Media organizations from around the world converged on Raleigh this year when dozens, then hundreds and eventually thousands of North Carolinians gathered peacefully every Monday outside the N.C. General Assembly to exercise their constitutional right to assemble and speak out against a barrage of legislation to which they objected.
Now it has come to light that while North Carolinians of different ages, races, faith backgrounds and walks of life who participated in the Moral Mondays movement gathered peacefully at meetings and rallies protected by the First Amendment, they were secretly monitored by undercover law enforcement officers.
General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver said his department collected intelligence on so-called “anarchists” at the rallies whom his officers considered to be “against government.” Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown said a plain-clothes officer attended two organizational meetings for Moral Mondays at the Davie Street Presbyterian Church on May 6 and May 13, during the height of the rallies. The full extent of this covert surveillance of peaceful protestors is still unknown.
These reports are extremely troubling and raise many questions that the public deserves to have answered. People should be able to exercise their constitutional right to speak freely about their beliefs and attend meetings about issues that concern them in our state without having to worry that undercover government agents may be secretly monitoring and collecting information about their views and activities.
The revelations are even more disturbing when one considers the long and shameful history of our government conducting undercover surveillance on political dissidents. Throughout the civil rights movement, for example, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI routinely conducted covert, often illegal, actions to infiltrate and conduct surveillance on the personal communications of anti-war activists and civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. More often than not, the surveillance targeted Americans – including Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali and at least two sitting U.S. senators – whom the FBI deemed “subversive.” Sound familiar?
Many of the FBI’s domestic spying programs were discontinued in the 1970s after a Senate committee concluded that they “infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens” and were “intolerable in a democratic society,” but sadly such tactics are still used by law enforcement to this day.
For example, in 2008, the ACLU of Maryland uncovered documents revealing that the Maryland State Police engaged in covert surveillance of local peace and anti-death penalty groups in 2005-2006, including private organizing meetings, public forums and events held in several churches. The uncovered surveillance reports failed to reveal any illegal activity, but these records were still shared by a variety of law enforcement agencies. In 2011, it was revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department infiltrated peaceful Occupy L.A. demonstrations with undercover officers, in order to spy on protestors’ activities.
The LAPD attempted to justify the operation as a response to individuals affiliated with “radical organizations.” Just this month, Creative Loafing reported claims that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department sent undercover officers to infiltrate and disrupt meetings of Occupy Charlotte in the lead-up to the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
There is much we still do not know about the undercover surveillance of Moral Mondays in Raleigh. It is still unknown, for example, who ordered the surveillance, to what extent it took place, what information was sought and collected on those who attended the meetings, whether any data collected through covert surveillance has been kept on file, what criteria triggered the surveillance in the first place, and whether such surveillance is still ongoing. This is information the public deserves to know.
Too often, law enforcement will try to justify covert surveillance by labeling peaceful protestors as “anarchists” or “subversives.” Too often, the American people are asked to believe that we’re being spied on for our own good. We deserve better. Our democracy depends on the ability of “we the people” to voice objections to government policies with which we disagree.
This principle applies across the political spectrum. The ACLU has strenuously objected to attempts by the government to target tea party activists, and we similarly object now to the unwarranted surveillance of people who are peacefully participating in Occupy Charlotte or the Moral Mondays movement. Our elected officials in Raleigh, Charlotte and the state legislature should conduct a full investigation into any law enforcement agency conducting surveillance of, or intelligence-gathering on, peaceful political protesters.
Jennifer Rudinger is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.