Stop Cop City is everywhereJune 28, 2023
House Judiciary Set to Act on Privacy and Press Freedom BillsJuly 18, 2023
There are few activities more legally risky than deciding to protest Cop City. I’d recommend becoming an opposition journalist in an authoritarian regime, perhaps, or maybe ding dong ditching the White House. Cops have shown no hesitation in assassinating an environmental activist, jailing protesters handing out flyers, and even arresting organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, the local jail support network.
In light of this repression, activists have been forced to develop a strong security culture. Stop Cop City activists adopt “forest names,” which they switch out routinely. Guided by assaults on previous protest movements, many activists have adopted digital security best practices. (This is true both of protesters planning actions with a high risk of arrest and those simply planning to chant on public sidewalks.) While everyone can benefit from digital privacy, the need in protest movements facing police repression is particularly acute.
The First Amendment protects political organizing, as well as anonymous speech. And the Fourth Amendment is meant to protect us from the prying eyes of the government. Nonetheless, law enforcement has historically engaged in pervasive snooping of lawful speech, leading those engaged in speech related activities to take affirmative steps to safeguard their activities from illicit law enforcement surveillance.
The raid on the Atlanta Solidarity Fund has opened up novel questions about how to run jail support without compromising protesters’ information. In bond hearings in March, a judge cited writing down a jail support number as evidence protesters intended to commit a crime; in the eyes of police, filling out a jail support form could be seen as equally damning. After the raid, organizers became aware of the risk posed by storing filled out pre-arrest jail support paperwork. Organizers now advise filling out jail support paperwork and giving it to a trusted friend, who can then provide information to jail support workers. The threat of intrusive data collection on protesters has forced activists to adopt workarounds.
Stop Cop City protesters have good reason to be wary of surveillance. In recent history, intelligence agencies have extensively surveilled activist movements. To name but a few examples, FBI agents have knocked on the door of an anti-fracking activist, infiltrated anti-Transcanada pipeline organizing meetings, and cooperated with big banks to tamp down Occupy Wall Street organizing. (For a fuller accounting through 2019, check out our report.) And that doesn’t even touch the surveillance conducted by state and local law enforcement, fusion centers, and DHS. First Amendment-protected activity is routinely surveilled by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and has been used as evidence against protesters. The early Stop Cop City domestic terrorism arrest warrants cited First Amendment protected speech and association, including being a prison abolitionist and attending environmental demonstrations elsewhere. That information was obtained somehow; we can speculate that police may have surveilled protesters’ social media.
And then there’s analogue surveillance. At the Stop Cop City occupation of Brownwood Park, it was hard to ignore the physical footprint of police spying. During the week of action, helicopters occasionally circled over the park, and cop cars lurked around every corner. By now, longstanding activists recognize the undercover cops that periodically traverse the park. When an undercover cop wearing a Jack Daniels t-shirt and dark jeans wandered past the welcome table, activists called him out by name, telling him to get lost. He sheepishly walked out of the park. The activists told me he’d come around often enough throughout the occupation of the Weelaunee Forest and Brownwood Park that most of the permanent crowd of activists knew him by face. Still, activists worry about being infiltrated by the cops they don’t know about yet. “Information is power, but we have to tread carefully,” an anonymous activist told me, pointing to the risks of sharing information within the movement. Secure channels don’t do much good if undercover cops are on group messages.
The full extent of the surveillance of the Stop Cop City movement remains to be seen. Defending Rights & Dissent and other organizations have filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests and state level open records requests to assess the extent of surveillance. These requests have been stymied by a variety of excuses. The FBI responded with previously-released files showing social media surveillance of Chicago Against Cop City activists. When asked to conduct a search that would encompass Atlanta files, the FBI declined, citing an open investigation. DHS, which put out a threat bulletin calling attention to “alleged DVEs [domestic violent extremists]” in Atlanta, took months to acknowledge a FOIA request filed in February, and has yet to respond substantively to the request. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which manages files for the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, has claimed that fusion center files are wholly exempt from open records requests. Extracting information about the true extent of the surveillance of the Stop Cop City movement will require extensive litigation. Intelligence agencies don’t divulge evidence of their surveillance easily.
Stop Cop City activists say often that Atlanta is the most surveilled city in America, a claim backed up by the statistics on the number of surveillance cameras placed throughout the city. Everywhere Stop Cop City activists go, they’re trailed by police, whether they’re camping in a park or holding a demonstration on the public sidewalk outside the Board of Commissioners building. Physical surveillance is easy enough to spot, but the extent of digital surveillance remains unknown.
It takes particular courage to continue to organize when you know that intelligence agencies are likely gathering files on you, and when you see cop cars around every corner. We can talk to the activists who showed up; we don’t know how many stayed home due to police repression and surveillance. Arrests are one tactic of repression; surveillance is another.