Since a police officer killed George Floyd — a 46-year-old father of three, an athlete celebrated in his community, a musician, and a Black man — in Minneapolis last week, the United States has erupted into nationwide protests demanding an end to police brutality and racial injustice. Access Now stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and all those exercising their fundamental right to protest across the United States and around the world to call for justice and an end to human rights violations against the Black community.
The devastating COVID-19 pandemic has taken an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of Black lives in the United States, and has only worsened the existing inequalities in access to basic human needs like quality healthcare, education, healthy food and clean water, affordable childcare, reliable and affordable high-speed internet, and more. Against this backdrop, the community mobilization in response to George Floyd’s death — along with the many other incidents of police killings in recent months, and countless more in the years and generations prior — is necessary, urgent, and requires no justification. But the Trump administration’s response has been to further escalate violence against the Black community and against protestors.
On top of tear gas, rubber bullets, police driving patrol cars directly into protest lines, and Trump’s tweets threatening to meet protestors with “the most vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” and to mobilize the U.S. military against America’s cities, the president is now painting peaceful protesters — who have the right to assemble — as malicious terrorists. Trump says he intends to designate Antifa — which stands for anti-facist, and represents an ideology rather than a particular group — as a “domestic terrorist” organization, though he likely lacks legal authority to do so and reporting indicates the FBI has found no evidence to support the attribution. The overwhelming majority of protestors and protests are peaceful, and while it is important for governments to protect citizens and ensure community safety if violence occurs, the president’s actions build the foundation for human rights violations and put Black communities further at risk.
The U.S. government has a long history of using mechanisms for combating “terrorism” to undermine human rights protections and to surveil communities of color. These operations often rely on discriminatory tactics, put innocent people in harm’s way with very little judicial oversight or recourse, and have allowed for criminal acts like harassment, torture, and extrajudicial killings. This week is the seven-year anniversary of the Snowden revelations, where an NSA whistleblower first shed light on the expansive network of post-9/11 mass surveillance, built on the pretext of preventing the next terrorist attack. In reality, the programs were primarily levied against Muslim communities and immigrants.
This is also not the first time the Trump administration has labeled participants of the Black Lives Matter movement “extremists,” and the FBI has been surveilling civil rights leaders for decades. Now, the Trump Justice Department has even expanded the Drug Enforcement Agency’s authority to “conduct covert surveillance” and gather intelligence on anyone participating in the protests, and to perform whatever law enforcement duties Attorney General Barr may “deem appropriate,” despite the agency’s limited mandate. The Department of Homeland Security has flown a Predator drone, typically used for military strikes and border surveillance, over Minneapolis and has been monitoring Black Lives Matter activists’ social media activity.
Already, as the Trump administration announces its renewed plans to target protestors with the highly invasive, discriminatory, and dangerous “counterterrorism” toolkit, clear evidence is emerging that the real threat are groups who have consistently targeted Black communities, among others, with violence. Under the guise of #BlackLivesMatter, a white supremacist organization was running a fake Antifa Twitter account that incited violence by calling for an attack on white neighborhoods. Fortunately, Twitter removed this bogus account.
This is just one of many examples of how misinformation is being used to sow fear and confusion, and to detract attention from the voices calling for much-needed change. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, along with other tech companies like domain hosts and network service providers, must continue to invest in content governance solutions that put human rights first.
With the U.S. presidential election in just five months, and national conversations confronting matters of life and death, we cannot allow systematic misinformation campaigns, targeted surveillance, or militaristic policing to undermine U.S. democracy or the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s resounding calls for justice.
The global Access Now team is standing with you. As an organization working at the intersection of human rights and technology, we will continue to fight against internet shutdowns and disruptions that have been used to quell protests, to push back against the use of surveillance technologies that put communities of color at risk, and to defend the fundamental right to peaceful protest.