The irony of Apple Inc. defying a court order that authorizes the FBI to investigate the 2015 San Bernardino shootings by unlocking the gunman’s encrypted iPhone should not be lost on those who have followed, or who have been a part of movements against racial oppression.
With no hesitation, and as part of its commitment to protecting civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan made it clear that forcing Apple to unlock that iPhone would be unlawful, unconstitutional, and set a dangerous precedent that implicates the security and privacy of millions of Americans. But considering the FBI’s history of selective surveillance in communities of color, its fight against Apple all seems like a strange case of overfed chickens coming home to roost.
From the perspective of many who struggle to empower the oppressed, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have long worked for corporate interests to ensure market stability and access to markets. It is further believed that movements that are militant in character or movements that seek independence and self-determination for people of color have long been regarded as a threat to corporate dominance. The government’s history of protecting corporate interests has been labeled by some activists as the “Industrial-Police-Intelligence Complex,” or “IPIC.” Recent developments should leave routine targets of FBI surveillance to wonder about their own fate given the FBI’s willingness to go after a major corporation with such vigor.
Historically, the FBI has demonstrated little reluctance to closely monitor and scrutinize the activities of activists in communities of color. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was the architect of the agency’s infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which was marked by extensive surveillance of activists, surreptitious opening of mail, illegal break-ins, frame-ups and harassment. The Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party in particular were prime targets of COINTELPRO operations, and to this day there are victims of FBI activities who remain in prison.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was also a focus of COINTELPRO operations. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, in their book “The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement” describe how in 1976, a young Indian woman named Anna Mae Aquash was reportedly interrogated by an FBI agent about the whereabouts of two AIM leaders, and she was later found dead. According to the book, the FBI told Aquash’s family she died of “natural causes,” but an independent pathologist who examined the body found a bullet wound in her head.
In 2012, it became necessary for the ACLU of Michigan and the ACLU’s national office to initiate litigation to compel production of documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act that concerned any FBI surveillance that may have been inspired by portions of the agency’s operations guide that authorized agents to: “…identify locations of concentrated ethnic communities in the [FBI] Field Office’s domain…” There were specific ACLU concerns about the targeting of Arab and Muslim communities based on one document the agency disclosed that stated: “Because Michigan has [a] large Middle-Eastern and Muslim population, it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment by these terrorist groups.”
The operations guide also permitted collection of information about “the locations of ethnic-oriented businesses and other facilities.” It suggested as well that more individualized information could be collected about the “behavioral and lifestyle characteristics” of suspected security threats. The guide noted: “Focused behavioral characteristics reasonably believed to be associated with a particular criminal or terrorist element of an ethnic community (not with the community as a whole) may be collected and retained.”
In an apparent connection to the operations guide, FBI documents show that in Atlanta the agency monitored what it characterized as “Black Separatist” groups. In San Francisco, an agency document argued in favor of the racial mapping of Chinese and Russian immigrant communities. Latino communities were targeted as well.
Because large corporations like Apple have not usually been the focal point of overreaching by the FBI, activists from communities of color look on with interest and an intuitive understanding that a monster created to protect the corporate world nevertheless has a mind of its own, and not even corporations are off limits unless and until someone tames the monster. That “someone” must be “we the people.”