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Police surveillance concerns US Muslims amid BLM protest crackdown

With coronavirus hitting the US hard, there are growing fears community groups will have to resort to funding provided by surveillance programmes
There are growing concerns over surveillance programmes as the US cracks down on protests (AFP/File photo)
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Philadelphia

The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis triggered the largest protests over systemic racism and police brutality the United States has seen in more than a generation.

Black Lives Matter protests swiftly spread to more than 2,000 cities across all 50 US states, despite Covid-19 restrictions. The brutal manner of his killing even triggered rallies abroad, with demonstrations flaring in parts of western Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

In the US, law enforcement cracked down hard, using powerful surveillance tools to track down protesters.

The Department of Homeland Security deployed helicopters, planes and drones over 15 cities where demonstrators gathered, sparking widespread accusations that the federal agency infringed on the privacy rights of demonstrators.

In some cities, police officers even used facial recognition software on footage from their body cameras to track people's movements.

For Black Muslims on the front lines of the protests alongside African Americans, the country's love affair with surveillance is not something new, having long been a feature of everyday life for many.

Leeda Osman, a college student in the New York metro area, told Middle East Eye that her earliest memories of surveillance involved hearing clicking or tapping noises whenever her father phoned family abroad.

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Sarah Farouq, who lives in San Diego, alleged she was subject to in-person surveillance when someone she believed to be an undercover federal agent took pictures of her and her friends.

Surveillance is such a common aspect of many young Muslims' lives that some have resorted to making memes to cope

Farouq has also fought surveillance in her community by speaking against the controversial Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme.

Launched by the Obama administration, CVE is a government surveillance programme piloted in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis - where it predominantly targeted Somali youth

While the original CVE grants have run out, the Department of Homeland Security recently launched Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention.

"[TVTP] is an $80 million department under DHS that continues, expands, and depends on the CVE framework in the US," Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, told MEE.

With TVTP, DHS will repeat a $10 million grant programme to fund projects across the country.

"The CVE projects in each city typically focus on the most vulnerable in that region - so refugees, Black Muslims, youth, Muslims seeking mental health support, and low-income Muslims," said Ahmad.

With TVTP essentially functioning as CVE 2.0, there are fears it will criminalise poverty, mental illness, and, like its predecessor, overwhelmingly focus on Muslims.

Pandemic could force communities to CVE funding

Experts warn this is particularly dangerous in the middle of a pandemic, when Black people, including Black Muslims, have been found to be disproportionately impacted by the disease.

Before the pandemic, one-third of Muslims in the US lived at or below the poverty line. Families may now be worse-off, as the pandemic results in the biggest job losses since the Great Depression

In May, the Pew Research Center found one-third of American adults experienced high levels of psychological distress due to the pandemic. And now the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been one of the lead agencies in the coronavirus response, is also set to be one of the government bodies reviewing the awarding of TVTP grants thought likely to be used to surveil young Muslims. 

'We are definitely concerned that, given the economic impacts of the pandemic, many institutions may be susceptible to applying for these grants or partnering with law enforcement'

- Fatema Ahmad, executive director for Muslim Justice League

"We are definitely concerned that, given the economic impacts of the pandemic, many institutions may be susceptible to applying for these grants or partnering with law enforcement," Ahmad said.

"At the same time, it is also absurd that so much would be spent on the oppressive CVE framework when so many need financial support."

Farouq has similar concerns, noting that community groups' reliance on CVE funding due to the economic downturn prompted by the pandemic may "[create] a dependence on federal funding with strings attached".

These concerns are drawing from CVE's history. In cities such as Minneapolis, the deeply disturbing history of surveiling Blackness is evident.

Mohamud Awil Mohamed, a Minneapolis community organiser and chaplain, told The Progressive magazine that, in his community, CVE was "marketed as a health and human services programme... but in reality it was an extension of the state-security apparatus".

State mechanisms of control

In two of CVE's three pilot cities, Somali and other East African youths were the programme’s main targets, highlighting how anti-Black Islamophobia places Black Muslims in vulnerable positions. 

While many CVE proponents argue that it has invested in necessary community programmes such as tutoring, sports, and mentorship, activists maintain that money carries a heavy price.

As Kafia Ahmed, an organiser who grew up in Minneapolis, also told The Progressive: "[These programmes] are all mechanisms of control. Why can't we as communities get money for the express purpose of advancing our communities?"

Young Muslims may also be targeted by surveillance opportunism outside of TVTP, Osman warned.

"My concern for current and post-pandemic surveillance is that it will give government officials an easier way to justify their actions on surveilling innocent people," Osman said.

This can be seen in the private sector, with surveillance businesses set to profit from intrusive contact tracing and coronavirus detection systems promoted in the name of public health. 

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"As all surveillance does, [this] will deeply impact Muslim youth and communities who are already heavily policed," Ahmad said.

"But we don't need these tools to address public health measures; there are plenty of methods of containing the virus that rely on supporting our communities rather than further harming them."

The pandemic's switch to online schooling carries its own concerns, too. Muslim youths are already highly surveilled online, with CVE frameworks embedded within popular social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

"I, personally, foresee the collaboration of campuses with spyware or tech companies providing more access and info into students’ lives," Farouq said.

"CVE and [Preventing Violent Extremism] programmes have impacted students' campus environment - but with this virtual transition, these programmes and surveillance in general will seep into the homes of impacted youth."

Given the growing protests and Muslims' roles in them, many young Muslims will be subject to surveillance on multiple fronts. 

"Being a vocal voice in my community has always put me in a constant state of fear," Farouq said.

"That's exactly the purpose of these surveillance programmes. To instill fear in the heart of communities and paralyse them from advocating for themselves or dissenting from the unjust systems this country is grounded in."