Activists face police surveillance outside protest settings in Minnesota

Minneapolis police surround the Holiday Gas station where Dolal Idd was shot and killed, December 30, 2020. Credit: Chad Davis / Flickr

Police harassment and the surveillance of anti-police brutality activists often take place outside the context of protests and demonstrations in Minnesota, USA. These police surveillance tactics violate United States’ citizens’ human rights, including articles 17, 19, and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); curb constitutional first amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly; hinder fourth amendment rights to privacy; and embody a political agenda by targeting and harassing activists and political leaders. 

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the world witnessed police across the United States brutalize protesters who were demanding justice. This was brought to the attention of the UN Human Rights Council, as demonstrated in their 2021 report, which identified the disproportionate use of force against anti-police brutality activists, the surveillance of protesters, and other abuses experienced by protesters during protests and demonstrations. Furthermore, police brutality in the US is clearly racist in nature and violates basic human rights, including the right to life

However, there is a clear need for further research into racially motivated law enforcement surveillance outside of protest settings, especially the ways it impacts the families of the victims of police violence, specifically regarding the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). “MPD’s history reveals patterns of brutality, systemic racism, and failed reform,” as the “Enough is Enough: a 150 Year Performance Review of the Minneapolis Police Deparment” 2020 report shows. This history has garnered the attention of human rights activists.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) released a report in 2022 that explains how, between January 2010 and December 2020, “MPD officers used covert, or fake, social media accounts to surveil and engage Black individuals, Black organizations, and elected officials unrelated to criminal activity, without a public safety objective.” For example, a covert-MPD social media profile posing as a Black community member messaged the Minneapolis NAACP to criticize the organization and its branch. The MDHR report documents how MPD supervisors not only tolerate this behavior, but they also model it. 

Explicitly discriminatory and anti-Black surveillance practices have far-reaching implications that affect protesters, as well as Black community members more generally, in their daily lives. This police surveillance has a particular impact on the families who have suffered the unimaginable loss of their loved ones to police violence. They often find themselves subjected to police surveillance, intimidation, and harassment. 

These families are fighting for a better city and police department in Minneapolis. In our interview with Toshira Garraway, founder of Families Supporting Families against Police Violence, Garraway discussed how she experienced harassment and intimidation by the police officers who were suspected in the death of her fiancé, Justin Teigen, in 2009. 

During Tiegen’s funeral, the procession and church were surrounded and “swarmed” by police cars. Since Tiegen’s death, and even to this day, Garraway has experienced personal intimidation, including police following her, watching her while sitting outside her home, pulling her car over in traffic, and towing her vehicle without just cause. One particular officer has sat outside her home, shown up to protests, and attempted to approach her during her work. 

In recent years at protests regarding the police murders of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Amir Locke, Garraway has been watched and singled out, surveilled and harassed, and followed by the police even after she departed a place of protest. 

The targeting of families by police shows that, even after the death of their loved ones and any court proceedings, these families’ interactions with the police are not over. Beyond the emotional hurdles of grief and the legal hurdles of the criminal justice system, families’ fight for justice can be a dangerous task. If a family member decides to uplift the story of their loved one, they are putting themselves in harm's way. 

After a police killing, because of the Minnesota statute of limitations, families must take quick legal action if they hope to press civil charges. Limited resources can make it difficult for families to seek representation and support in time. 

Financial stability is not the only obstacle that can make or break a family's chance for justice. Media coverage plays a large role in bringing attention to the murders of their loved ones. When media outlets neglect to cover these atrocious losses, the burden falls on the families to bring attention to their injustice. 

These circumstances leave families vulnerable to harassment, surveillance, and potential violence from the police department without a voice in the media. Garraway’s organization offers these families a protection network and a way for them to obtain legal representation and band together for greater political power and protection. More support is needed for organizations like hers.

These findings pose international implications for police conduct regarding anti-brutality protests and protesters of African descent, as well as recommendations for human rights–based remedies. 

Distrust in the MPD far precedes the murder of George Floyd. However, this murder confirmed and ignited community members’ frustrations. The response from the MPD and the city was self-described as inadequate due to mismanagement and disorganization. Rather than focusing on safety and accountability, the MPD prioritized the criminalization, surveillance, and harassment of anti-police brutality protesters and Black liberation activists. 

As a result, our team recommends that the international community intervene.

The future of law enforcement accountability should be conducted beyond the walls of their own system. Implementing citizen review boards, community healing circle practices, and social media surveillance restrictions are tools that can be further utilized in place of inner structural investigations that, historically, result in no accountability at all. Citizen review boards, composed of community members who investigate police misconduct, can increase accountability for police officers and justice for victims. Community healing practices can include tactics such as healing circles and meditations. The city can increase funding toward such projects to promote justice. Restrictions on social media surveillance enacted through local, state and federal policy based on First and Fourth Amendment protections can help prevent infringements on the constitutional and human rights of protesters, victims, and families.

The international community is essential for pressuring the United States, the state of Minnesota, and the city of Minneapolis to make meaningful change in their police accountability mechanisms.

Part of this research is drawn from a previous report from the University of Minnesota.