Tag Archives: Overcriminalization

Levitating the Pentagon Is Now A Terrorist Act

rainbow-family

Back in 1967, the much-missed Abbie Hoffman and several hundred of his friends hatched a plan to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon, so that they could end the war in Vietnam. They meticulously went through all the steps for requesting a permit (including negotiating the proposed levitation down to three feet, from the initially suggested 300 feet). Most amazingly of all, to our tired War-on-Terror eyes, they were allowed to go through with it, albeit with several thousand US troops and a couple hundred US Marshals standing ready in case of chaos.

Authoritarians of both major parties will be happy to hear that today’s law enforcement won’t stand for such peaceful acts of political theater. At a time when the newspapers are dutifully parroting the paramount need for a Democratic President to bomb ISIS so hard that it will make the rubble bounce, our domestic law enforcement agencies and private security companies are getting floods of easy money to deal with the devastating terroristic threats posed by people who drop glitter or take photos of factory farms or who hold hippy parties in the woods.

Pity, in this last context, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, who make the mistake of “stressing non-violence, peace and love.” We Are Change reports that Missoula’s police chief has applied for a grant from DHS (who else?) to purchase a mobile command unit to spy on the Rainbow Family as an “extremist” organization. One of its gatherings was described as “rowdy” and as “creat[ing] a mess that [needed] to be cleaned up”. If that makes you an extremist, then based on the appearance of our toy room I appear to have two domestic extremist seven-year-olds; maybe I should be applying for a quarter-million dollar grant from DHS myself?

My goodness gracious. Well, the last thing we Americans want is any rowdiness. Leave that to the Canadians, or possibly the British. We, unlike them, are sober and obedient people who dutifully obey orders from the powers that be. It’s the only safe thing to do in this post-9/11 world.

Our New Bill H. 2170 Mandates Police Bodycams, Protects Data

"Our police department in Lynn, MA likes both kinds of music - country AND western..."

“Our police department in Lynn, MA likes both kinds of music – country AND western…”

When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, there was no video of it. When Denis Reynoso was shot in Lynn, MA, there was no video of it. But what if there had been? And what if police bodycams could significantly reduce incidents of use of force by police?

Responding to this need, Digital Fourth took model legislation developed by the Harvard Black Law Students Association that mandates bodycams for police departments, modified it for Massachusetts, and got a bill filed on Beacon Hill. This session was the first time our gallant volunteers have tried anything like this, and we got a strong response. Sen. Jamie Eldridge filed the bill in the Senate; Rep. Denise Provost filed it in the House; and it has already attracted as cosponsors Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield), Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) and Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston).

The bill is a result of months of consultation with interested police departments and grapples with some difficult issues – how would bodycam data be used? When would officers be required to record? What about the consent of the people being filmed? It sets up a blue-ribbon committee to review traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and bodycam footage, requires police officers to carry bodycams in almost all circumstances, and sets strong controls on the use and dissemination of the footage.

As this appears to be the only bodycams bill that got filed in the 2015-16 session, we believe that our bill represents the best chance of fostering a discussion about reducing on-the-ground unreasonable searches and seizures – the bread and butter of the Fourth Amendment – and that it could substantially improve relations between the police and communities of color in particular. Community-police relations directly affects those working on policy initiatives: One of the people advising on our bill, Segun Idowu, chairman of the Boston Police Cameras Action Team, was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest and is currently facing trial.

“Our research, inspired by current events, confirms that community/police relations may be improved with the use of this technology, as bodycams will provide a truth that has no color,” said McKenzie Morris, President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “This legislation, albeit a first step, is a necessary endeavor for the pursuit of transparency and accountability in policing.”

Our New Bill, H2169, Reining In Militarization in Massachusetts

DemocracyLooksLike

Last month, we broke the news that even small towns in Massachusetts, like Rehoboth and Norfolk, were getting mine-resistant armored vehicles for free from the federal government, and had no good answer for why they needed them.

Last Friday was the deadline for filing bills for the Massachusetts legislature’s 2015-16 session, and we took the opportunity to draft a solution to the state’s police militarization problem.

Sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), our bill doesn’t ban police departments altogether from getting military-style equipment. What it does is forbid them from getting them for free, either from the federal government or as a gift from any third party. If they want to get military equipment (including stingrays or drones), the mayor and city council (in a city) or the selectmembers (in a town) have to vote publicly to approve that purchase, in effect forcing the purchase to come out of municipal funds.

Right now, the process is not democratic. The federal surplus programs are a remote corner of the federal budget, and their costs are a rounding error in DC. But to the taxpayers of a town like Rehoboth, it makes a big difference whether it’s them or the feds paying for a $700,000 MRAP.

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Should We Police Threats On Social Media?

keyboard-commando

The United States has a well-developed jurisprudence for dealing with people who make threats. The default presumption, thanks to the First Amendment, is that any speech, even speech that is frightening, prejudiced or factually wrong, is legal. Even a generic desire for the President to die has First Amendment protection. The key precedents here are Watts v. United States and Brandenburg v. Ohio, both from 1969. In Watts, an 18-year-old remarked during a rally against the draft that:

“They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J.”

The ruling suggested that this was protected as merely ‘a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President’, of a kind still very familiar to us today. Those prosecuted for threatening the President over the last few years have typically had additional evidence of actual conspiracy to commit murder.

In Brandenburg, a KKK leader’s advocacy of ethnic violence was ruled to be protected by the First Amendment, because it was not “directed to inciting” or “likely to incite, imminent lawless action.” There must be some specificity as to the time that the lawless action is to occur; it cannot simply be a generalized articulation of the need for violence at some future time. It must be, in other words, a so-called “true threat.”

