Police spies tracked NU’s Occupy events

June 13, 2014
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A controversial Boston Police spy agency tracked Northeastern University students’ involvement in the Occupy Boston movement, as well as academic events the spies admitted were not related to Occupy at all, recently released secret documents reveal.

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) documents, dating to 2011, show a spy agency obsessed with anything it thought related to the Occupy Boston movement—even yoga classes and rock concerts. BRIC monitored that year’s “Occupy Northeastern” event and other student protests, but also public lectures and workshops at NU.

Robin Jacks, one of the activists who organized the 2011 Occupy Boston camp, appears repeatedly in the files. In an email to the Gazette, she blasted BRIC as distracted and creepy.

“Why were we BRIC’s targets? What is the point of any of this? How did this monitoring help the city? BRIC’s silence on this speaks volumes,” Jacks said.

BRIC, an anti-terrorism agency based at police headquarters at Ruggles and Tremont Streets, right next door to NU, is already controversial for spying on such legal, non-terroristic public events while failing to know anything at all about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. It is one of many state and federally funded “fusion centers” around the country widely derided—including by a bipartisan U.S. Senate committee—as incompetent, wasteful threats to civil liberties.

“I feel a lot less safe than I did before the documents came out,” Jacks said. “I feel as though BRIC detectives see me as a source of data or, worse, as a criminal, rather than a Bostonian that they were supposed to be protecting. When I think about the fact that [marathon bombing suspect] Tamerlan Tsarnaev had just returned from Russia and was presumably beginning his plot to bomb the city, I am even more outraged.”

An ACLU/National Lawyers Guild lawsuit in 2012 revealed that BRIC spies were tracking other perfectly legal events as early as 2007. That included branding a 2007 anti-war event at a JP church as a “criminal act” by “extremists,” as the Gazette previously reported. Among the attendees was Mélida Arredondo, the wife of future marathon bombing rescue hero Carlos Arredondo.

That bizarre spy file was just the tip of the iceberg. Many completely legal NU events appear in hundreds of BRIC documents recently obtained and released last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. The documents are part of the Partnership’s report “One Nation Under Surveillance,” about how fusion centers nationwide targeted the Occupy movement, available at justiceonline.org.

Some NU students participated in Occupy Boston, which held a downtown protest in September to December 2011, and in November 2011 staged an “Occupy Northeastern” camp at the school.

BRIC showed an intense interest in NU students, noting that some attended Roxbury’s Occupy the Hood event and “staged a small sit-in” during an Occupy Boston march downtown. The worst BRIC could say about the latter event was that “participants walked in the streets against traffic at times impeding the flow of traffic.”

BRIC also noted the Nov. 13 formation of the Occupy Northeastern camp, saying NU Police were monitoring it. “According to organizers, this will be a peaceful and non-violent protest,” the BRIC report reads.

A “National Student Solidarity Protest” slated for Oct. 13, 2011 and including NU and Wentworth Institute of Technology students caught BRIC’s eye.

“It should be noted that this event has not been acknowledged on the Occupy Boston or Colleges Occupy Boston websites; however, it is possible that individuals or groups participating in this event may go to Occupy Boston,” a BRIC analyst wrote. “It should be noted that the only local university that participated in a similar event on 10/5/11 was Northeastern University.”

BRIC also tracked other NU public events, even while admitting it had little or no evidence linking them to Occupy. They include speaking events featuring Gov. Deval Patrick, then Mayor Thomas Menino, and the CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

“At this time, the BRIC has not seen any OB chatter relative to this event; however, one student posted the event as an FYI in the Students Occupy Google group page,” a BRIC analyst wrote about the bank speaker’s appearance.

BRIC was suspicious of the “Northeast Fight Back! Organizer Boot Camp,” a workshop on political organizing for college students held at Dockser Hall at NU’s law school.

“At this time BRIC is not aware of any planned actions occurring between this event and Occupy Boston however updates will be provided as necessary,” a BRIC analyst wrote. “It should be noted that a strong possibility exists for cross dialogue and/or actions between this event and Occupy Boston.”

The documents also show continued surveillance of the Arredondos and put a new context on Carlos’s 2009 arrest outside Boston Police headquarters—the home of BRIC—while displaying an American flag during the funeral of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, which was held at Mission Church. The City of Boston recently settled a lawsuit over that arrest, which the Arredondos claimed was groundless.

The documents show that BRIC closely followed the Occupy JP protests in Jamaica Plain, which the Arredondos joined, as well as a 2011 vigil at a JP church for one of Carlos’s sons who had committed suicide.

In general, it is illegal for the police to monitor or keep records on any legal activity. None of the activities in the BRIC reports were illegal or overtly violent, nor were they particularly secret; most, if not all, of the information came from published material. Some of the NU activities did not involve Occupy Boston at all.

In the documents, BRIC admits that most of the activities in the report are legal and protected by the First Amendment’s guaranteed rights of speech, assembly and protest. But, BRIC claims, it “safeguards” those rights and compiled the reports only for “operational planning in the interest of assuring the safety and security of the demonstrators and the public.”

Jacks, the Occupy Boston organizer, called that “completely bogus.” She and others directly contacted the Boston Police Department’s events division to be transparent and make sure the Occupy Boston protests were safe, she said. BRIC never contacted Occupy Boston for such information or cooperation, she said.

“Instead of treating me like a citizen and a human being, they vacuumed up my words and spat them back out into this bizarre report,” Jacks said.

“We all occupied Boston because we love this city, because we were tired of seeing our loved ones being evicted from their homes, losing their jobs, because we wanted—and still want!—to make this city a better place for everyone,” Jacks continued. “BRIC apparently found this to be criminal. A year-and-a-half later, two locals bombed the marathon and [three] people died.”

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