Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s surveillance system will outlast the protest movement

For communities of color, surveillance is just another iteration of a policing system that inherently views them as suspicious, a digital stop-and-frisk.

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Photo by Max Herman

Brenda Leyva, a student at Roosevelt High School, chants as she leads a rally outside the District 17 Chicago Police Department station during a Black Lives Matter protest in Albany Park on June 11, 2020.

Even after months of nationwide protests, the cycle of police violence continues. The recent police shooting of 20-year old Latrell Allen under contested circumstances has further pitted police against community activists. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on police reform, is meeting the moment with a puzzling response: more police and more surveillance.

Mayor Lightfoot recently announced expanded social media monitoring and created a “rapid response” team under the guise of addressing looting. This response likely won’t make Chicago safer. Instead, it will further entrench an unproven and discriminatory surveillance system that has long targeted the city’s Black and brown communities. The surveillance system will outlast any protest movement, and will continue the pattern of treating communities of color as inherently suspicious.

This summer, the FBI and local police have actively monitored Black Lives Matter social media posts in a manner that blurs the line between law enforcement and protest suppression. In some cases, the FBI has arrested and jailed people on incitement charges only to quietly drop charges weeks later because the cases are so weak.

In Cookeville, Tennessee, members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force have shown up at people’s workplaces or homes and asked questions about their connections to the antifa movement simply because they helped organize a local Black Lives Matter rally. And in New York, police used facial recognition to identify a Black Lives Matter organizer; the photo police used was obtained from the man’s social media profile.

In Chicago, communities of color are no strangers to surveillance. Under Illinois’ Countering Violent Extremism Program, the FBI and the Chicago Police Department spent years surveilling Muslim communities under the guise of identifying people at risk of “radicalization.” This program, which went so far as to enlist health care professionals and teachers to gather intelligence for law enforcement, relied on disproven theories that people’s religious and political beliefs can be used to predict their propensity to commit violent crimes. Similarly misguided ideas inform the use of social media monitoring technology by the CPD and Chicago Public Schools, who surveil students under the guise of predicting violence or gang affiliation. There, students fear incorrect assumptions based on social media posts can land them in the city’s gang database, despite denial of gang affiliations and explanations that pictures of weapons were simply bb guns or toys. And yet another investigation into the CPD’s social media monitoring program found that the police regularly review the online posts from the victims of gun violence, along with their friends and family.  In the past, being a victim to a shooting incident was even used as a factor in the CPD’s algorithm for generating a “Strategic Subject List.”

For communities of color, surveillance is just another iteration of a policing system that inherently views them as suspicious, a digital stop-and-frisk. This discriminatory surveillance is perhaps most readily displayed in gang databases, which often rely on data from social media monitoring. Gang databases in Los Angeles, Portland, and New York have all been found to have clear racial biases, reflecting a laser sharp focus on Black and Latino residents. In Chicago, a blistering audit from the Office of Inspector General found a number of issues with the CPD gang database, from “incomplete and contradictory data” to unaccountable data sharing with “immigration and criminal justice agencies.” The audit warned that this database strained police-community relations, with residents expressing concern that the gang database criminalizes people in certain neighborhoods. Less than a year after the report, the Chicago police says it plans to replace the gang database with a new one, but no guarantee that it won’t be put to the same discriminatory use.

As thousands of people continue taking to the streets, the spike in searches for how to protect your privacy at a protest indicates a widespread fear of being watched. Police surveillance can chill constitutional freedoms, discouraging people from attending a protest or posting their support on social media. But for communities of color, ongoing and targeted surveillance also can also violate their right to equal protection under the law. As one court wrote about the NYPD’s targeted surveillance of Muslims in the wake of 9/11, “Our Nation’s history teaches the uncomfortable lesson that those not on discrimination’s receiving end can all too easily gloss over the ‘badge of inferiority’ inflicted by unequal treatment itself. Closing our eyes to the real and ascertainable harms of discrimination inevitably leads to morning-after regret.”

Earlier this year, President Trump was rightfully chastised for tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” We must remain equally vigilant against attempts to use looting as a justification for expansive surveillance. Breaking the cycle of shooting-hashtag-protest requires decisive leadership that breaks from the status quo, not reverting to familiar responses.