Privacy SOS

Occupy and Tea Party activists, lookout! Your anger with the government is suspect.

Occupiers and Tea Partiers alike should take note. The government thinks your upset could be a terrorism indicator.

The White House held a forum today for law enforcement heads from 46 locales nationwide, aiming to facilitate a conversation on "combating domestic extremism." "Engaging local communities is critical to our nation's effort to counter violent extremism and violent crime, and this meeting brings together many of our partners," Time magazine quotes Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as having told the group.

Using analysis from the FBI, DHS and the National Counterterrorism Center, the government advised state and local police to look out for a number of warning signs, including: 

  • joining a group advocating violence;
  • receiving support from groups that do violence; and
  • seeking out "charismatic leaders" who advocate violence.

That seems like pretty obvious advice, no? If I were a police chief and I were made aware that a member of my community joined a terrorist organization or sought out leadership advice from Jared Loughner, I would likely take note. But this (obvious) advice also begs a question: how are police supposed to know when one of their community members joins or receives support from a terrorist organization? Ubiquitous, nearly unrestrained government surveillance?

That begs yet another question: is terrorism a huge threat to our local communities? Here in Boston, the most pressing issues of the day for residents have just about zero to do with domestic extremism; folks here are pretty busy fighting the biggest fare increases and service cuts to public transportation they've seen in decades.

Speaking of those fights: a lot of people are pretty angry with the state and local government about the expenditure of public funds and the cuts to service. The T Riders Union, Occupy the MBTA and other groups are rallying day and night for access to reliable, affordable public transit. And they seem pretty angry about the likely outcome of the struggle here, which doesn't look so good.

Does that mean these activists are possible domestic extremists? If the findings presented to state and local law enforcement at the White House today are any guide, they very likely may be.

The White House told our local police that a few trends emerged from the 62 domestic extremists highlighted in the federal terrorism study. Not what you might think — there was very little homogeneity among the group regarding income, ethnic background, or religion. What could be a reliable extremism indicator, according to the government?

Political outrage.

In the 62 cases reviewed, the subjects increasingly spoke out against the government, blamed the government for perceived problems and did so in a way that caught the attention of other people in their communities, according to the senior counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private White House event. Subjects became active on the Internet to espouse extremist views.

Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't catching "the attention of other people" in your communities a major goal of social justice or other organizing? Aren't "[speaking] out against the government" and "[blaming] the government for perceived problems" part and parcel of what it means to be an engaged citizen? That's certainly what many public transit advocates are doing statewide here in Massachusetts as they battle with the government over service cuts and fee increases.

Is the White House suggesting that police in our communities should monitor those of us who speak out, for fear that we will become domestic extremists? It sure sounds like it. That's bad advice, and it heads down a very dangerous road.  

(Oops. Did I just blame the government for a perceived problem? Maybe DHS should add this blog to their list of officially-monitored websites.)

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.