Helicopter Footage Obtained By The ACLU Shows Pervasive Surveillance Of Peaceful Anti-Police Violence Protests
from the because-of-course-it-does dept
Thanks to a trove of public records, the ACLU can provide some insight on how the California Highway Patrol engaged in surveillance of anti-police brutality protests. While one would expect police helicopters to fly over protests to keep an eye out for any illegal activity, it appears the officers manning the surveillance cameras were more interested in trying to identify protesters who weren’t breaking any laws.
Some lowlights of the aerial footage can be seen in this video produced by the ACLU:
Here’s how the ACLU describes what it observed in the recordings liberated from from the CHP:
In Sacramento, CHP closely zooms in on a protester as they sit alone on a fountain next to a Black Lives Matter poster. An hour later, when people peacefully assemble in front of the fountain to hear an organizer speak, CHP continues to hover and record, zooming in closely on people’s faces and signs.
In Placerville, CHP captures detailed footage of several dozen protesters peacefully assembled in front of the El Dorado County courthouse. The video captures an organizer thanking and hugging participants as they hold up signs. CHP also recorded a Riverside County courthouse protest described as a “vigil… so quiet that the loudest sound was helicopters overhead.” In the CHP recordings, police cameras zoom in on faces and linger over people speaking at vigils, handing out water, making signs, participating in die-ins, and even dancing.
This is the Press-Enterprise’s recounting of the peaceful protest in Riverside not-so-quietly observed by CHP helicopters:
The demonstration ended peacefully in the mid-afternoon, after protesters took a symbolic nine-minute knee in front of the Riverside Historic Courthouse. The vigil was so quiet that the loudest sound was helicopters overhead.
Then they returned to the park and dispersed, with some demonstrators cleaning up the streets as they went.
There were no arrests. “Very peaceful. No issues reported,” Riverside Police spokesman Officer Ryan Railsback said.
But despite there being no signs of criminal activity, the helicopters continued to circle the protest while camera operators zoomed in on faces for reasons that went undocumented in the reports obtained by the ACLU. That lack of information implies the apparent attempts to photograph or identify protesters fell outside the stated purpose of the surveillance and was deliberately left out of CHP reports.
That’s not the only troubling aspect of the CHP surveillance footage. It also appears the CHP took particular interest in anti-police protests, allowing other large protests to go unobserved by its eyes in the sky.
We asked CHP whether it had any surveillance footage of other protests last year, including those related to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shelter-in-place orders. But in hour after hour of footage provided by CHP, what we saw were protests against police violence, not protests of pandemic policy.
There are several reasons a law enforcement agency might find anti-police brutality protests more “worthy” of extended surveillance than other protests over other issues. Very few of those reasons are excusable. At best, it would be safe to assume that anti-police protests are more volatile because they historically have been. But when no criminal activity is observed, the CHP should maintain its distance. When it’s clear it’s a peaceful protest, the CHP has no business targeting individual protesters.
The rest of the reasons suck. The CHP targeted the protests because the protests targeted law enforcement. A majority of protesters in these protests (as compared to COVID-related protests) were persons of color. The eyes in the sky weren’t so much about keeping the peace as reminding protesters law enforcement is omnipresent and its eyes can be pretty much anywhere at all times. Circling over peaceful protests with police helicopters is a form of intimidation. Destroying a nine-minute silent tribute to a black man killed by a white cop with whirling rotors and engine noise is a feature, not a bug, of this form of surveillance.
This implicit ugliness will, of course, be denied by law enforcement officials. Just like they’ve denied all sorts of evidence of biased policing pretty much since the inception of their respective law enforcement agencies. But everyone can see it’s still there. The footage obtained here says what police officials are unwilling to confront: that cops go after minorities whenever possible and still feel very comfortable singling them out for whatever form of surveillance they happen to have on hand.