Simply posting about your presence at a police brutality protest can be used to incriminate you and lead to your arrest. We speak to Portland residents on the ground about the influx of unmarked federal agents.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to The Police Accountability Report. As I never get tired of saying, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. But we don’t just focus on the misbehavior of individual cops. Instead, we go behind the headlines and explore how the system itself bolsters bad behavior.
And today, we’re going to look at how that system works from the inside. First, by taking a look at this internal FBI memo about how federal agents spy on people’s Facebook posts. And then second, by talking to people in Portland who have seen firsthand how secret federal agents are acting on that information to make questionable arrests.
But before we get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org and we might be able to investigate.
And please like, share and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. And of course, you can message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter.
Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. Now, I’m sure by now, most of us have seen this. Secret federal police detaining federal protesters in Portland. As this video posted by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley on his Twitter account reveals, the agents have no external markings, no badge numbers, and according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, no legal basis for detaining US citizens. Let’s remember that most policing is a function of local government. Federal cops have little jurisdiction over local laws. Instead, they are empowered to protect federal property, the border or enforce federal statutes.
But these limits have not stopped the federal government from threatening to expand their presence to other cities nor has the federal government produced any information on exactly which agency in Homeland Security the anonymous operatives work for besides reports those seen were from Customs and Border Patrol and an ICE tactical unit that investigates human and drug trafficking. Instead, what we’ve witnessed is the threat of a proliferation of an unnamed armed force in our cities that is nearly impossible to hold accountable. The nightmare that many of the cop-watchers and activists had said was possible has now become a reality.
But unfortunately, the news gets worse. That’s because in the past week, we have obtained this elite document that offers a glimpse inside the process of how secret police work in tandem with technology to forge an invisible presence in our lives. It is a confidential report filed by an FBI agent who was using Facebook to monitor protesters in Delaware.
As you can see, the report shows how the agent used the Facebook activity of protestors to gather information about the individual and the process of obstensively investigating a crime, but the information was vague and seemed to imply that the mere presence of a protestor at a gathering where property was destroyed was incriminating.
Now, we have been in touch with the FBI about this document and to talk about it, I’m joined by my cohost, Stephen Janis. Steven, what have you learned and what information is contained in this document?
Stephen Janis: Well, it seems to be a report from an FBI agent who is monitoring Facebook and using Facebook to monitor protests in Dover, Delaware. The information on it says that the agent monitored someone’s Facebook watch party and then reported that close to where the watch party was filming, or the person who was filming on Facebook, some destruction of property happened. And one thing was interesting is that the FBI agent said on the post, “I will continue to monitor this anonymously.”
Taya Graham: Now, you asked the FBI specifically if this information was tied to an arrest. What did they say?
Stephen Janis: I contacted the FBI. They call me back. They didn’t give me any information about this particular document. In fact, they would not confirm whether or not it was authentic. The only thing they would ask or tell me or ask me was where I got it, which I refused to disclose. But as far as what this is and if this is even confirmed, we don’t know yet, although I think it looks authentic.
Taya Graham: Steven, finally, how widespread is this program? Have we learned anything else about how much this methodology is being used by the FBI?
Stephen Janis: Well, at this point we know they’re using Facebook to arrest people. We know because we covered the case of Michael Avery, who was arrested in St. Louis for his Facebook post, and an activist in Georgia who was arrested for his Facebook post. So we know that they’re using it.
We have filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI and the Justice Department for all arrests in any sort of investigations tied to Facebook and are awaiting the results. But right now, we don’t know the scope of this.
Taya Graham: Now, if you think the link between secret police and anonymous Facebook monitoring is farfetched, let’s remember the arrest of Michael Avery. As we reported in a previous show, Avery was arrested by at least 50 agents in, again, unmarked uniforms for a series of Facebook posts. The arresting documents obtained by PAR revealed that Avery’s charges were directly based on information he had posted on social media.
In fact, the FBI accused him of fomenting violence by using terminology Avery told us in a phone interview was misinterpreted, including the FBI’s assessment that the word “shooters” actually meant gunman, while Avery meant photographers. And the misapprehension of “red level,” an event as a call to violence, not a characterization of the expected police response.
The charges against Avery were ultimately dropped, but not after he had spent time in jail, and authorities say the investigation is still ongoing. But clearly, the presence of federal police in cities like Portland and the arrest of activists like Avery in St. Louis raise serious questions about the continued encroachment of law enforcement into our lives.
