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When the Police Target Black Twitter

Civilian activists who rail against racial bias by U.S. authorities are also feeling the heat in the digital world.

  • Andrew Lindsay
August 22, 2016

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.

Just as mobil­iz­a­tion is required to chal­lenge law enforce­ment when they go too far in our phys­ical communit­ies, activ­ism is required when author­it­ies go too far in the digital world as well.
(Photo: Think­stock)