Boston is a city that prides itself on its progressive politics. But it’s time to take a closer look at surveillance and policing in the city, according to Fatema Ahmad, Deputy Director of the Muslim Justice League (MJL). She was addressing a diverse audience of close to 100 at a Resisting Surveillance forum in Boston on January 20. Ahmad described a vast web of surveillance and repressive policing in Boston that includes gadgets like Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), gang databases, and human surveillance by trusted community members like social workers and healthcare providers as part of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program.
The forum was the third in a series of public education events held in Boston over the past year and half, and the fourth in a series of fora held in different cities where CVE programs are operational. The event was co-sponsored by the Boston Workman’s Circle, American Friends Service Committee, ACEDONE (African Community Economic Development of New England), and Defending Rights & Dissent.
My’kel McMillen with Keep it 100 for Egleston, spoke about one of those surveillance gadgets: police drones, and the impact they are having on his Jamaica Plains community. One day in the summer of 2017, people enjoying barbeques and recreation outdoors noticed a drone. It was “freaking people out, no one knew who was flying them” My’kel said. But the drone pilots turned out to be the police, and My’kel had the pictures to prove it.
Boston police at first denied that they had any drones, but when confronted with the pictures My’kell had taken, they admitted they did purchase 3 drones at a cost of $17,500. Police will not reveal if the money to buy the drones came from the state or city budget, and they continue to claim that they are not flying the drones, and will not until a drone policy is written.
The City Council had not been aware that BPD had acquired drones, and a Public Records Request for the drone policy filed by the ACLU was denied with police claiming the policy is just a draft.
My’kel urged the audience to stay engaged, stay observant and protect themselves.
Burhan Mohamed, the next speaker, shared how members of his community in Minneapolis, MN is staying engaged and protecting themselves from government surveillance and repression. Burhan represents the Young Muslim Collective (YMC), which is building community opposition to the Countering Violent Extremism program which targets the Somali American community in Minneapolis.
Burhan stressed the sometimes subtle form that surveillance and repression of a community can take. From a program to learn about the criminal justice system at a youth center serving a low-income immigrant community, to police donating bikes to ‘at risk’ youth, to the FBI community liaison insinuating themselves into the Somali American community. These programs, like CVE, pretend to provide benefits for communities that law enforcement has declared are full of potential criminals (ie: ‘at-risk’).
“No reason i can’t be playing basketball without an FBI agent showing up and asking if they can help me with my homework,” Burhan noted.
It is easy for a program like CVE to take root in Minneapolis’ Somali community because it is under resourced, and many in the community have been convinced that “we are the problem, that there is a problem.” Young Muslim Collective is creating a counter narrative, educating the community about the harms caused by CVE and surveillance, and striving to provide needed services — minus the surveillance and criminalization.
Back to Boston, Fatema highlighted surveillance and control programs aimed at communities of color including surveillance cameras, ALPRs, immigration control software, stop and frisk, and the gang database. For the most part, BPD has deployed these programs in secret.
Fatema urged the audience to think critically about how local law enforcement are feeding information to federal agents (including ICE).
And she drilled down on why the CVE program is so dangerous. It is marketed to fight all kinds of violent extremism, but the idea behind it is that Muslim youth all need extra help to prevent them from becoming terrorists. Muslims only deserve funding and programs because they are a threat. A new CVE initiative in Boston is of great concern. It is aimed specifically at the Somali American youth, and encourages them to ‘hang out’ with police. The program describes one of the top risk factors for Somali males as “unaccountable times and unobserve spaces.” In other words, privacy.
The program generated a lively discussion, with audience members sharing their stories of surveillance. The first, and most important step is education. “Sometimes the education itself can end the program,” MJL Executive Director Shannon al-Wakeel noted. “The commodity is not some technology. The commodity is us. Education can prevent us from being bought, and unmask the lie that they are community driven.”
On Sunday, MJL, ACEDONE, and YMC hosted a workshop and training for young people who are directly impacted by CVE. Over sixty youth attended and committed to being engaged and ready to continue organizing.
So this is not the last that we’ll be hearing from Boston.