Three New Jersey law enforcement agencies asked the federal government share intelligence about Black Lives Matter protesters after the Justice Department gave the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sweeping new temporary power to “conduct covert surveillance” and spy on innocent people, according to new information shared by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
The people participating in peaceful protests had every reason to expect the government to respect and protect their constitutional rights but instead, the Trump administration’s response betrayed America’s promise to those citizens in order “to enforce any federal crime committed as a result of the protests over the death of George Floyd.”
While the vast majority of those protests were peaceful, some police responded with instances of notable violence, including aggressions against journalists covering the protests, and a few demonstrations escalated into riots, looting, and skirmishes with right-wing counter-protesters.
In New Jersey, the Newark Police Department and Essex County Sheriff’s Office requested that the DEA conduct surveillance to “identify protest leaders and agitators who are inciting violence.”
Similarly, records obtained by CREW in April show that the Asbury Park Police Department in New Jersey requested “mobile/vehicular surveillance” to “provide intelligence on agitators and radical groups such as [redacted].”
Gustavo Martínez Contreras, a journalist with the Asbury Park Press, was arrested while covering an anti-police violence protest in the city on the night of June 1, 2020.
Justice Department leadership authorized the surveillance efforts in May 2020, per a DEA memorandum revealed last year by BuzzFeed News. The decision—which significantly expanded the DEA’s law enforcement authority nationwide for 14 days—was decried by members of Congress and civil liberties advocates as an invasion of First Amendment rights.
“That Newark and Essex requested this, it doesn’t surprise me. I’m not even going to try to formulate the rationale into why they thought this was necessary,” Lawrence Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress (POP), told the New Jersey Monitor. “Speaking as a citizen, this is very concerning because people were just exercising their freedom of assembly.”
Representatives Jerry Nadler and Karen Bass urged the Justice Department to “immediately rescind” the decision in a June 5 letter, calling it “unwarranted and antithetical to the American people’s right to peacefully assemble and to exercise their Constitutional rights without undue intrusion.”
Civil rights protesters have long been the target of state surveillance.
Recent efforts to keep tabs on Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations against family separation echo the FBI’s counter-intelligence program used to spy on civil rights leaders from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Huey Newton that the agency acknowledged “was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons.”
The new emails, obtained by CREW as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, provide a partial view into how the DEA used its expanded surveillance authority in the three New Jersey cities and 48 other American municipalities.
The Asbury Park Police Department, Newark Police Department and Essex County Sheriff’s Office all reached out to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in hopes of collecting intelligence on “radical groups” or secretly monitoring protesters, according to the documents obtained by CREW.
The Drug Enforcement Administration approved at least 51 requests from state, local and federal law enforcement agencies to conduct covert surveillance during racial justice protests last summer, according to records obtained by CREW.
The nationwide surveillance operation also occurred in cities including Los Angeles, Tampa, Denver and St. Louis, and involved undercover agents infiltrating crowds, as well as aerial and vehicular surveillance to monitor protesters.
During those same protests, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flew Predator drones—unmanned military aircraft used for surveilling and killing terrorists abroad—over American cities where protesters demonstrated against police brutality, according to public flight data and previously published reports.
Members of Congress and civil rights activists said it was inappropriate to use flying killer robots to monitor peaceful protests that erupted after a white police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, with the help of three others who held the man down as Darrin Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.
A June 9, 2020, letter from 35 congressional representatives to the FBI, DEA, CBP, and the National Guard decried the use of aircraft and predator drones to “surveil American citizens and collect vast amounts of personal information.”
The records revealing the full scope of the DEA’s surveillance operations were part of a trove of information obtained by the good government watchdog organization under a Freedom of Information request.
While some agencies sought DEA’s help with apprehending people suspected of theft or looting, CREW counted at least 51 instances where agencies enlisted DEA to secretly monitor protesters engaged in First Amendment protected activity.
In the same time period that police were violating American’s rights with unwarranted undercover surveillance operations, innocent citizens were often met with overt police brutality and other actions that drew condemnation from civil rights champions.
The protests precipitated a worldwide debate on policing and racial injustice that has led to numerous federal, state, and municipal legislation intended to combat government misconduct, systemic racism, qualified immunity and police brutality while the Trump administration drew widespread criticism for its hard line rhetoric and aggressive, militarized response.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would have created accountability in cases of police misconduct, but Democrats such as senators who sponsored the measure, including Cory Booker and Senator Bob Menendez, abandoned the effort to pass the bill in September 2021 despite being part of a Democratic majority.
That legislation, which passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on a mostly party-line vote of 220–212, would have also effectively banned chokeholds, ended racial or religious profiling, barred no-knock warrants in drug cases and limited the militarization of local police forces.
About 95 percent of the racial-justice protests that swept the United States this summer remained peaceful and nondestructive, according to a report released by the US Crisis Monitor, which showed fewer than 570 — of more than 10,600 events across the country— involved demonstrators engaging in violence.
The US Crisis Monitor is support by the Bridging Divides Initiative at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs’ Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.
The deployment of more than 96,000 National Guard, State Guard, 82nd Airborne, and 3rd Infantry Regiment service members, when combined with preexisting troop mobilization related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other natural disasters, constituted the largest military operation other than war in U.S. history.
In one instance, police in Wichita, Kansas arrested a teenager on suspicion of incitement to rioting based on a Snapchat screenshot he shared with a note cautioning readers to stay away from his hometown—rhetoric intended to denounce the call to violence, not to foment it.
In Florida, a federal prosecutor and two judges appointed by Trump were responsible for imprisoning a U.S. Army veteran who used social media to call on citizens to confront neo-Nazi terrorists if they showed up at the state Capitol on January 20, 2021, following the attempted coup d’etat in Washington, DC, on January 6.