Police surveillance of law-abiding people undermines our democracy

Greensboro Police Department
Greensboro Police Department
Greensboro Police Department

The recent disclosure in Yes Weekly of surveillance activities carried out by the Greensboro Police Department on law-abiding community activists is disturbing, but not shocking. Let’s be clear: surveillance of law-abiding citizens is hardly new in Greensboro. Just ask any young Black or Latino man in town — virtually all of them (and many of their sisters) have personal experience with repeated, groundless traffic stops. In some of these stops, officers intimated violence (as in, “You can let me do this search now, or we can do it the hard way”) in order to get compliance with unwarranted searches.

This pattern of police behavior has become so normalized, everyone knows its slang name: DWB, or driving while black/brown. DWB’s ill effects aren’t limited to inconvenience or public embarrassment. These kinds of traffic stops are by their very nature imbued with the tension of unequal power — a setup for far more violent outcomes. Even when a traffic stop ends without violence, the threat is just underneath the surface (“the hard way,” mentioned above), adding to chronic fear and mistrust. In the county where we lost Daryl Howerton and Gil Barber – two young black men whose lives ended suddenly and inexplicably at the hands of police – this fear is certainly not baseless. DWB, and the mistrust and violence it engenders, is just one of the ways that some communities in our city are “occupied” by the police.

How ironic, then, to learn that the police “occupied” Occupy Greensboro, along with other activist groups in town. Of course, Greensboro is hardly alone in this: since 9/11 police surveillance of activist groups intensified across the country. In this period, police departments, sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement agencies acquired the tools, weaponry, and mindset of paramilitary units who are in a perpetual “war” with a range of “terrorists” who are purported to be plotting unspecified violence.

Problem is, Greensboro isn’t exactly a terrorist hotbed, so all this anti-terrorist fervor, personnel, and equipment has to be directed somewhere: heck, why not point it at those shifty radicals at the Peace and Justice Network or Occupy Greensboro? The information available to the public through the Yes Weekly articles indicates the City of Greensboro spends a considerable amount of time, energy and tax-payer money collecting information about the perfectly legal activities law-abiding residents engage in as they get together to try to build a better world. There are at least two officers (Finch and Flowers) dedicated to the task of monitoring these groups. With salaries, benefits, tools, vehicles, and overhead, that’s got to come to more than $150,000 per year.

Feel safer yet? We don’t, and a lot of our friends who are working for a more just, sustainable, and democratic Greensboro don’t either.

Here’s the deal: this kind of surveillance comes at a terrible price that goes way beyond the waste of taxpayer dollars — it undermines democracy in at least two ways. First, it has a chilling, divisive effect on community social movements. Activists can never be sure whether and to what extent their activities are being reported, recorded, interpreted, filed in some police file somewhere. Some of us “hard-core” activists came to grips with this reality a long time ago, assuming there’s a possibility of police monitoring of any meeting or event, and making a point of doing our work in hyper-transparent ways, just so there is never misunderstanding about our motives and means—in case the meeting/conversation/phone call happens to be recorded or otherwise reported on.

But to make any kind of a difference in our society, social movements have to grow to include many more people than the “hard core.” For the concerned community member who is thinking they might like to attend a community meeting or stand on a picket line, the prospect of being monitored is often enough to sway them to stay home instead. They think something like this: “A police file? Don’t criminals have police files? I’m not a criminal, so I shouldn’t have a police file! I better not get involved in anything that might lead to a police file!”

If that sounds a bit histrionic to you, consider that the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law by President Obama, has provisions allowing for indefinite detention of anyone suspected of engaging in terrorist acts, without even having to tell the person what they’re suspected of doing. In this terrorism-obsessed, suspicious climate, the possibility of having a police file – contents unknown to you – really is something to worry about.

The second threat to democracy is subtler, but just as real. It has to do with who is being monitored. It’s pretty clear from the articles in Yes Weekly that most of Finch and Flowers’ surveillance was focused on left-wing, progressive groups, despite the complete lack of evidence that these groups were engaging in criminal activity. This suggests that the police are picking their targets for political reasons.

This can’t be solved by simply adding some right wing groups to the monitoring lists, either — the inherently unaccountable and subjective way in which decisions are reached as to who to target flies right in the face of fair treatment and right of free assembly. Between the above-mentioned “chilling effect” and the use of political targeting, we are faced with a serious challenge to the democratic engagement of community members. Seriously not good for democracy!

In a followup interview after the first Yes Weekly article, police Chief Ken Miller said, “Intelligence isn’t all criminal but it helps us keep tabs with what may be creating risk for our community.” Risk? Really? If the police are monitoring risks, we can only hope they’re monitoring bankers and securities traders, whose risky “legal” activities destabilized our economy, causing massive unemployment and swelling foreclosure rates to over 300 per month in Guilford County alone. That was sarcasm — we don’t actually think they’re monitoring bankers and traders. Does this mean the only risks the police fear are community movements that challenge the status quo? Which side are they on, anyway?

Throughout all the revelations and discussion of police monitoring, the responses of Chief Miller and others in City government have been to suggest that there is absolutely nothing odd about this kind of monitoring — Everyone is doing it! It’s simply “best practice!” This normalization of anti-democratic police behavior in the name of combatting unspecified threats is really disturbing. As is the normalization of “driving while black/brown,” and all the other ways that the police routinely target black people, brown people, poor people, immigrant people, and young people.

We’re not exactly sure what to do about these latest revelations, and how to connect them with the decades-long struggles in Greensboro to end institutionalized police abuses. One part of that struggle continues Thursday night, April 4th, at 6:30 pm at the Greensboro Historical Museum, where the Beloved Community Center will be hosting a community meeting on the topic of cleaning up the police department.

We can also ask our elected representatives on City Council to get answers to a few basic questions about police surveillance, like these:

  • Who oversees the police department’s surveillance program?
  • Are the targets of police surveillance determined through any sort of approval process that includes an elected or otherwise publicly accountable party?
  • What is done with information collected through police surveillance on individuals or groups not suspected of or connected to criminal activity?

Whatever the answers, it seems important to stand up and say, NO! We will not tolerate unfair, anti-democratic abuses by the police. We do not accept that anyone in our community has to pay this price in order for some of us to feel a bit safer. This is not the kind of “normal” that Greensboro wants!

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