By Sophie Peters
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
Oregon’s Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has confirmed that the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted online surveillance of “Black Lives Matter” supporters. After a complaint filed by the Urban League of Portland on Nov. 10, it was discovered that the hashtag, “Black Lives Matter,” has been monitored by the DOJ in order to track the social movement.
The letter released by the Urban League of Portland stated that the “Oregon Department of Justice Criminal Justice Division has been using software to conduct ‘threat assessments.’ The division searched the Twitter feeds of Oregonians who have used the hashtag ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
When CatlinSpeak spoke with the President of the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), David Rogers, he said, “We don’t know yet whether other groups may have been targeted by DOJ surveillance. We are worried about that. The ACLU of Oregon filed a public records request yesterday and we hope to gather more information about the scope of what was happening.” Currently, the number of people affected by the surveillance is unknown.
In the letter, the Urban League of Portland also writes that the DOJ identified the Director of Civil Rights for the Oregon Department of Justice, Erious Johnson, under their threat assessment process. Johnson’s wife, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, is the president of the Urban League of Portland.
The Urban League of Portland’s letter, which was signed by advocacy groups including the ACLU, NAACP, and AFL-CIO, calls for several actions to be taken by the DOJ. They have asked for an immediate halt to all surveillance of the hashtag, “Black Lives Matter,” a disclosure and apology to all Oregonians that were surveilled, and an audit at the DOJ to uncover the particulars regarding how this breach of citizens’ information began.
President of the Portland branch of the NAACP, Jo Ann Hardesty, told CatlinSpeak, “it’s our hope that Governor Brown will monitor the independent investigation.” Hardesty added, “The media hasn’t demanded to know how big this unlawful surveillance program is? How many Oregonians have been under surveillance and for how long?”
“Unfortunately, neither Governor Brown, Secretary of State Atkins, nor other elected officials have reached out to the Urban League about this issue. Salem politicians have been noticeably quiet about this issue of profiling and freedom of speech, too,” commented Harmon Johnson in a CatlinSpeak interview.
Harmon Johnson continued, “I am calling for Attorney General Rosenblum to do right by Oregonians. If that means personnel changes at Oregon DOJ so be it,” before pointing out “that personnel changes or reprimand are not a sufficient response to this action of government overreach.”
In response to the Urban League of Portland’s letter, Rosenblum wrote on Nov. 10 that she had ordered the search tool targeting “Black Lives Matter” supporters halt, had asked a Special Assistant Attorney General to investigate improper conduct within the DOJ regarding surveillance of Twitter feeds, and had placed a member of the Criminal Justice Division on paid administrative leave while the investigation takes place.
“The Attorney General has acknowledged it, expressed deep disappointment, taken accountability, and begun to take action to stop the problem and bring more transparency to the situation,” stated Rogers. “That being said, the public needs a full and transparent investigation into what happened and what kind of information was collected, and on how many people. Let’s not be mistaken, this is more than a search of hashtags.”
Rosenblum has already been leading a statewide task force in order to address law enforcement profiling. With this in mind, another worry brought up in the letter from the Urban League of Portland is that the surveillance was racially motivated. In the letter, the Urban League of Portland expressed that, “We are concerned that such unwarranted investigations are racially motivated, and create a chilling effect on social justice advocates, political activists and others who wish to engage in discourse about the issues of our time.”
This kind of surveillance is not new in Oregon. According to Rogers, “In the 70s, it was revealed that the Portland Police had been keeping files on a long list of organizations. We thought it had stopped and then in the 80s, the Tribune discovered that it had continued.” This monitoring motivated the ACLU to push for legislation “in Oregon that made it illegal for law enforcement to gather information on a group or an individual based solely on their political, religious, or social beliefs and associations.”
In July 2015, the surveillance-focused news source, The Intercept, reported that the Department of Homeland Security had been monitoring the “Black Lives Matter” movement since the protests in Ferguson the previous summer. Documents from a Freedom of Information Act request by The Intercept proved that the Department collected data that includes location and upcoming event information, even if the event was planned to be peaceful.
Then, in Oct. 2015, The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Chicago Police Department had been surveilling African American groups and activists. According to the article, the Police Department tracked social media posts and upcoming events.
In her email, Hardesty of NAACP wrote about the topic of race-based motivation, arguing that throughout American history, “when black people organize for equality the government organizes to discredit, dismiss and then dismantle these efforts. The renewal of a social justice movement focused on black lives makes many in our society nervous. It’s important that we get answers to why an investigator took it upon himself to participate in illegal activity targeted at black people fighting to ensure that black lives matters is not just a tag but a reality.”