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Perspective: San Francisco Police Illegally Used Surveillance Cameras at the George Floyd Protests. The Courts Must Stop Them

Written by Hope Williams, Nathan Sheard, Nestor ReyesPublished Jan. 13, 2022 • 7:11am
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 31: Union Square plaza fills with peaceful protesters, Sunday, May 31, 2020, the third day of Bay Area unrest over the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis. (Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

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The authors are community activists who helped organize and participated in protests against police violence in San Francisco after the murder of George Floyd. A hearing in their lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department over surveillance of Union Square protests (see photo), originally scheduled for Friday, has been postponed until Jan. 21. This Perspective follows last week’s piece from Chris Larsen supporting surveillance cameras and criticizing that lawsuit.

A year and a half ago, the San Francisco Police Department illegally spied on us and thousands of other Bay Area residents as we marched against racist police violence and the murder of George Floyd. Aided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU of Northern California, we have taken the SFPD to court.

Our lawsuit defends our right to organize protests against police violence without fear of illegal police surveillance. After the police murdered George Floyd, we coordinated mass actions and legal support and spent our days leading the community in chants, marches and protests demanding an end to policing systems that stalk and kill Black and Brown people with impunity.

Our voice is more important than ever as the mayor and Chris Larsen, the billionaire tech executive funding camera networks across San Francisco, push a false narrative about our lawsuit and the law that the SFPD violated. 

In 2019, the city passed a landmark ordinance that bans the SFPD and other city agencies from using facial recognition and requires them to get approval from the Board of Supervisors for other surveillance technologies. This transparent process sets up guardrails, allows for public input and empowers communities to say “no” to more police surveillance on our streets. 

But the police refuse to play by the rules. EFF uncovered documents showing that the SFPD violated the 2019 law and illegally tapped into a network of more than 300 video cameras in the Union Square area to surveil us and our fellow protesters. Additional documents and testimony in our case revealed that an SFPD officer repeatedly viewed the live camera feed, which directly contradicts the SFPD’s prior statements to the public and the city’s Board of Supervisors that “the feed was not monitored.”

Larsen has also backpedaled. Referencing the network, he previously claimed that “the police can’t monitor it live.” Now, Larsen is advocating for live surveillance and criticizing us for defending our right under city law to be free from unfettered police spying. He even suggests that we are to blame for recent high-profile retail thefts at San Francisco’s luxury stores. 

As Black and Latinx activists, we are outraged—but not surprised—by rich and powerful people supporting illegal police surveillance. They are not the ones targeted by the police and won’t pay the price if the city rolls back hard-won civil rights protections. 

Secret surveillance will not protect the public. What will actually make us safer is to shift funding away from the police and toward housing, healthcare, violence interruption programs and other services necessary for racial justice in the Bay Area. Strong and well-resourced communities are far more likely to be safe than they would be with ever-increasing surveillance.

As members of communities that are already overpoliced and underserved we know that surveillance is a trigger that sets our most violent and unjust systems in motion. Before the police kill a Black person, deport an immigrant, or imprison a young adult for a crime driven by poverty, chances are the police surveilled them first.

That is why we support democratic control over police spying and oppose the surveillance infrastructure that Larsen is building in our communities. We joined organizations like the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club in a successful campaign against Larsen’s plan to fund more than 125 cameras in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. And we made the decision to join forces with the EFF and the ACLU to defend our rights in court after we found out the SFPD spied on us and our movement.

Tomorrow, we will be in court to put a stop to the SFPD’s illegal spying and evasion of democratic oversight. We won’t let the police or their rich and powerful supporters intimidate activists into silence or undermine our social movements.

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Questions, comments or concerns about this article may be sent to [email protected]


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