These LA Activists Are Showing How to Fight Surveillance Under Trump
On a hot August day at a community space on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, about two dozen youth of color from the undocumented-led Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC) gathered for a workshop.
At the front of the room an activist from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which aims to end police surveillance programs, gave instructions to the participants. On pieces of paper folded into four quarters, organizer Nadia Khan told the kids, “I want you to respond to the following question: What do you consider suspicious?”
Everyone scribbled down their answers in marker, crumpled up the pieces of paper and threw them towards the front of the room. Participants got up from their seats to grab someone else’s answer from the balled-up sheets, then took turns reading them out loud.
“Police,” read one. “White people in my neighborhood watching me,” said another. “Men following me.”
The participants repeated the activity with another prompt: “Was there a time or moment when you were suspicious of someone? What were the indictors?” The next: “Was anyone ever suspicious of you?” And a final one: “If you see something, say something—what is this statement asking you to look for?”
By the time the activity was over, the kids were speaking fluidly about their experiences of being surveilled and how notions of suspicion are tied into race, class and gender—and that’s exactly what the moderators intended.
The youth were there, in part, to learn about Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), an anti-terrorism initiative ostensibly intended to prevent vulnerable people from being recruited by “violent extremist” groups. Last winter, Stop LAPD Spying and a coalition of racial justice groups began developing a curriculum that contextualized CVE alongside the broader targeting of Latinx and undocumented people, the LGBTQ community, indigenous people—and, most of all, Black people. The kids at IYC in August were one of the first groups to engage with this new pedagogical approach.
Launched by the Obama administration, CVE is undergoing a shakeup under Trump. Last month, NBC News reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to discontinue funding for the program. That decision, arriving shortly after the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, drew criticism from commentators such as The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart as another example of Trump aiding and abetting far-right and white supremacist groups.
Yet civil liberties and racial justice groups have assailed the program for focusing disproportionately on Muslims and treating individuals’ political views, religiosity and even mental health as potential markers of future violence.
What’s more, declarations that CVE is dead are premature—the approach at the heart of the program appears likely to continue through other federal and state channels, albeit under different names.
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, notes that even if DHS ends its CVE funding, the Justice Department, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and FBI all have their own programs.
“Another feature of CVE programs is that they often rebrand to escape scrutiny and accountability, so communities and local policy makers need to be cautious about new government programs moving forward,” he told In These Times. “CVE may be ending, but the negative impact it had on targeted communities will last much longer.”
That’s why, for Khan and a coalition of organizers in Los Angeles, the fight against surveillance cannot begin and end with CVE. They’ve already won an important local victory—in August, Los Angeles announced it was turning down a $425,000 CVE grant following public pressure. The coalition’s public education and organizing efforts offer important lessons for organizers continuing the fight against government surveillance in an uncertain landscape.