And to discuss what has happened in Portland, the government’s threat to peaceful and constitutionally-protected protest, what might come next? I’m joined by an activist who has been in the thick of what’s going on here for years. His name is Eli Richey, and he has been watching cops and reporting on it for almost a decade. He’s also in the process of producing a documentary on the subject, which he hopes will premiere soon.
Thank you for joining us, Eli.
Eli Richey: No problem.
Taya Graham: So Eli, looking back, what do you think has led up to Portland’s bursts of protest? I know it seemed to start after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but there has been activism against police misconduct in Portland before this, right?
Eli Richey: Police misconduct is really government misconduct. And if we look at Oregon historically, Oregon has always been, in terms of race politics, corrupt. In Oregon’s constitution, there was a provision put in place that would prevent African-Americans from being able to own land. So from its very origins, there has been corruption in terms of equality.
Taya Graham: How have Portland residents responded to federal law enforcement coming in?
Eli Richey: As a resident, my opinion on it is that unfortunately, we’re not going to see local political reform with the federal government here. I’m very much under the impression that you got to think globally but act locally. And so the federal officers here are kind of creating a diversion from the actual politics that have led to these problems here today.
When it comes to the riots, like Martin Luther King, I tend to agree that the destruction of property is a language in which these people speak. They used to own people. So property is much more important to them than our plight as people. So I’m glad to see the attention now being focused on reform. However, at the same time it scares a lot of people.
Taya Graham: Now, public officials have said that these federal agents seem to be intentionally trying to incite violence. Have you seen any evidence of this?
Eli Richey: I don’t know what else to say except that first, they came for the cop watchers. And because people weren’t cop watchers, they didn’t do anything. And now that they’re coming for the real quote-unquote journalists, I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.
I mean, I’ve exposed criminal informants working for ranking officials and PBB. Portland allowed a Nazi cop to retire. One that was in charge of the not only Criminal Intelligence Division, but Drug and Vice at one point. Who was responsible for approving the criminal informants who turned out to be a bunch of white supremacists.
Some could say I’m responsible for the reason why the Chief of Police left the city of Portland. We’re just now having this conversation. And it took another man, another black man, to die in the most toxic fashion. And it’s just disgusting.
Taya Graham: How has the Portland Police Department responded to your activism or your community outreach? Have you experienced any retaliation or had any charges pressed against you?
Eli Richey: Arrested 20 times in two years. Beat them all except for two. The chief of police, Danielle Outlaw, was successful at gaining a restraining order against me. It took two-and-a-half years for me to finally be able to have that seen in the appeals court and to have it reversed. A 27-page opinion was written and in fact was just used about a month ago to protect an activist in Little Rock, Arkansas.
But unfortunately, the constant fear of having the police raid my home caused me to take certain measures that split my family, unfortunately. So for safety reasons, it’s damaged. I had to make certain steps to protect myself, which shifts damage from my family.
It’s taken an extreme, personal toll on my life. However, it was for the right thing. And in some ways, patience is a virtue that we all don’t have. And thankfully, it’s one that I’ve been really practicing, and to see things come around to where we’re at today is really exciting.
Taya Graham: So how important is the movement to film police?
Eli Richey: Simply going out there and holding a camera created such a controversy that I knew I was onto something. And I believe that it is one of the most American things that we could possibly do. If you look at our constitution and see the way that it was written, it is to protect us from government. And the way I’ve approached it is sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you, especially if you’re a professional.
With officers today having qualified immunity, the benefit of the doubt in an argument, what we see today worldwide is a demand for respect. Now, there’s a lot of people saying that police just demand respect. Well, why?
Because they took a volunteer position? They took this position? I don’t. I don’t believe so. I believe the reason why they demand respect is because they have a gun, at the end of the day. And in order to find some balance there, we need to put officers on an even level. The way that we do that is through today’s technology. Film an audio, film a recording. Put it out there so everyone can see.
There’s so many videos of officers violating policy, reform shouldn’t be a problem. We have to look at the reason why we have a police force. From what I understand, they were put into existence to help break up unions, they would bust up unions, hunt down runaway slaves and Native Americans.
Taya Graham: Now, sometimes I like to make a literary reference to provide some context for the topic at hand. It’s a tradition on the show that I think sheds light on the fact that the challenges we face now are not unique, and a way to use a different perspective to show where we might be heading.
