Privacy SOS

Boston police special operations officers refuse to answer questions about mysterious van at Black Lives Matter protest

Help! What is this thing? Spotted at the Black Lives Matter protest today in Boston, on a truck with commercial plates. I saw the same piece of technology at an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York in 2012, and wrote about it here. I’m still not clear on what, exactly, it’s for.

This afternoon over one thousand people gathered in the shadow of the Old State House in Boston for a celebration of Martin Luther King and the Black Lives Matter movement. The protest began at the historic site of the Boston Massacre, where American hero Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of an event that helped ignite a revolution. Today, just a few yards from where British soldiers gunned down Attucks and four other civilians in 1770, Bostonians gathered to demand racial justice in 21st century Massachusetts.

Not far from where the protesters stood sat a line of black Boston police vehicles. These special operations trucks looked ominous, parked in a row. At the head of the line sat a marked BPD cruiser. Inside of that cruiser were two uniformed police officers. One was filming the protest with a powerful camera.

But the first truck in the lineup looked very different. This vehicle had no windows in the back. Two officers in all black uniforms sat in the front cab. I approached them and asked them what they were doing monitoring the protest like this.

They refused to tell me. I asked what was in the back of the van. They refused to tell me. “Stuff,” one officer said. “Surveillance equipment? Stingrays?” I asked. “Stuff,” the officer said, smiling. I didn’t think it was funny. I reminded the police that the protest they were monitoring is protected by the First Amendment. They said they were aware. “So what’s in the back?” I asked. “Surveillance equipment? Weapons? Riot gear? What else could it be, at this protest?” They refused to tell me. “Stuff, just stuff,” the officer said.

They laughed when I told them I would like to see inside, so I could see for myself that the van didn’t carry stingrays or other invasive surveillance equipment. I wasn’t joking. I told them I might file a public records request to find out what was inside the van. I said they should be aware that they seemed suspicious, sitting in their black van, payed for by taxpayers, refusing to tell a taxpayer what they were doing or carrying. One of the officers said, “Yeah, I guess it’s a bit spooky.”

The officer apparently thought our interaction was funny. I didn’t. There’s nothing funny about the state using expensive equipment paid for with “terror” grants to spy on dissenters. There’s nothing funny about keeping secret what special operations police officers are doing at a First Amendment protected event. There’s nothing funny about it at all.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.