Surveillance and Occupy

Surveillance and Occupy

James B. Rule: Surveillance and Occupy

As the various Occupy movements reverberate around the country, we are hearing more and more about government surveillance mobilized against them. Particularly alarming are reports of efforts by federal, state, and local agencies to identify protesters by name and to compile their personal information in comprehensive databases. Orchestrated by the Department of Homeland Security, these activities often involve some of the more than seventy ?Fusion Centers? established by the DHS around the country. The centers co-ordinate the work of federal, state and local agencies to ?identify perceived threats and stop them before they occur.?

This surveillance campaign against Occupy is bad news for American democracy. Occupy represents an authentic, utterly home-grown, grassroots movement. Taken as a whole, it is neither terrorist nor conspiratorial. Indeed, it is hard to think of another movement so cumbersomely public in its deliberations and processes. Occupy is noisy, disorderly, insubordinate, and often inconvenient for all concerned?statements that could equally well apply to democracy in general. But it should never be targeted as a threat to the well-being of the country?quite the contrary.

The resource-rich Department of Homeland Security and its allies no doubt see in the rise of the movement another opportunity to justify their own claims for public legitimacy. We can be sure that many in these agencies view any noisy dissent as tantamount to a threat to national security. And without doubt, many in these circles dream of creating a comprehensive archive of biographical information on all those involved in the protests, or even all those judged susceptible to involvement?just in case.

?Just in what case?? you might reasonably ask. Just in case the movement?or the people comprising it?develop into a threat to the Security of the Homeland (what a loaded slogan!) at some later point, they will reply. You can never tell when a cold might turn into pneumonia, and you can never be sure when protest is going to morph into sedition. Those who never pose a threat, the guardians of domestic peace will reassure us, have nothing to fear from having their names, addresses, and actions documented in the permanent record.

That kind of thinking is exactly what we must reject. Freedom flourishes best when all citizens feel free to challenge prevailing directions without fear of repercussions from the authorities?now or in the indefinite future. A world where every public demonstration, every protest meeting, or every insubordinate public happening leads to recording participants? identities for future scrutiny is a formula for chilling dissent.

Concern about abuse of state powers in America is hardly an idle fantasy. In fact, history shows all-too-regular cycles of repression of popular opposition. The Palmer raids following the First World War, the McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s, and the FBI?s attempts to scuttle the civil rights movement offer salient examples of how nasty things get when the quest for ?security? takes center stage among the nation?s elites. Today, high-tech tools for surveillance vastly ease the tasks of identifying and tracking those who pose ?threats.?

At least some voices on the other side seem to get the point. A DHS privacy officer (yes, apparently there are such figures) has been quoted as warning that ?Occupy Wall Street-type protesters are mostly engaged [in] constitutionally protected activities,? and so should not trigger DHS reporting. It would be reassuring, but utterly rash, to think that this view will prevail across the array of well-funded organizations that now appear devoted to tracking the protesters.

Nobody who cares about democracy wants to live in a world where simply engaging in vociferous protest qualifies any citizen to have his or her identity and life details archived by state security agencies. Specific, overt threats of civil disobedience or other law-breaking should be dealt with on a piecemeal basis?not by attempting to monitor everyone who might be moved to such actions, all the time. Meanwhile, the White House should issue clear directives that identification and tracking of lawful protesters will play no further role in any government response to this populist moment.

Photo: NYPD surveillance tower near Zuccotti Park in New York City, by Jagz Mario, 2011, via Flickr creative commons