Valley Voices

B.T. Lewis and Taymah Jahsi: Stop using social media to monitor south Fresno’s protesters

Through peaceful protest and truth-telling, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted several positive changes to the rights and experiences of communities of color throughout our country.

This includes a renewed and strengthened conversation regarding police misconduct and accountability, Department of Justice investigations of cities with longstanding issues like Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Cincinnati, and dozens of local and state policy changes towards creating greater transparency and oversight (including California’s Assembly Bill 953, which requires more comprehensive tracking for racial and identity profiling).

This is why we find a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union so concerning. In summary, the ACLU has reported that the Fresno Police Department is using social media monitoring technology.

According to the report, our local Police Department has been monitoring the social media activity of clergy, community organizers and local activists by tracking the use of nonviolent hashtags such as, but not limited to: #BlackLivesMatter, #iamunarmed, #weorganize and #ripmikebrown.

These hashtags tare primarily used by African American protesters and others who desire to create an America that lives up to its ideals of equal opportunity and treatment for all.

In a conversation with our Police Department, we were told that this was a test software program with algorithms that contained embedded hashtags from the data-mining company Media Sonar.

The potential for using this technology without the appropriate community checks and balances can cause a conflation of nonviolent protesters with those who are using street vernacular for actual criminal activity in social media posts (such as: #gang, #bangin, and #gangsta).

Within this framework, clergy, community organizers, youths and activists who desire community renewal can be seen through the same lens as those using destructive language on social media. This should not be the case.

It is unreasonable for parishioners in our congregations who are putting their faith into action by calling for a more just and safe community to be seen as threats to be monitored.

This kind monitoring and surveillance activity harkens back to the FBI’s counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO, which wreaked havoc upon Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups during the 1960s and ’70s.

These surveillance programs follow a long history of law enforcement targeting African American and other minority groups who seek to transform society for the betterment of all people.

This recent revelation illustrates the argument for why movements like Black Lives Matter and others that encourage reasonable, community-driven police accountability and oversight reforms are needed in the first place.

There was not a public dialogue prior to our Police Department using this technology to monitor social media, nor an agreement of what safeguards need to be in place to prevent abuse of such technologies.

We need a strong ordinance to be passed by our Fresno City Council that would require a surveillance-impact report or surveillance-use policy adopted for the public to review to inform our decision-making, to ensure safeguards against abuse are in place. This reflects a continued lack of oversight by the administration of our city.

Once again – as it has done throughout administrations – this city’s administration seems to govern based on a values system driven by and for north Fresno, while excluding those of south Fresno, who have historically borne the brunt of unjust and unequal decisions by our elected officials.

This is one reason why we and many of our community partners are embarking on a process that encourages more south Fresnans – and all those across our city who believe in a healthier, more just city – to vote, so that those in power might place more value on the lives of all Fresnans.

We need to point toward a future in the city where our Police Department and other public institutions have true community oversight and accountability.

During a recent town hall with the Department of Justice, police Chief Jerry Dyer committed his department to a real, full return to community policing – one that reflects the components set forth in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing – by May.

We have hope for an enhanced Office of Independent Review that has more authority, independence and strong community oversight.

It is our hope and desire that the movement of Black Lives Matter be seen not as an enemy, but as a guide that will help our nation, state, and city along the path to wholeness, and that monitoring nonviolent groups will be deemed unacceptable.

This will help us create one healthy Fresno.

The Rev. B.T. Lewis, pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, is a board member of Faith In Community. Taymah Jahsi is a leader of Faith In Community and chair of the LiveFree Campaign.