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An errant screenshot reveals Massachusetts police were monitoring liberal groups

The ACLU says the blunder is alarming — and the police response doesn't add up


Nicole Karlis
September 17, 2018 11:48PM (UTC)

A social media blunder by the Massachusetts State Police last week has raised questions around how and why the agency appeared to be monitoring liberal activist groups.

“It is indeed alarming,” Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, told Salon.

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Last Thursday evening, Massachusetts State Police tweeted a screenshot in regard to a natural gas emergency that affected nearly 8,000 people around the state. The agency’s tweet was meant to display a map of responses to fires and explosions, but the uncropped screenshot showed that the police computer's browser had bookmarked a select group of left-wing activists, including some police brutality watchdog groups. Facebook groups for Mass. Action Against Police Brutality (MAAPB), the Coalition to Organize and Mobilize Boston Against Trump (COMBAT); and the "Resistance Calendar," which shares upcoming anti-Trump protests across the country, were among the list of bookmarked tabs on the police computer browser.

Massachusetts State Police deleted the original tweet, and shared another one — a cropped version in which the browser bookmarks were not visible — an hour later, according to WBUR.

The agency released a statement stating they have a “responsibility to know about all large public gatherings of any type and by any group, regardless of their purpose and position, for public safety reasons.”

The statement, provided by David Procopio, Director of Media Communications, said the agency does not “collect information about -- nor, frankly, do we care about -- any group’s beliefs or opinions.”

“We, obviously, need to know if large numbers of people, for whatever reason, are going to be on public roadways or public spaces, so that we may ensure the safety and rights of those who have gathered as well as of the members of the public around them,” the statement concluded. “That is a common – and common-sense – function of any police department.”

Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts told Salon such an explanation “falls flat” for several reasons.

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“Massachusetts State Police doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Crockford told Salon. “Unless a protest is on a highway or at the airport or public location it is none of their business if someone is having a protest. In most areas Massachusetts State Police is not responsible for ensuring public safety, it is local police.”

“The other issue is I’d like to see a list of the groups Massachusetts State Police is monitoring for this purpose," Crockford added. "It seems strange to only monitor a few that only might have a protest someday.”

Massachusetts State Police has not responded to Salon’s repeated requests for additional details on all organizations being monitored by the agency, and whether they kept browser tabs on any right-wing activist groups.

A peculiar detail regarding the incident is that the screenshot, as mentioned by the state police’s account, was taken at the Commonwealth Fusion Center, an information-gathering center in Maynard, Massachusetts. The center, which was opened in 2005, “collects and analyzes information from all available sources to produce and disseminate actionable intelligence to stakeholders for strategic and tactical decision-making in order to disrupt domestic and international terrorism,” according to its mission statement.

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“These fusion centers were created in wake of 9/11, and now there are 80 of them nationwide run by state and local law enforcement to fight terrorism, but  instead they are focused on policing left-wing political organizations, and fighting the war on drugs,” Crockford added, explaining that police viewing left-wing groups as extremists likely dates back to the Red Scare.

One of the groups bookmarked, Coalition to Organize and Mobilize Boston Against Trump (COMBAT), released a statement regarding their inclusion on Facebook.

“Though COMBAT has not met in over a year and has become an inactive campaign, its social media pages remain online,” the statement said. “The fact that state police, who are funded by our tax dollars, are spending time monitoring groups on Facebook who oppose racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic violence instead of those groups who perpetuate such violence is abhorrent and should be examined with scrutiny.”

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Tom Arabia, A former member of COMBAT, who noted he is not speaking on behalf of the organization, told Salon there is no history between COMBAT and Massachusetts State Police, but he was not surprised to see COMBAT bookmarked.

“I think they have a practical and personal interest in left-wing organizations because we have their number, so to speak... organizations like COMBAT are being vigilant about their role in generalized oppression and brutality and literally some cases how they are literally getting away with murder,” Arabia said.

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Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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