Today, I’m going to refer to a book by noted Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. It’s an expansive work of fiction that explores a variety of facets of how a functioning dictatorship evolves. And it’s notable that the first chapter focuses on what appears to be the primary tool of enforcing authoritarian law: the arrest.
Solzhenitsyn recounts how the random secret arrest turns into a tool of terror and social control, how the unfettered ability to detain without accountability turns state power into a pathology that spreads throughout the community like a disease.
In fact, the argument seems to be that nothing is more essential to an authoritarian regime than the unimpeded control over our bodies. So as we watch the federal response to protests unfold, perhaps we need to consider an aspect of this development that is often ignored but worth another look.
In a sense, the federal push to arrest protestors in unmarked vans is not that far removed from the continued arrest of activists by local police. And that connection is predicated upon the fact that we are ready predisposed to being arrested.
What do I mean? Well, let’s remember there is no specific power to arrest outlined in the constitution, only protections against unlawful detainment. And let’s also remember that the institution of policing itself didn’t emerge until the mid-19th century. The point is that the whole so-called arrest infrastructure has evolved as our neoliberal capitalist institutions have grown in influence and scope.
And along with that growth and power, the number of arrests in general have continued to rise in tandem. In fact, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute in 2019, American police made 10.5 million arrests. That is one every three seconds. And as the data points out, these are not detentions of murderers and child molesters. The majority are for insignificant crimes like drug possession according to that same dataset.
The point is we are conditioned to the arrest. We’ve been taught to accept this ubiquity as necessary and a familiar part of the American landscape. And along with the endless assortment of cop shows, or copaganda, we have been led to believe that millions of arrests and incarceration is somehow productive and beneficial to society, which can’t provide healthcare, solve poverty, or even supply affordable housing.
But as the arrest you are watching now reveals, the entire aforementioned narrative is subject to question. The video was given to us by a viewer, Tina [Spizike 00:16:00]. Her arrest occurred last week as she was commuting to work over the Brooklyn Bridge. As you can see by the video, police began corralling protesters and bystanders alike, forming a veritable dragnet that scooped up citizens like fish in a trawler.
As Tina told us in an interview, throughout her ordeal, she continued to ask a fundamental question that police could not answer. Why was she being arrested? We will speak with Tina next week about what happened and her treatment behind bars.
The point is the intervention by relatively anonymous federal police is an extension of the psychology of controlling space that already existed in the plethora of arrests made by our expansive law enforcement industrial complex. What we’re seeing in Portland is a reality that has been part of the psyche of this nation as we’ve continued to prosecute the war on drugs and fill prisons with low-level offenders and acceptance that policing space is a necessary component of a community. That the only way to maintain peace is to imbue a class of arresters with almost unfettered powers to detain, incarcerate and otherwise corral us into a system that seems to manufacture disfunction and disempowerment.
As we noted earlier in the show, it’s a method of conditioning consent that is predicated by violence and its continued patrolling of our psyches that’s predicated upon the idea we accept the unjust conditions of income inequality and racial divisions as reality solely constructed by us, not the institutions, which benefit from it. The question is, how far will we the people allow this to go? How much longer will we tolerate this system of coercion? How long can the massive deployment of power to detain that we are witnessing across the country continue?
That’s the question at the heart of this issue. The query that defines all the conflict and concern. Who are we really and what kind of country do we really want to be?
I would like to thank my guest cop watcher, Eli Richey, for his time and for his work in the community. Thank you, Eli.
Eli Richey: You’re very welcome, any time. And at the end of the day, I just want to see the city of Portland be a better place. And to you guys out in Baltimore, I wish you guys luck. Act local and continue to think global with the social media platform that you have.
Taya Graham: I would also like to thank Intrepid reporter, Stephen Janis, for his investigative work, writing and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And of course, I would be remiss if I did not thank friend of the show, Noli Dee. Thanks, Noli Dee.
And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at email@example.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us @policeaccountabilityreport on Facebook or Instagram or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course, you can message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook. And please like and comment. I do read your comments and appreciate them, and I try to answer questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host of The Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.
Host & Producer
Before joining TRNN as an investigative journalist, Taya worked in Baltimore’s neighborhoods of color for years as an advocate and was awarded the Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Torchbearer Award and YANA’s (You Are Never Alone) “Love in Action” award. Her years of outreach to underserved communities have uniquely prepared her to connect with city residents. Now she cultivates relationships with Baltimore’s citizens to cover the stories on the ground.