You Don't Have to Break the Law to Get Watched by ARIC

Anarchy in the ATX

Illustration by John Anderson

According to a May 9, 2016, police report, three activists protesting unpaid prison labor hung a banner over I-35 during morning rush hour traffic. Although the attending officer didn't issue tickets and left the scene after only giving warnings for a traffic hazard, he soon discovered one of the protesters had "possible ties to known anarchists." A few hours later, the report, which described the group's political affiliations, was filed with the Austin Regional Intel­li­gence Center.

The "Suspicious Activity Report" was one of a handful about anarchists exposed in BlueLeaks, a recent nationwide hack of information, including from ARIC, a multiagency "fusion center" operated by Austin police. As a response to the perceived failures of intelligence sharing that enabled the 9/11 attacks, centers like ARIC were designed to "fuse" information that could help avert terrorism and criminal activity. But the reports on anarchists reflect the mission drift that is seen often among fusion centers toward monitoring activity (such as identifying oneself as an "anarchist") that's protected by the First Amendment.

In this particular report, the primary subject is described as being "listed as a member of Occupy Austin." They asked the Chronicle to keep their identity anonymous, but they acknowledged being a teacher, a participant with Occupy, and a "local anarchist organizer who has worked with houseless and incarcerated Austinites since 2011." When asked about being "listed," they asserted that "[former APD] Chief Art Acevedo was famous for learning the first names of activists during and after Occupy and either cozying up to or vilifying them."

According to APD Public Information Specialist Tara Long, "The ARIC does not keep lists of members of local political activist groups or lists of members of any other type of group." However, Long elaborated that "initial reports and supplements to offense reports include information that is relevant to that offense report/investigation. Thus, whether an individual [i.e., a witness, complainant, victim, arrestee, etc.] is identified as a member of a particular group or movement may or may not be captured, depending upon its relevance." It's unclear how Occupy Austin is still relevant after being inactive at least several years prior to the 2016 report.

The banner over I-35 read, "END PRISON SLAV­ERY," and was intended to raise awareness of a national prison strike, according to the subject. The report, which lists the "suspicious activity" as "expressed or implied threat," notes that the group was passing out fliers titled, "Take Your Mark, Get Ready, Ablate: 3 Positions Against Prison." How­ever, the report never explains how the "expressed or implied threat" of the banner and fliers are tied to terrorism or criminal activity.

ARIC reports on anarchists reflect the mission drift that is seen often among fusion centers toward monitoring activity that’s protected by the First Amendment.

The ARIC portion of BlueLeaks also includes a report about a tweet from "a self-identified anarchist group based in San Marcos" that "issued anti-LE [law enforcement] threat rhetoric" from a now-deleted account. Although an ARIC analyst admitted "no specific intentional threat verbiage was found," the tweet was "documented and shared internally via SAR reporting." The analyst warned, "We may expect further escalation of the group's rhetoric and activity in the future."

In another report, an individual identified as an anarchist had reportedly fired a gun inside his home with children present. The case was "cleared" by ARIC as "Suspicious Unknown[,] because the subject stated that although he does not believe in causing violence or participating in illegal activities he does associate at times with people who do." Two other reports mention subjects as having read The Anarchist Cook­book, which includes bomb-making instructions along with advice on how to smoke banana peels to get high.

Local self-identified anarchist and author scott crow believes the rise of laws criminalizing dissent and financial incentives for enforcement create an environment where law enforcement is "willfully ignorant" of political activism, particularly on the left. Along with the profession's general lean toward conservatism, "self-reflection within law enforcement is very insular and siloed, and so it reverberates with misinformation chronically," crow said.

The ARIC reports show a casualness that differs from documents produced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, also included in BlueLeaks. DHS consistently includes the word "extremist" after "anarchist" to clarify that the agency is reporting on potential terrorism or criminal activity. Those documents include a definition:

"DHS defines anarchist extremists as groups or individuals who facilitate or engage in acts of unlawful violence as a means of changing the government and society in support of the belief that all forms of capitalism and corporate globalization should be opposed and that governing institutions are unnecessary and harmful to society." ARIC reports do not meet this apparent standard of "unlawful violence."

"Law enforcement creates incredibly dangerous climates for real people and real impacts on their lives," crow stated. "It endangers people like myself."

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