Privacy SOS

The BPD files: when marching in the street becomes a “Homeland Security” issue

When you hear the phrase "Homeland Security," what do you think? Probably you think about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, about dirty bomb plots and threats to critical infrastructure. Maybe you think about attacks on our digital infrastructure, or "cyberwar" as the government has taken to calling it lately.

Do you think about people arrested for refusing police orders to get back on the sidewalk while marching on a public street, protesting economic injustice? Is that a "Homeland Security" issue? The Boston Police Department appears to think so.

Just over a year ago, on October 13, 2011, BPD officer David L. O'Connor filed an incident report documenting a disturbing the peace arrest at an Occupy Boston demonstration. The incident report reads, in part:

While monitoring a group of protesters from the OCCUPY BOSTON group the above suspect was placed under arrest for Disturbing the Peace and Resisting Arrest. A group of about 40 protesters left the Dewy [sic] Square area and headed out on a march. The group was given clear instructions to remain on the sidewalk and not to block the flow of traffic. 

While walking down Congress Street against the flow of traffic on the sidewalk, one demonstrator in particular at the front of the group repeatedly stepped of the sidewalk into the lane of travel and led the chant "Off the sidewalk and into the streets!" This individual, later identified as (REDACTED) was confronted…and repeatedly instructed to lead the group on the sidewalk and to stop stepping in front of oncoming traffic.

What happened next? No, not terrorism. The person refused to get back onto the sidewalk. Police warned the person a bunch of times (ten, says the report) and then arrested them. Then the other marchers went back to the sidewalk and continued their march.

Doesn't sound like a serious terrorism incident, does it? Nonetheless, the top of the incident report is clearly marked "Homeland Security," and at the bottom, it notes that the "Intelligence Unit" was notified of the incident. 

Why is this a big deal? It's yet another example among many of the Boston Police Department classifying minorly disruptive or completely legal protest activity as "Homeland Security" related. It may be that nothing ever comes of these designations, and that the people named in files titled "Extremist" and "HomeSec-Domestic" are never later punished for being listed therein. 

But it's equally possible that they will face some real world harm as a result of being classified in police files referencing "Homeland Security" events, or labeling them "Extremists." The documents we obtained from the BPD in a public records lawsuit reveal that the department's Intelligence Unit corresponds with representatives of the FBI about First Amendment activity. Therefore what's filed in a report in Boston can have national repercussions.

And those repercussions can be serious. Just last week the national press caught on to the story of a man who had been added to a no-fly list allegedly because of his activism against indefinite detention. Did a police department mark him as a "Homeland Security" threat in an intelligence report that was later forwarded to the FBI? We don't know, but it's certainly possible.

Given the secretive nature of the government's intelligence sharing operations between local and federal officials, we don't know whether these particular BPD reports marked "Homeland Security" were shared with the federal government. And we don't know what chain of events they can set off behind the cloak of secrecy obscuring so-called "national security" related intelligence and counterterrorism operations.

But it's crystal clear that disturbing the peace for marching in the street isn't a "homeland security" issue, and the Boston Police Department never should have classified it as such.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.