Intern Taylor Fox contributed to this blog post.
At the height of the George Floyd protests in 2020, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) spied on thousands of demonstrators in real time by using a business district’s network of over 300 cameras. The SFPD targeted protests against police brutality led by Black people and other people of color, chilling future racial justice protests by making people less likely to come out in the future out of fear of reprisals from police. The SFPD’s surveillance also violated San Francisco’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance—fought for by marginalized groups—which requires city agencies to get the Board of Supervisors’ approval before using surveillance technology. The SFPD failed to get Board approval, so EFF and the ACLU of Northern California sued San Francisco on behalf of three community organizers and the case is now on appeal.
This January, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and Black Movement Law Project (BMLP), along with 18 other civil rights and grassroots organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of our lawsuit. These organizations detailed SFPD’s long history of spying on San Francisco’s communities of color and political dissidents. In the 1890s, for example, SFPD’s “Chinatown Squad”—one of the country’s earliest police forces used explicitly to address a panic over “ethnic crime”—was raiding Chinese homes and businesses and in some cases physically destroying them with axes. This was shortly after the city spent two decades surveilling Chinatown and mapping every room of every building there.
A century later, in the 1970s, SFPD rebranded the “Chinatown Squad” as a “Gang Task Force,” which ultimately lost a class-action lawsuit for dragnet surveillance and arrests in Chinese communities. Around the same time, the SFPD’s Intelligence Unit wiretapped and spied on meetings of groups that fought for civil rights or against imperialism. After 9/11, the police chief called for recreating the Intelligence Unit and joked publicly about Arab residents of the city blowing up buildings. Shortly after, a civil rights coalition uncovered records showing that SFPD stopped auditing its intelligence gathering and secretly agreed to share information with the FBI.
As we argue in our last appeal brief about the SFPD’s camera surveillance of the George Floyd protests without the Board of Supervisors’ approval, the court must enforce the Surveillance Technology Ordinance to stop the police from continuing to use unapproved surveillance technology. While the Board voted to authorize police use of the private cameras for 15 months, the appeal court must hold the SFPD to account, or they will spy without approval again after month 16.
The twenty amici are:
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC)
- Black Movement Law Project (BMLP)
- Anti Police Terror Project
- Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC)
- Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
- Asian Law Alliance
- Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI)
- California Immigrant Policy Center
- Chinese for Affirmative Action
- Fred T. Korematsu Institute
- Iranian American Bar Association, Northern California Chapter
- Japanese American Citizens League
- Lavender Phoenix
- Media Alliance
- Muslim Advocates
- Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR)
- Oakland Privacy
- San Jose Nikkei Resisters
- Tsuru for Solidarity
- Vigilant Love
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Author Of this post: Mukund Rathi