An August 2020 protest against police brutality in Newark. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
Activists are concerned about reports showing three New Jersey law enforcement agencies requested the federal government provide surveillance operations during Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
The Asbury Park Police Department, Newark Police Department and Essex County Sheriff’s Office all reached out to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in hopes of collecting intelligence on “radical groups” or secretly monitoring protesters, according to the documents obtained by CREW.
“That Newark and Essex requested this, it doesn’t surprise me. I’m not even going to try to formulate the rationale into why they thought this was necessary,” said Lawrence Hamm, a Newark activist and resident who partook in the protests last year. “Speaking as a citizen, this is very concerning because people were just exercising their freedom of assembly.”
In Asbury Park, where Derek Minno Bloom protested, city leaders were aware of the planned demonstrations, which he said turned ugly only after New Jersey State Police showed up.
“It seems a little excessive. It seems like a waste of time and money. There weren’t radical groups participating in organizing the event,” said Minno Bloom, of the Asbury Park Park Transformative Justice Project.
CREW found the DEA approved 51 requests from state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide to surveil protests at the height of the racial justice movement in June 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The Newark and Asbury Park police departments did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the Essex County Sheriff’s Office nor the elected officials who oversee the three agencies.
A Newark spokeswoman said Anthony Ambrose, who was the city’s public safety director last year and who likely would have signed off on the request, retired in March. The current director, Brian O’Hara, was not available for comment.
All the requests were made the first week of June with the intent to find people planning to be violent, the documents show. In Newark, the DEA was requested on an “as needed” basis to conduct surveillance of multiple demonstrations across the city.
“The purpose of this request is to identify people identify protest leaders, agitators, and the individuals who are inciting violence or destruction of property,” the June 2, 2020 request from Newark Police reads.
In response to a potential June 5, 2020 protest, Asbury Park police asked DEA to help collect intelligence on agitators and radical groups — the name of a group cited as an example is redacted in the document — through mobile and vehicular surveillance.
Other cities across the country where the DEA approved undercover surveillance include Los Angeles, Tampa, St. Louis, Chicago, and Albuquerque.
Bloom said an Asbury Park protest on June 1 remained relatively calm for most of the evening with a few contentious conversations between Black residents and local cops, he said. At some point, it escalated, as some people threw rocks at police and dozens, including a journalist, were arrested for breaking curfew.
It’s unclear whether the June 5 protest took place.
But, he notes, there may have been threats from far-right groups intending to disrupt the rallies. It would be important to see what groups the DEA identified as radical, he said, and whether Black Lives Matter was included.
“There’s major concerns about this,” Hamm said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate on its face, but might there be occasions where it’s appropriate? Sure. But it’s a dangerous practice and we need to have safeguards on it.”
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