These rulings have stood essentially unmodified for nearly half a century. They are also a lot more protective of threatening speech than most people, including surveillance state employees, casually assume. One result of that assumption is that surveillance agencies pro-actively monitor social media, and open investigations on the basis of First Amendment-protected threats they encounter, when the constitutionality of doing so is at best highly suspect.

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It Takes A Massive Surveillance Apparatus To Hold Us Back: Fusion Centers, Ferguson and the Deep State

Dime-Fasces

Here’s a question: How much of a national security threat are people protesting the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown?

If you answered, There’s no national security threat; they’re exercising their First Amendment rights, which should be celebrated, then you’re obviously a pre-9/11-American, which is enough to get you disinvited from the major TV propaganda shows.

Local news media reported on the Black Lives Matter protest in Boston, and noted, without really thinking about it, that “the state police Commonwealth Fusion Center monitored social media, which provided “critical intelligence about protesters’ plans to try to disrupt traffic on state highways.” It didn’t really register because journalists are mostly not watching fusion centers like we are, and aren’t seeing them come up again and again and again and again, lurking at the edges of stories about free speech and national security, and policing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say.

Think, then, of fusion centers as state-based NSAs overseen loosely by the Department of Homeland Security. Set up after 9/11 to provide “joined-up intelligence” and thwart terrorist attacks, they quickly found that there just wasn’t enough terrorism of the kind not ginned up by government informants themselves to sustain 88 separate local antiterrorism centers in addition to the NSA, FBI and CIA. So they expanded their definition of terrorism to cover many other things, which in Massachusetts have included harassing peaceful activists and elected officials while missing actual terrorist plots, and now, for lack of anything better to do with their tax dollars, vetting licenseholders for marijuana dispensaries and fostering anonymous threat reporting in public schools.

We have advocated against fusion centers for a long time. Last week, we received the results of a FOIA request to Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Fusion Center that throws more light on the kind of information they hold, and the kind of society that is being constructed without our consent.

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State Report Tells Schoolkids: Inform, Conform, and Trust the Police

"La Cucaracha", August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz

“La Cucaracha”, August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz

Following on from the Sandy Hook school shooting, the “Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security” released a report in July. As you’d expect from a report written with plenty of police input and none from the civil liberties community, it recommends changes that are highly intrusive, probably ineffective, definitely expensive, and likely to benefit police more than they benefit students.

Of course, that’s not how it’s being reported. Local papers, including my own, are portentously explaining how this is all “for the kids” and will “keep them safe” (I’d link to the Belmont Citizen-Herald’s exhaustive coverage, but it’s not up yet).

The most important thing to understand regarding school shootings is that school districts can’t prevent them. I wish they could, but they can’t. School shootings happen far too much in the US, largely because we spend too little on mental health services and allow, as a matter of constitutional principle, broad access to guns. School shootings also tend to happen more in rural and suburban districts where the schools are pretty much the only place that will grab the attention of the whole community.

Nothing school districts can do will change these things. However, in fear that they ought to be doing something, it’s very possible for school districts to misdirect funds better spent on education, and impose inappropriate systems of surveillance and control.

Let’s look anew, with a critical eye, at what’s being suggested.

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White Flags On The Brooklyn Bridge: Massive Surveillance Can’t Even Stop Minor Crimes

On July 22, at 3:30am, in place of the Stars and Stripes that usually fly over the Brooklyn Bridge, bleached-out American flags appeared instead. Despite three surveillance cameras and allegedly round-the-clock police surveillance, four or five people, their identities still unknown, were able to cover up the lights trained on the flags, take them down, and hoist up their own.

Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

What interests us here is not so much the action itself, as the police reaction.

“If they had brought a bomb up there, it would have been over,” said a high-ranking police source. “If they were able to bring something large enough to cover the lights, then they would have been able to bring some kind of explosive up there.” […] A police helicopter on Wednesday made repeated passes around the Brooklyn Bridge. NYPD radio cars patrolled the spans’ roadways, and police boats scoured the span from the water. New security cameras were also installed, and numerous officers – some from the Intelligence Division and Counterterrorism Bureau – were assigned to foot patrols, walking back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn. [CBS]

New York police are so determined to catch the vandals who replaced the American flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge that they’re using an investigative technique known as “tower dumping” to examine all of the cell phone calls made near the bridge around the time the flags were replaced. […] The NYPD is also using social media data, video, facial recognition technology and approximately 18,000 license plate pictures in trying to solve the case. [IBT]

Horrified at the exposure of a security lapse, the NYPD turned its immense resources toward finding the people who had embarrassed them. The local press described them as “vandals” and quoted local residents as wanting them to be “punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

What law?

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The Executive’s Humpty-Dumpty Terrorism Watchlisting Policy: Lessons from People v. Morales

humpty-dumpty

The Intercept’s publication of the criteria for the terrorism watchlists throws some light at least on what the government tells itself a terrorist is. This is a matter of keen interest to many of us, since a close reading of the following text tells you a lot about the values and priorities of our new-minted surveillance state overlords.

terrorism_definition

Not to go all mise en abyme about it, but this definition is, well, abysmal. Let’s take it a step at a time.

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Racial profiling, Muslim surveillance, and the NYPD

NYPDOn Tuesday, April 15 the New York City Police Department (NYPD) announced it was disbanding a controversial unit that had been spying on Muslims since its inception in 2003. The NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” specifically gathered intelligence on Muslims living in New York City, New Jersey, and even as far away as Philadelphia. It sent plain clothed detectives to cafes, restaurants, and other community centers frequented by Muslims with the stated purpose of identifying potential centers of terrorist activity. Detectives were told to speak with the employees at such establishments about political issues in attempt to identify anti American sentiment. The NYPD also sent informants to Muslim student groups on various college campuses. Despite the wide breadth of surveillance, even the NYPD acknowledged that the program has failed to create a single lead.

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