Privacy SOS

The BPD files: Political interrogations

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Susan Barney and her fellow activists had planned to get arrested. Even non-violent civil disobedience is illegal, they knew. But they believed that bringing attention to their cause required action beyond standing and holding a sign, and — like so many activists before them, among them internationally renowned heroes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi — were prepared to suffer a night or two in jail in order to highlight what they viewed as profound injustice. 

A seasoned activist, Barney readied herself for a legal fight and even possible jail-time. But she wasn’t prepared for what happened after she was arrested: officers from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the Boston intelligence division interrogated her about her political activity and her associations. 

Records released today by the ACLU of Massachusetts and the National Lawyers Guild reveal a pattern of disturbing and oftentimes illegal Boston Police surveillance of protected political speech. (You can read more about what we uncovered in this report, or read the released BPD files here.) We had to sue the BPD to get these records. Troublingly, when NLG lawyers first asked for reports documenting political interrogations of their clients, the BPD claimed no such records existed. That is false and we now have the records to prove it.

When you read the report outlining Barney’s interrogation you can see why the BPD didn’t want to make it public. But what officers didn’t write down about their questioning of the activists is even more alarming.

Barney says that at the beginning of her interrogation one of the officers said, “You must recognize us. We come to all your protests.” (Indeed, the volumes of “intelligence reports” the BPD released to us show that officers are regularly in attendance when Bostonians gather to speak their minds.)

The officers next asked Barney a series of questions about her political activity, none of which she answered.

They questioned me about who had organized the civil disobedience that we had just participated in. They asked me the names of those activists whom I work with. They asked me questions about who was the leader of this group — what was the name of the group? What other organizations and groups was I involved with? What future plans did we have? When was the next protest, rally, action that we were planning?

I did not speak to them, because I understood my rights. It’s of absolute importance that I not be intimidated into explaining things that are protected by the Constitution and the First Amendment. So I was adamant about not speaking; I did not open my mouth,” she says.

The so-called “intelligence report” that describes this interrogation confirms Susan’s account. “The first to be interviewed, Susan Barney, was uncooperative with detectives,” it reads.

Her refusal to answer their questions “agitated the officers,” Barney says, “at which point…they started to humiliate me, ridicule me. They said ‘Oh, look at you, crying over there in the corner. You’re a cry baby.’ They said that I was useless…I think out of their frustration and perhaps in an attempt to make me feel humiliated.”

“This went on for about twenty minutes,” she says.

Humiliation or not, Barney remained silent.

In other words, she did exactly what any good defense or civil liberties lawyer will tell you to do when faced with any kind of police interaction — whether it’s a stop and frisk on the street or a political interrogation in a jailhouse. The ACLU position is clear on this issue: you should never talk to the police without your lawyer present. 

Read more about the “intelligence reports” and the BPD’s spying on political speech in our report. Click here to read the released documents.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.