By Jose Medina
SAN FRANCISCO – Activists face constant threats to their movements, and to themselves—anti-racist movements not only have to contend with systemic racism, but also with the infringement of their First Amendment right to organize here in San Francisco.
On October 7, local activists Hope Williams, Nathan Sheard, and Nestor Reyes sued San Francisco over the San Francisco Police Department’s (SFPD) illegal use of non-city surveillance cameras to spy on thousands of people who protested as part of a Black-led movement to end police violence.
The activists are represented by attorneys of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU of Northern California.
Following the police killing of George Floyd, activists began to mobilize. Williams, Sheard, and Reyes organized multiple protests throughout San Francisco, but little did they know that the SFPD conducted illegal live mass surveillance of these Black-led protests.
SFPD acted in defiance of the city’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance by tapping into a network of cameras owned by the Union Square Business Improvement District, a non-city organization, without first going through a legally required public process.
Saira Hussain, an EFF Staff Attorney, called out San Francisco’s troubling past by saying, “San Francisco police have a long and troubling history of targeting Black organizers going back to the 1960s.”
Hussain added by recalling San Francisco’s 2019 enactment of the Surveillance Technology Ordinance and stating that “this new surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters is exactly the kind of harm that the San Francisco supervisors were trying to prevent when they passed a critical surveillance technology ordinance last year.”
Emphasizing SFPD’s lawless actions, Hussain stated that “with all eyes watching, SFPD brazenly decided to break the law.” The SFPD’s actions not only went against city laws, but against the anti-racist protestors’ rights as well.
Matt Cagle, a Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, said that SFPD’s actions are an impediment to democracy, saying that “in a democracy, people should be able to freely protest without fearing that police are spying and lying in wait.”
Cagle added protestors’ rights were infringed upon by “illegal, dragnet surveillance…completely at odds with the First Amendment and should never be allowed. That the SFPD flouted the law to spy on activists protesting the abuse and killing of Black people by the police is simply indefensible.”
The three activists are well aware of SFPD’s infringement upon their rights. Hope Williams, a protest organizer and the lead plaintiff, iterates her reasons for protesting by saying that “along with thousands of people in San Francisco, I took to the streets to protest police violence and racism and affirm that Black lives matter.”
Williams charged that SFPD’s efforts are obstructions of the anti-racism movement’s goals and said “it is an affront to our movement for equity and justice that the SFPD responded by secretly spying on us. We have the right to organize, speak out, and march without fear of police surveillance.”
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