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Asian Law Caucus’ Amicus Brief Chronicles SFPD’s Sweeping Legacy of Unlawful and Abusive Surveillance

January 20, 2023 News

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Asian Law Caucus’ Amicus Brief Chronicles SFPD’s Sweeping Legacy of Unlawful and Abusive Surveillance

Bay Area and California groups call on CA Court of Appeal to uphold San Franciscans’ right to live free of police surveillance

SAN FRANCISCO – Amid San Francisco residents' protests against police violence, Bay Area and California civil rights and immigrant rights organizations filed an amicus brief in the California Court of Appeal today urging the court to uphold San Franciscans’ right to live in their home city free of police surveillance and discriminatory targeting. Led by Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, the brief in support of plaintiffs in Williams v. San Francisco recounts how the San Francisco Police Department has illegally surveilled, harassed, and targeted Black, Asian, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, LGBTQ, and immigrant residents for over 150 years to silence dissent and suppress movements for justice. Over this history, as San Franciscans have organized and advocated for a safe, inclusive city, SFPD has repeatedly failed to abide by our anti-surveillance and safety laws.

During the 2020 Uprisings after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, SFPD spied on local activists using 400 cameras spread across one district. Hope Williams, Nathan Sheard, and Nestor Reyes, who participated in San Francisco protests against police violence, sued SFPD to end its abusive surveillance that violates the city’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance.

“For generations, SFPD has sidestepped the law to increase its own power, inflict violence on marginalized communities, and silence the voices of families, working people, students, and others who are calling for racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and an end to wars,” said Hammad Alam, national security & civil rights staff attorney and program manager at Asian Law Caucus. “Since the 19th century, two things have stayed constant: SFPD’s use of evolving technologies to more pervasively and insidiously surveil San Franciscans, and San Franciscans’ unwavering condemnation of SFPD’s abuse. SFPD must end its long legacy of abusive and unlawful surveillance and be held to account.”

“The police take an oath to the constitution, yet they seem to treat the law and the democratic will of the people with disdain. Police subservience to the powerful few over the many and the most vulnerable is shameful but all too common,” said Abi Hassen, co-founder of the Black Movement Law Project. “Giving them more power to surveil and disrupt those seeking justice is a recipe for disaster. If we want to have a democracy and a future where safety and dignity are afforded to all, the courts must side with the people over the police.”

As the Williams amicus brief details, SFPD has used its relationship with the FBI and federal agencies, private and public technology, and a constant disregard for the law and residents’ constitutional rights to intimidate and criminalize people because of their race, national origin, gender, sexual identity, or participation in public protest and dissent.

Over the many decades, SFPD’s surveillance operations have been repackaged again and again to drive people away from the city, intimidate marginalized communities, and chill residents’ exercise of their First Amendment rights, including:

  • Police targeting Asian American immigrants, from the “Chinatown Squad” in the 19th century to “correct the glaring evils long existing in Chinatown” to participating in the incarceration of more than 5,000 Japanese Americans from San Francisco.
  • SFPD raids to harass and intimidate the city’s LGBTQ communities, from the Tay-Bush Inn Raid and the New Year’s Eve Raid in the 1960s to the harrowing police violence at the 1989 ACT UP protest in support of AIDS victims.
  • SFPD’s relentless targeting of the city’s Black communities, who are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, and subjected to force than those of other races. Since 1985, the vast majority of people killed by SFPD have been Black, and the majority of SFPD killings have been in districts with the highest concentration of Black residents.
  • SFPD’s undercover surveillance of mass protests against the war in Iraq in violation of San Francisco’s Guidelines for First Amendment Activities and the institution’s unabated and unlawful profiling of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities and families.

In light of SFPD’s sweeping history of unchecked and discriminatory surveillance, ALC and civil rights organizations across the region are calling on the Court of Appeal to reverse the Superior Court’s ruling and affirm San Franciscans right to live free of police surveillance.

San Francisco Residents Organize Against Police Surveillance

While SFPD’s history of abusive surveillance and discriminatory targeting can be traced back to the 1850s, San Franciscans have been fighting back against police violence for just as long. That legacy of community-led organizing for real and lasting safety continues today.

In just the past few months, San Francisco residents came together to block SFPD from deploying robots with lethal weapons, fight against SFPD’s new surveillance proposal which expands their surveillance power, and ban pretext stops. In the past few years, Black and Muslim community members have also led campaigns to disentangle San Francisco and Oakland police from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which had been used to surveil people in their neighborhoods, places of worship, and workplaces.

“As Arabs and Muslims we are all too familiar with the shameful history of racist surveillance and targeting at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department. At each juncture in history working families have faced the brunt of police violence and have organized to protect those most impacted. Now more than ever we must learn from our history and ensure that we do not replicate harmful policies to further the criminalization and violence of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities,” said Lara Kiswani, executive director at Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC).

“We will not let technicalities obscure the need for accountability and the vision of a future for San Francisco where our identities do not expose us to unwarranted and expansive spying by the police for no reason other than who we are,” said Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance and advocacy director at Oakland Privacy. “Our race, national origin, gender, sexual identity, or participation in public protest and dissent do not make us criminals, and discriminatory mass surveillance is unconstitutional and unacceptable. The court should not hinder our ability to insist on transparency, responsibility, accountability and safety from the kind of abuse and intimidation outlined in this amicus.”