The Department of Homeland Security has been closely monitoring the activities of the Black Lives Matter movement—news that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the U.S. government's history of spying on civil rights groups and other activist collectives.
The Intercept's George Joseph reported on Friday that the DHS has been assiduously tracking Black Lives Matter activists ever since Michael Brown's killing sparked major protests a year ago. In detailing the Department's methods, Joseph writes:
[T]he department frequently collects information, including location data, on Black Lives Matter activities from public social media accounts, including on Facebook, Twitter, and Vine, even for events expected to be peaceful. The reports confirm social media surveillance of the protest movement and ostensibly related events in the cities of Ferguson, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and New York.
Some documents obtained by Joseph even show minute-by-minute surveillance of various marches.
People who know their history would be far from shocked by all of this. Though the platforms and methods of surveillance may have changed somewhat, the DHS is honoring a very old American tradition.
The FBI relentlessly targeted the civil rights, Black Power, and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s through its notorious COINTELPRO program. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover instructed his staff to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" black activists. Federal agents infiltrated every major civil rights group of the era with a mission to destroy them from within.
Martin Luther King, Jr., became a particular obsession of Hoover's, who, with the approval of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, launched an expansive program of surveillance against King. Agents frequently bugged King's hotel rooms and, in one particularly infamous letter, even threatened to reveal his history of infidelity in an attempt to get him to commit suicide.
But King was far from the FBI's only target. The Bureau worked—very successfully—to cripple the Black Panther Party, as well as to sow divisions between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. It also went after student radicals, anti-war activists, and other elements of the so-called New Left.
COINTELPRO was eventually exposed and shut down; the FBI itself admits, somewhat vaguely, that the program became "rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging First Amendment rights and for other reasons."
Even so, the American government has continued to monitor dissident groups. Over the past decade alone, everyone from Occupy movement activists and Quakers protesting the Iraq War to environmental and animal rights groups have found themselves in the federal government's crosshairs.
Given all of this, the real surprise would be if the Department of Homeland Security had decided to leave Black Lives Matters activists alone.