Enemies of the State: Government Surveillance in Communities of Color

Government Monitoring Is A Way of Life for Communities of Color

By Tracie Powell

Immigrants, Hispanics, blacks and Muslim Americans are used to living under the watchful eye of the government. It’s simply a way of life, which may explain why communities of color seem to be unfazed by news reports about government spying on citizens. Or maybe they’ve just forgotten their history.

Advocacy organizations are setting out to remind these communities why they need to be more engaged in fighting against government surveillance. Media advocates are seeking to broaden the conversation, linking the NSA leaks to stop-and-frisk laws that hurt African Americans and racial profiling that targets Latinos. 

“In the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI spied on leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to try to discredit and destroy the civil rights movement. Anti-immigrant policing policies have empowered law enforcement throughout the U.S. — but especially in the Southwest — to target Latinos, who are subject to sweeping deportations and a prejudicial criminal justice system,” Josh Levy, campaign director for advocacy organization Free Press, writes in today’s Talking Points Memo. “Similarly, police in New York City and elsewhere use stop-and-frisk practices to racially profile African-Americans and other people of color. And since 9/11, the FBI has infiltrated Muslim-American communities, particularly in New York.”

Even still, according a recent study released by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, more than two-thirds of blacks (66%) believe the leak of classified information about National Security Administration phone and internet surveillance serves the public interest., compared to about half of whites (51%) and Hispanics (50%).

Surveillance of communities of color was the focus of a panel discussion last week, in which there was agreement that government monitoring is nothing new in America, or around the globe, which is why these communities seem indifferent to constant news reports on the subject. The discussion, hosted by Free Press, took place on the eve of the Stop Watching Us Rally held in Washington, D.C. late last month.

In order for communities of color to understand why they should care more about threats to their private communications, the panelists argued that not only will advocates need to focus on reforming the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act, they will also need to broaden efforts to include reforming local law enforcement’s reliance on racial profiling, stop and frisk and other discriminatory tactics.

A video of the panel discussion is below. It runs 1 hour and 27 minutes:

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  1. says

    This makes me think of the early outrage over intrusive “security” measures in the wake of September 11. I believe it was Melissa Harris Perry who first said that white Americans were angry because they were being treated the way black Americans always had been.

    She was right, too. Privilege made it easy for too many white Americans not to see or not to believe the truth about the policing of communities of color–and not to get angry if they did.

    Now, though, there’s not nearly as much as outrage from anyone as there was in the beginning, over smaller violations. The media is abuzz over these things, but social media isn’t. It’s not a hot conversational topic, either, as far as I can tell.

    I’m not disputing that the problem is more severe in groups with a longer history of this kind of surveillance and “security.” (Actually, both problems–not just the lack of concern but the surveillance itself–are worse.) I’m just wondering how long it takes to see this kind of thing as a given and feeling powerless to change it.

    There are people entering adulthood who can’t remember when things were different. Soon, people who were born into the world of post-September 11 intrusion and surveillance will be adults. It scares me to think of an adult population that doesn’t know another way and may not understand the problem.

    And even as I type that, I realize that it, too, is a reflection of privilege, because the country is full of adults who grew up in a world of punitive, intrusive policing and surveillance. I feel a little sick, lamenting the diminution of a manifestation of privilege.

    But I do lament it, because privacy and the knowledge of its importance matter. And because I want to see privilege destroyed through inclusion. In this case, I want law enforcement and security agencies to serve, not terrorize or monitor, people of color.

    The way we’re going, privileged people are losing rights but not privilege. Yes, the government is now spying on everyone. But that doesn’t mean it’s spying on everyone equally or using (or even interpreting) information the same way for everyone. This is just another manifestation of the ugly historical truth that, no matter how bad white Americans have it, they still have it better than Americans of color.

    This is another time when all Americans who aren’t super-rich need to realize that, divided, we are already conquered. What happens to any human being happens to every human being, and not just symbolically. It’s hard to remember that, either with empathy or in self-interest, when one is busy dividing human beings up into categories. If we stopped buying into the rhetoric of Us and Them (whether They are a different color, a different gender, a different orientation, a different religion, or whatever), maybe we’d remember that We are powerful. Powerful enough to demand change and get it.

    Even powerful enough to demand meaningful oversight of agencies like the NSA.

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