After years of alleged targeting, harassment, and surveillance by the government, some members of Black Lives Matter (BLM) are suing the police and town of Clarkstown, New York in federal court.
The lawsuit claims that police electronically surveilled members of BLM and “placed ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ under the same surveillance criteria” as tags such as “gangs,” “violence,” and “terrorism.” The suit says some people within the group were targeted without any “misconduct” found and with no “justifiable basis.” The defendant’s actions had a “chilling effect” on the group’s “right to free speech and association,” the lawsuit states.
“These illegal actions are borne out of the unwarranted anxiety that the Black Lives Matter Movement causes mainstream society. When groups of African Americans convene in peaceful protest of the treatment they receive from law enforcement, unfortunately, like here, their rights are often violated,” reads the complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York.
It began with the April 2013 formation of the Strategic Intelligence Unit (SIU), a joint venture of the Rockland County District Attorney’s office and the Clarkstown Police Department to collect and share data related to criminal activity.
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In January 2015, the SIU began to issue monthly reports documenting its electronic surveillance of “individuals who may be associated with acts of violence.”
These reports indicate a string of illegal monitoring by the SIU, from the July 2015 targeting of a group called We The People to the surveillance of Rockland Sheriff Lou Falco, Clarkstown Judge Howard Gerber, and Clarkstown Town Supervisor George Hoehmann, all seen as political enemies of the police department.
The SIU reports alarmed the Rockland County District Attorney’s office, which sent a letter of warning to the police in January 2016. “As I mentioned before, you really should not have Black Lives Matter listed as a target for surveillance,” it stated.
The case is unique, according to the complaint, because the town of Clarkstown has already admitted to the illegal activity in its response to a lawsuit by Police Chief Michael Sullivan.
Sullivan is suspended with pay and running for supervisor, according to NBC News, which last year uncovered another classified report showing the illegal surveillance of 14 members of We The People. This led to a civil rights lawsuit by the members and the town agreeing to a settlement for $300,000.
Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe has denied any illegal surveillance by SIU, except for “passive surveillance or monitoring of publicly available social media,” according to NBC.
The plaintiffs are five members of Black Lives Matter: Dominique McGregor, a teacher; Jerlyne Calixte, a healing counselor and research assistant; Vanessa Green, who works at a domestic violence program; and Weldon McWilliams IV and Everett Newton, both pastors.
They are claiming violation of their First and 14th Amendment rights, seeking monetary relief and a jury trial. The plaintiffs are asking for the SIU to be disbanded unless it adopts the Handschu guidelines—which regulate police behavior related to political activity—and are seeking an injunction to prohibit the local government from engaging in illegal surveillance.
“The disproportionate treatment of men, women, and children of color at the hands of police raises questions about how America values their lives,” the lawsuit states. “This harsh reality tends to overwhelm, degrade and leave people of color to question the worth of their flesh, bones, and souls. The Plaintiffs refused to retreat into the shadows and decided to form a chapter of Black Lives Matter .… It made them a target for the violation of their inalienable rights.”
Attorney William O. Wagstaff III told Rewire that this is an important lawsuit at a time when protesters and activists of color are facing increased scrutiny and backlash from law enforcement.
UPDATE, September 1, 2:29 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include Attorney William O. Wagstaff III’s comments.