On Oct. 26, thousands of people from across the U.S. attended the Stop Watching Us rally — the biggest domestic protest against surveillance to date. The event showed off a diverse grassroots coalition consisting of more than 100 organizations, including the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Demand Progress, Free Press, Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty.
But while the NSA was the rally’s official target, many of the speakers discussed events that predate the agency’s post-9/11 spying programs. In fact, the mass surveillance of innocent people has been a problem for years.
Communities of color, immigrants and Muslim Americans have experienced the destructive effects of surveillance — in all its forms — for decades. In the 1950s and Ê¼60s, the FBI spied on leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to try to discredit and destroy the civil rights movement. Anti-immigrant policing policies have empowered law enforcement throughout the U.S. — but especially in the Southwest — to target Latinos, who are subject to sweeping deportations and a prejudicial criminal justice system.
Similarly, police in New York City and elsewhere use stop-and-frisk practices to racially profile African-Americans and other people of color. And since 9/11, the FBI has infiltrated Muslim-American communities, particularly in New York.
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s programs shocked us all. But given that millions have lived with these kinds of unconstitutional intrusions for years, we need to recognize that the surveillance state operates online and offline and affects everyone.
The more that we object to living in a surveillance state — in all its forms — the more that we can build the kind of diverse coalition we’ll need to truly stop the surveillance. Already the StopWatching.Us coalition has united progressives and libertarians, Republicans and Democrats and others in this fight. But we have a lot more work to do.
If we’re serious about rolling back the surveillance, we’ll have to think bigger than just reforming the NSA (though that alone could take years). We’ll also have to turn our attention to the broader culture of surveillance. We’ll need to address not only the federal government’s interception of digital data, but also local law enforcement’s reliance on racial profiling, stop and frisk and other discriminatory tactics.
We’ll have to reform the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act to safeguard our ability to communicate in private, and we’ll have to reform the state- and city-level versions of these laws.
And we’ll need to build a movement so big and so broad that it spurs a national conversation about the role of political dissent in our democracy and the importance of open, accountable communications systems that are free from prying eyes and are built to serve the public — not government agencies and the companies they collude with.
Last week, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end the NSA’s bulk collection of our phone records and require more oversight and transparency of the agency.
The bill’s introduction comes at an auspicious moment. European heads of state are expressing outrage at reports that the NSA is monitoring their communications, and yet another Snowden revelation describes how the NSA has infiltrated Google, Yahoo and other companies’ global data centers.
The USA Freedom Act will go a long way toward restoring our Fourth Amendment rights to connect and communicate in private. And at a moment when journalists are under attack like never before and the open Internet is in peril, we need to make sure that Congress comes out in support of this bill.
Josh Levy is the Internet Campaign Director at Free Press.
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