This past year forced a global reckoning of widely held norms of policing and community safety especially as they relate to Black, Brown, immigrant, and working-class communities who often endure the worst of the state’s surveillance and incarceration capabilities.
Large numbers of people braved the pandemic to engage in protests in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and numerous Black individuals by law enforcement across the nation. In response, the Department of Justice announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (“FBI”) Joint Terrorism Task Forces (“JTTF”) would be activated to target and criminalize protestors. While the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest and assemble peaceably, the FBI has a history of surveilling communities fighting against injustice.
In 2020, CAIR-CA received a total of 97 complaints from community members involving law enforcement interactions that amounted to harassment and profiling.
Discriminatory policing strategies have necessitated CAIR-CA attorneys represent hundreds of community members over the years, to ensure that the Fifth Amendment’s right to remain silent is always asserted.
Since 2007, Oakland Police Department (“OPD”) officers participating in the JTTF have had the same powers as FBI agents, allowing them to surveil and harass community members without probable cause as well as to target people who identify as members of AMEMSA communities or are dealing with mental health and family issues. ICE is also a prominent member of the JTTF.
In 2017, Oakland passed a transparency ordinance entitled “Ordinance for Transparency for City Participation with Federal Surveillance Activities” requiring OPD to submit to local control and to provide annual reports to the city council on their JTTF activities.63 However, OPD consistently violated the transparency ordinance and failed to submit reports to the City Council for oversight on their activities. CAIR-SFBA, partner organizations, and community members reminded the City Council of the promises made by then-U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate “criminal organizers and instigators” of violence during police brutality protests as domestic terrorists, raising concerns that peaceful protestors would be harassed and potentially arrested.
Along the same lines, CAIR-SFBA worked with partners including AAAJ-ALC and Yemeni Alliance Committee to ensure that local law enforcement officers participating in the JTTFs follow stricter local rules requiring reasonable suspicion and probable cause for investigations and searches. In a notable victory, the coalition succeeded in urging the Oakland City Council to terminate the OPD’s relationship with the JTTF by highlighting the FBI’s abysmal record of targeting vulnerable communities.64 In their advocacy, CAIR-SFBA and allies reminded the City Council that AMEMSA communities had been subjected to pervasive discrimination and surveillance by the federal government based on their religion or national origin since September 11, 2001. Finally, ICE’s participation in the task force was highlighted as another strong reason to withdraw from the partnership.65
While CAIR-CA applauds the Oakland City Council’s decision to end this partnership, we remain vigilant to the challenges that are posed by such partnerships. To supplement local organizing on issues of law enforcement overreach, CAIR-CA worked closely with Assembly member Rob Bonta and partners such as AAAJ-ALC and Secure Justice in introducing a statewide bill, AB 2598, the “Safe California Civil Rights Act” (“Safe CA Civil Rights Act”). The Safe CA Civil Rights Act would have required all California law enforcement agencies to always follow state and local laws and policies and create transparency and oversight measures for state and local agencies participating in the JTTF.66 As of publication, owing to budget shortfalls due to the pandemic, the bill was scrapped yet it sets the standard for future legislation that aims to curb law enforcement overreach and surveillance.
CAIR-CA’s continued advocacy over the past few years also led to California legislators rejecting state funding for Preventing Violent Extremism (“PVE”), a grant program piloted by California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (“Cal OES”) which distributed funds to nonprofits across the state to engage in surveillance and rehabilitation work. In signing the state’s 2020-21 budget bills, California Governor Gavin Newsom was pressured into steering away from further funding PVE, a series of harmful and unwarranted surveillance and criminalization programs targeting Muslim, Black, and immigrant communities across the state.67
PVE appeared to be a repackaged version of the notorious federal Countering Violent Extremism (“CVE”) framework, as it was funded directly from DHS’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”).68 Under the CVE framework, schools, universities, non-profits, and police departments such as the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center relied on terrorism indicia as innocent as “travel to a Muslim country,” “frequent attendance at a mosque or prayer group,” “concerns about anti-Muslim discrimination,” and “perceived economic stress.“69 These indicators often fall within the purview of rights protected by the First Amendment yet often form the basis for surveillance programs like CVE and PVE.
In a Public Records Act (“PRA”) request filed by the NoPVEinCA coalition, documents reviewed identified that Cal OES issued multiple grants including to nonprofit organizations to conduct trainings with educators and counselors to understand and recognize extremist ideologies – a thinly veiled Islamophobic attempt to surveil California’s sizeable Muslim community.
CAIR-CA staff also increased their participation in police and sheriff sensitivity trainings with CAIR-LA utilizing the opportunity to speak with several cohorts of graduating officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Training Academy. These trainings were an important opportunity to educate newly minted officers about the basic tenets of Islam and to dispel stereotypes around Muslims. CAIR-LA also stressed the importance of accurately documenting hate crimes and incidents so that they can be properly prosecuted.
In a public forum on police reform planned by the Board of Police Commissioners Advisory Committee, CAIR-LA’s civil rights department made the following recommendations: