Government surveillance in the U.S. has had a disparate impact on communities of color since its earliest recorded iterations in the 19th century. The U.S. has been heavily surveilling communities of color since enacting policies such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans with Executive Order 9066, and since the Black liberation movements during the 1950s-1970s. Surveillance in the U.S. is an old concept, especially when it comes to people of color. After 9/11, the intensity of that surveillance—and the tools used to deploy it—outpaced anything the U.S. had seen before.
Assia Boundaoui’s The Feeling of Being Watched demonstrates how similar the experiences are. In 1971, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) was discovered by the public. It was clear that the Bureau’s surveillance of everyday citizens conflated political activity with criminal activity. The purposes of COINTELPRO were to neutralize dissent, disrupt political organizations, breed mistrust in movements, and malign or coerce movement leaders—particularly Black nationalists. Assia’s quest to obtain years of surveillance documents the FBI collected on her community in Bridgeview, IL, proved to be a difficult, lengthy, and purposely obfuscated process that caused distress, disappointment, and at times—hopelessness.
In The Feeling of Being Watched, it is clear that the surveillance and targeting of Muslim communities under the guise of counterterrorism occurred long before 9/11. After the USA PATRIOT Act was passed in 2001, the definition of “domestic terrorism” widened and enabled law enforcement to abuse and overreach its authority. In recent history, Muslim communities (of which 25-33% are African Americans) have had to enroll in registry databases such as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). They have been deported to black site prisons like Guantanamo without due process. Police departments like the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) have mapped Muslim communities, and the federal government has promoted entrapment programs like Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).
As the government’s security apparatus has expanded, Muslim and Arab communities have become “virtually interned.” Because Muslims and Arabs are not physically confined in camps and the state’s systematic targeting is difficult to directly observe, the communities are essentially “virtually interned”. It is this virtual internment that drives Assia’s community members to constantly watch behind their backs, having to keep a lookout for which unfamiliar cars are parked across their driveways or strange people are in their mosques. As more community members file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and demand transparency from the government, it will be clear how far the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI’s projects extend.
Today, there are several activists and advocates who are working to expose the DHS, FBI, and law enforcement’s role in targeting, surveilling, and criminalizing Muslim and Arab communities. Assia’s film and broader vision of subverting the gaze is empowering community members to speak up about their experiences of being watched, to heal, and to move to action.
To learn more:
- Insert FOIA request toolkit
- Insert Muslim Wellness Foundation Healing Discussion Guide
Insert MSA West
Federal Bureau of Investigation. “COINTELPRO Black Extremist Part 1 of 23.” https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/cointel-pro-black-extremists/cointelpro-black-extremists-part-01-of/view
Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. “American Muslim Poll 2019.” https://www.ispu.org/public-policy/american-muslim-poll/
Arab American Institute. “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System.” https://www.aaiusa.org/nseers
ACLU. “Factsheet: The NYPD Muslim Surveillance Program.” https://www.aclu.org/other/factsheet-nypd-muslim-surveillance-program
Los Angeles Times. “The Journey of LAPD’s anti-terror Suspicious Activity Reports. https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-suspicious-20150131-story.html
Bazian, Hatem. “Virtual Internment: Arabs, Muslims, Asians and the War on Terrorism.” Academia, Dec. 1, 2013. https://www.academia.edu/6390836/Virtual_Internment_Arabs_Muslims_Asians_and_the_War_on_Terrorism