Cross-posted on Ozy
“Don’t talk back. Speak only when spoken to. Avoid hoodies. Make no sudden moves.”
Those were just a few of the rules my mother had in case I ever interacted with law enforcement face-to-face. They were dished out with an acute and practical awareness of the challenges I would face encountering police as a young black male.
“Avoid online confrontations about race. Never reveal your location online. Don’t post about the police.”
It was with those words, spoken to me in college, when I first heard fear creep into my mother’s voice. I was a leader in the movement for racial justice at my school, shedding light on the detrimental effects of racial discrimination on minority students’ capacity to comfortably express themselves in and out of the classroom. Our group was viciously targeted by people who didn’t agree with us. They spread misinformation about our intentions and whereabouts through a satirical (now defunct) Twitter account, attracting the attention of the administration and the campus police.
Tweets claiming the movement had “trigger warning teams” and “safe zones,” as well as allegations that we had planned to interrupt the college’s annual football rivalry game, raised red flags and brought unwanted media attention. The claims grew so outlandish that student campaigners even became the targets of online death threats. My mother saw some of these comments, and while she never asked me to abandon the movement, she advised me to adjust my behavior, both virtually and in person, because my name and face were no longer anonymous.
Young people of color are reminded daily that the equality promised in the U.S. Constitution is far from a reality. Extrajudicial killings, racially based stops and other law enforcement excesses spur us into activism with the tools most readily at our disposal. These days, that means using Twitter and Facebook to organize protests. But online activism brings with it added burdens of surveillance.
The effort to discredit our movement failed, but it generated a lingering fear that my innocuous online interactions were being monitored. After all, if online trolls could invite law enforcement attention for imitating legitimate activism, I thought genuine activism stood little chance of escaping the crosshairs of surveillance. I began to self-censor much of my online presence, bringing home, at least for me, the similarities between the law enforcement excesses of the corporeal and virtual worlds.
After five Dallas police officers were killed last month, law enforcement agencies monitored social media for hostile speech aimed at police officers. So far arrests have been made in Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Alabama, Connecticut and New Jersey, and police have charged people with offenses ranging from public intimidation to disorderly conduct for online speech. Although many of these comments were hateful, like the ones praising the officers’ killer, the remarks were mostly nonspecific, presenting no clear or present danger to anyone’s safety.
Even before the Dallas shootings, government agencies and police departments stood accused of collecting information on minority activists and citizens via Facebook and other social media platforms. U.S. agencies have even tracked people in real time, similar to a live update on a Facebook news feed or Twitter timeline, while others used surveillance software with an algorithm to assign a color-coded threat level of green, yellow or red to so-called potential threats.
At times, the government has described the surveillance as mere monitoring, intended to provide “situational awareness.” But it is hardly a stretch to say these forms of “monitoring” hurt free speech. Just how free and unfettered is speech in a world where liking an event on a Facebook page or retweeting a photo can result in one being subject to a threat assessment? We have been down this road before with terrorism, and the record shows that this sort of widespread surveillance damages law enforcement’s ability to collect vital information from the community. No matter the constitutional objections to such monitoring, as a practical matter it does not enhance the fight against terrorism; it hobbles it.
After the NYPD spent 15 years spying on Muslims in mosques and other gathering places, for example, a report by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition found “a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of individual and community life.” The program “severed the trust that should exist between the police department and the communities it is charged with protecting.” The report further stated that constitutionally protected rights like religious practice, free speech and political organizing had been chilled. This admittedly led to quick reforms. The squad was disbanded in 2014, after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inauguration, and the coalition that conducted the report met with Police Commissioner William Bratton in 2014.
Today, everyone has two selves — an online digital “self” and the self of skin and bone. Activists are using the powerful tools of the digital self to mobilize communities of color to protest very real discrimination of the corporeal self. But just as there can be excessive use of force on the streets, there also can be excessive use of force in the digital realm — and it is no less painful or less harmful.