History of black surveillance influences African-American attitudes on spying

ANALYSIS - The black community has decades of experience being monitored, so this type of surveillance is nothing new...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The current spying controversy at the National Security Agency has caught many Americans off guard and has conjured up images of Big Brother.  The NSA has secretly collected the private phone calls and internet data of its citizens, allowing the federal agency to monitor people who were not suspected of any unlawful activity. 

Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked information on the secret surveillance programs, is now a fugitive in hiding in Hong Kong.

And yet, while civil liberties advocates may find this type of surveillance illegal, an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and even grounds to sue the government, African-Americans may not necessarily react with as much outrage.

Decades under the microscope

It gets complicated. The black community has decades of experience being monitored, so this type of surveillance is nothing new. Given the long history of being spied upon, many blacks already assume they are being monitored by the government.

Yet, a new poll from Pew Research Center and the Washington Post suggests that blacks may have forgotten about all those years of surveillance, or perhaps have even internalized all of that snooping.

According to the Pew survey, 56 percent of people believe the NSA tracking of telephone calls is an acceptable way to fight terrorism.  That includes 53 percent of whites, 62 percent of blacks and 63 percent of nonwhites in general.

Further, 45 percent of Americans believe the government should intrude even further into our internet activity in order to prevent terrorist attacks, while 52 percent disagree.  Meanwhile, 55 percent of blacks believe the feds should go the extra mile if such a move would thwart terrorism.  And when asked if it is more important for the government to investigate threats if it intrudes on privacy, or not intrude even if it limits the government’s ability to investigate threats, 62 percent voted for investigating threats.  While 60 percent of whites and 67 percent of nonwhites approved of investigations, 75 percent of blacks approved.

African-Americans are no strangers to surveillance, as their activities were highly regulated through the slave codes, laws which controlled both slaves and free blacks.  The slave patrols, consisting of white slaveholding and non-slaveholding men, were designed to prevent slave rebellions.  The patrols were ordered to stop the slaves they found on the road, compel the slaves to produce a pass, and have them prove they were not breaking the law.  Slave patrols often descended upon areas where slaves congregated, and could enter plantations without a warrant and search slave quarters for weapons, books, runaways or stolen property.

Tuskegee is just the tip of the iceberg

Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted experiments on 399 black men infected with syphilis in Macon County, Alabama in the infamous Tuskegee experiment.  201 men who had not contracted the disease were used as a control group.  The government treated the men as human guinea pigs by studying the effects of the disease yet failing to treat them with penicillin, never telling them they even had the disease, and allowing them to die.  A class action suit in 1973 on behalf of the men and their families resulted in a $9 million settlement.

Tragic chapters such as Tuskegee have been cited as a reason why African-Americans distrust the medical establishment and are hesitant to participate in clinical research.  One study found that 67 percent of black parents distrusted the medical profession, compared to half of white parents.

For years, the federal government monitored black civil rights leaders.  As early as 1917, federal agents kept tabs on Marcus Garvey and his speeches, fearing his power of his black nationalist movement.  Beginning in 1919, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover became fixated on Garvey, calling him a “notorious negro agitator” and using black informants to monitor the leader and dig up damaging information on him and his Universal Negro Improvement Association, the largest black organization in history.

Using the first black FBI agent, Hoover ruined Garvey’s Black Star Line, a shipping line operating throughout the African Diaspora, and ultimately sent Garvey to prison after a politically-motivated prosecution for mail fraud.

In later years, Hoover would employ the techniques he used against Garvey to neutralize civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and groups such as the Black Panther Party.  Under his secret COINTELPRO (counterintelligence) program, Hoover monitored and disrupted domestic groups and social movements the FBI claimed were threats to national security.

In his directives, Hoover singled out so-called “hate-type organizations” such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Nation of Islam.  “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement,” Hoover directed his agents. “Malcolm X might have been such a ‘messiah’… Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammed [sic] all aspire to this position … King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence).”

Hoover tracked Dr. King constantly—at times reportedly in compromising situations—and called him the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”

Memories of MOVE

On May 13, 1985, following a standoff, a Philadelphia police helicopter dropped a bomb on the house on Osage Avenue occupied by the black “radical” group known as MOVE.  Police reportedly fired on MOVE members as they escaped the burning home.  Ramona Africa, one of the two survivors of the bombing, claims the bombing was retaliation for a 1978 standoff with police, after which nine MOVE members were arrested and imprisoned for the death of a police officer.  According to Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington—then a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune—police had erected a starvation blockade around the MOVE house in the weeks leading to the standoff, and destroyed the MOVE compound and all evidence with it, only hours after the arrests.

The 1985 bombing—which killed 11 people, including 5 children and destroyed an entire neighborhood of 61 row homes in West Philadelphia—marked the first such attack on U.S. citizens by government authorities.  The survivors and victims’ families received $5.5 million in compensation from the city of Philadelphia.

Finally, African-Americans and Latinos are monitored through stop-and-frisk policies that civil rights groups say are unfair and based on race.  The Center for Constitutional Rights filed Floyd v. City of New York, a class action lawsuit against the NYPD alleging an unconstitutional practice of racial profiling and stop-and-frisks almost exclusively in communities of color.

According to official data, the NYPD made a record 684,330 stops.  87 percent of those stopped were black or Latino, and nine out of ten of the people stopped were neither arrested nor issued summonses.  The Floyd case could lead to the appointment of a federal monitor for the New York police if the racial profiling policy is found unconstitutional.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove