watchers that shines light on the powerful institutions—such as the FBI—that lurk in the shadows. “Dark sousveillance is a site of critique,” Browne writes, “as it speaks to black epistemologies of contending with antiblack surveillance, where the tools of social control in plantation surveillance or lantern laws in city spaces and beyond were appropriated, co-opted, repurposed, and challenged in order to facilitate survival and escape.”

This dark sousveillance anchored a dramatic opposition to the security state in the pivotal 1970s. Throughout the 1970s, a wide range of activists targeted the surveillance apparatus in ways they never had before. While contemporary pundits often compare Trump’s alleged crimes to those of Richard Nixon, the continuities are perhaps most evident in the so-called “deep state” that the Trump administration rhetorically disparages, the alphabet soup of spying agencies: the CIA, FBI, and NSA chief among them.

Much of the organizing centered on the FBI, whose nefarious counterintelligence program—COINTELPRO—had been exposed in 1971, after a group of antiwar activists broke into a Pennsylvania FBI office, stole files illustrating the program’s existence and released them to the press. Revelations of the expansive government spying, alongside more direct forms of violence, anchored a wide swath of progressive and radical action. A growing range of organizations found common cause in targeting state repression—with opposition to surveillance at the heart of it. National organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service Committee and the Center for Constitutional Rights joined forces with groups like the Afrikan People’s Party (a successor to the Revolutionary Action Movement), the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rico Solidarity Committee, and many others. Their efforts ultimately sparked major national coalitions, such as the Coalition to Stop Government Spying, which had as its goals the abolition of the CIA and the Internal Security Division of the FBI, as well as support for civilian review and control of local police departments.

Broadly speaking, these efforts pursued (at least) three primary efforts: 1) opposing the bevy of repressive legislation that sought to expand police authority, prison sentences, solitary confinement, state surveillance, and other reactionary measures; 2) fighting carceral expansion; and 3) supporting grand jury resisters. Though their efforts failed to halt the build up of the carceral state, these disparate regional and national efforts provide a strong archive of dark sousveillance.

All of these efforts had deep roots and far-reaching branches: one of the loudest voices against the punitive turn was the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, a large coalition of civil liberties and faith-based groups that began in 1960 as the National Committee to Abolish HUAC (House Un-American Activities Commission), the vanguard force of surveillance and political repression at the time, and which continues today as Defending Rights and Dissent. The opposition to carceral expansion included everything from opposing new prison construction—efforts that included a number of ecumenical faith-based groups like the National Moratorium on Prison Construction—to attempts at stopping CIA or other security agencies from recruiting on college campuses. Contemporary efforts to stop prison construction, end life without parole sentencing, and eliminate the “digital shackles” of electronic monitoring continue in this tradition.

Perhaps the least well-known today of the three prongs, especially in the public intrigue accompanying the number of Trump associates who are now cooperating with the Mueller investigation, is the criticism of grand juries. Yet opposition to grand jury investigations was, and remains, a critical component of opposing the carceral state. Grand juries are secretive processes designed to bolster the power of prosecutors. People called before a grand jury cannot have an attorney present and are compelled into testifying under risk of imprisonment. Invoking the 5th Amendment or otherwise refusing to cooperate with a grand jury can result in someone being incarcerated for the length of that grand jury, typically 18 months but potentially longer. Prosecutors can ask about whatever they want in the proceedings, rendering grand juries an elaborate form of surveillance in and of themselves. Indeed, many grand jury opponents have criticized them as open-ended “fishing expeditions” that the government uses to map, surveil, and punish insurgent and disruptive social movements.

Lacking any other way forward in attempts to squash clandestine groups like the Black Liberation Army and the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN, a Puerto Rican revolutionary group), federal prosecutors impaneled grand juries throughout the 1970s and 1980s. If they could get one person to talk, prosecutors and police would have a way in to these and other furtive organizations. So too did they use grand juries to target the American Indian Movement and more radical sectors of the women’s liberation movement. The people called before these grand juries were public activists, engaged in legal forms of protest. Yet prosecutors hoped that they had information that would lead to the arrests of others—and hoped to compel that testimony by threat of incarceration for the would-be witnesses. By and large, however, people refused, just as they have in more recent investigations of anarchist, animal rights, ecological, indigenous, information transparency, and international solidarity movements. The 1970s had a Grand Jury Project that served as a clearinghouse for information about what grand juries were and how to resist them. Today, the Grand Jury Resistance Project carries on that effort.

So too does Chelsea Manning, the former Army Intelligence Analyst who spent seven years in prison for sending US military files, including documents of US-committed atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Wikileaks. Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence upon leaving office. Yet on March 8, Manning was jailed again, this time for her refusal to cooperate with a grand jury investigation. “I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to,” Manning wrote in a statement prior to being taken into custody, “particularly one that has been historically used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.”

Whatever happens to Trump, the FBI and the broader security state will remain an entrenched and unaccountable apparatus. Yet as Manning shows, dark sousveillance continues to be practiced. She, like other political and politically active prisoners, like the movements for transparency, accountability, and transformation that they come from and contribute to, continue to map the necessary resistance to surveillance.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.