Privacy SOS

‘Probably up to no good’: How the CIA and local police classify and repress men of color

Words are powerful. In the context of civil liberties and state power, two phrases are particularly powerful, with sometimes devastating consequences for mostly black and brown men and boys: ‘suspected terrorist’ and ‘gang member’.

The CIA and domestic law enforcement have a common taxonomy problem. Both in foreign “counterterrorism” operations and domestic drug war policing, government agencies justify human rights abuses, expansive surveillance operations, and extreme forms of repressive state action on the basis of hearsay, associations, and, quite literally, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naming is central to this process. If police or CIA officers designate you a “gang member” or a “terrorist”, you may automatically lose access to a slew of human and civil rights granted to those not tarnished by these derogatory classifications.

Even worse, these designations—which can have profound implications for one’s life and liberty—are usually made entirely in secret, with no judicial oversight or adversarial process, by officials representing only the executive branch. If you are classified as a terrorist or gang member, you might never know about it, and therefore won’t have the ability to correct inaccurate information that contributed to your classification. Once the determination has been made, the stain can spread like wildfire through government databases and even into commercial data systems, and adversely impact your daily life, even years after the initial, potentially flawed, secret judgment.

The consequences of being labeled a “suspected terrorist” could include torture, kidnapping, indefinite detention, and execution sans due process. According to the CIA’s drone strike policies, for example, all military-age males in “strike zones” are terrorists, even if the US government doesn’t know their names or anything about them as individuals. An eighteen year-old farmer killed while working in a Yemen field the CIA mistakes for a terrorist training camp is therefore automatically a terrorist—as are any nearby men of a certain age. According to the New York Times, President Barack Obama approved this policy because it gives him more leeway to classify as terrorists anyone killed by his drone strikes, thereby artificially shrinking politically sensitive civilian casualty figures.

The Times reports: “Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”

Local police departments employ a disturbingly similar logic when they designate people—mostly young men of color in cities—“gang members”. In Massachusetts, for example, police operate a gang database called MassGangs. In order for police to list someone in such databases as a gang member, officers must add up a number of ‘points’. Among those points are things like: standing on a certain street corner, having certain tattoos, wearing certain clothes, associating or being seen with certain people, or making certain hand gestures. You’ll also get a point against you if someone alleges you are involved in a gang—even if that person isn’t telling the truth.

Once you’re classified as a “gang member” in a secret police database—many of which are now run out of the nearly 100 ‘fusion centers’ established by DHS nationwide—you may be subject to invasive surveillance, lose your rights not to be harassed on the street or in your home, and even face harsher criminal penalties. In most places, police can use a gang member designation to assert reasonable suspicion for stopping someone on the street.

In Los Angeles, prosecutors reportedly used identifications in gang databases to push for harsh sentencing. Being listed as a gang member can also impact one’s ability to get public housing assistance or even to visit people who live in public housing, including one’s own family. Increasingly, as the school-to-prison pipeline becomes more entrenched in our education system nationwide, children are being fed into gang databases through school-based surveillance and arrests. Officers also now use Facebook to track the social networks of young people, making secret determinations about who is in a gang based on public posts and friend networks.

While the CIA uses the “suspected terrorist” designation as cover for its drone operations, explaining away civilian deaths with the stroke of a pen, the domestic situation isn’t as different as we might like to think. After all, think about how many times police officers have smeared cop shooting victims as “gang members” in the press, thereby implying that somehow the life lost wasn’t valuable, or the person's death worth mourning and investigating?

At the heart of both of these weaponized deployments of language is a threshold problem of definition. What constitutes a terrorist? What makes one a gang member? The specific answers as presented by the government appear to carry extreme racial and class connotations. What’s presented as a quasi-scientific system of taxonomy couldn’t be more illogical, biased, and unfair. That’s unacceptable on its face, but it’s inexcusable when the consequences can include death without due process, a life under the close microscope of police surveillance and harassment, or years tacked on the end of a prison sentence.

Having dark skin and standing in the wrong place at the wrong time shouldn’t itself invite state repression. Today, for far too many people both in the United States and countries across the world, it does.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.