Resisting Technological Imperialism from Los Angeles to Palestine
Roundtable with Stop LAPD Spying and Palestinian Youth Movement
By the Volume 24, Number 2 Editorial Collective
Since the dawn of capitalism, destructive technologies have played essential roles in profit accumulation. In our age of rapid technological advances, it is no surprise that the exercise of violence via the police and military both in the core and at the periphery of the US empire is becoming more and more reliant on technology. The development and application of technology, in this sense, have been evil.
Here, we invite two organizations active in the struggle against US imperialism to discuss a wide range of topics—from how technology is used and abused under global capitalism, to the complicity of STEM institutions and professionals, to the possibility of subverting imperialist technologies to achieve liberation.
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition (SLAPDSC) is based among the marginalized and working people in Los Angeles, fighting against policing and domestic counterintelligence operations. The coalition can be found on Twitter @stoplapdspying.
The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) organizes in its homeland as well as among the Palestinian diaspora in the West against military apartheid under Israeli occupation. This roundtable is joined by PYM’s STEM working group. Follow PYM on Twitter @palyouthmvmt.
SftP: Welcome! Let’s start by talking about your current work and collaborations in Southern California. Your effort focuses a lot around fighting against data-driven surveillance technologies. Could you tell us more about this struggle?
SLAPDSC: We are fighting against something called the “War on Youth,” which is essentially a bundle of counterinsurgency operations that criminalizes marginalized youths, or to be more precise, aims to stifle any disruption or resistance from below.1 Remember the “gang narrative”?2 In the last ten to fifteen years, the gang narrative has merged with this new narrative on “violent extremism,” as the marginalized youths are now seen as threats to national security and criminalized as such through official government programs.3
In the wake of 9/11, the US Government created the Information Sharing Environment to afford state agencies the power to facilitate the flow of surveillance data between different institutions, including private industry and federal, state, and local law enforcement.4 This coincided with the expansion of behavioral surveillance through the Suspicious Activity Reporting program (“if you see something, say something”). The fundamental premise of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools (PVE) is rooted in the expansion of policing into other spaces—from education to mental health to religious institutions, as well as cultivating informants and deputizing people within communities. Building upon the same trajectory of “War on Terror” at home as well as foreign occupations, programs like CVE basically go like this: “OK, let’s see who is becoming too radical and let’s force their own communities to discard them!”
The relationship between domestic counterinsurgency and foreign occupation is another thing we are trying to capture with our organizing effort with PYM (as well as with Anakbayan in the Philippines).5 We are trying to emphasize that surveillance is not just an invasion of privacy but an attack on communities. Colonial powers use surveillance to disrupt community organizing and resistance. Seeing this through an internationalist lens, we also think about how our organizational home is based in Skid Row, one of the most policed neighborhoods in the world.6 The brutal policing technology of LAPD is not only refined here but exported to states around the world.
As such, LAPD takes US Marines on “drive-thrus” of LA neighborhoods, showing them how to perform the same counterinsurgency operations once they are the occupying force abroad.7 Moreover, Los Angeles also trained foreign right-wing governments, such as in El Salvador and Guatemala, in gang policing coordinated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).8 Thus, we need to realize that LA, more than just formulating technologically repressive practices through local academic and industrial collusion, is essentially a laboratory of imperialism.
Surveillance is not just an invasion of privacy but an attack on communities.
PYM: Even before the War on Terror, many in the Palestinian Muslim community were imprisoned, deported, and charged with terrorism. With the expansion of CVE, our communities are essentially policed by a “pre-crime” model to weed out whoever is suspicious.9 Getting involved in community, cultural, and of course, political activities is seen as suspicious. Being criminalized then impacts access to social services, particularly in refugee and immigrant communities. Moreover, institutions that provide services to vulnerable communities—already weak and lacking resources—are now linked to CVE surveillance and counterinsurgency. People accessing these services have their data collected and reported, often without their knowledge.
Another thing we try to address is the relationship between Zionism and the War on Terror, which is neglected in mainstream analyses. We need to look at how Israel has been instrumental in developing counterterrorism strategies, policies, and regional and global coordination with the US empire. Our fight against the War on Youth also entails resisting Zionist influence in education.
For example, in LA, school districts have very close relationships with the Museum of Tolerance, the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). This is a right-wing Zionist organization whose leader blessed Trump at his inauguration.10 The SWC regularly conducts anti-bias trainings and endorses a false and disingenuous definition of antisemitism that criminalizes Palestinian resistance. It received both a Preventing Violent Extremism grant in 2018 as well as a Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention grant (a rebrand of CVE) in 2020.11
Like the SWC, other Zionist organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are staunch supporters and facilitators of CVE programs. We’re also learning from CAGE in the UK, who are fighting against their own CVE-equivalent counterinsurgency program, as the UK is ten years ahead of the US in this war.12 There, all public sector youth workers—health workers, social workers, teachers—are required to report on indicators of violent extremism by national, state, as well as local mandates. CAGE organizes against such community encroachment that terrorizes, criminalizes, and deports a majority of Black people, Brown people, and Muslim people. Thus, an international alliance is essential.
SftP: You have mentioned these repressive technologies were practiced through the collusion of local academics and industries. This is a lucid reminder that science and technology are inherently political. Could you tell us more about how scientific institutions are complicit in imperialism?
SLAPDSC: Universities and educational institutions have indeed played key roles in state violence. For example, an anthropologist at UCLA, Jeff Brantingham, founded the private company PredPol, which has been instrumental in LAPD’s predictive policing program.13 PredPol makes predictive policing software that uses historic crime data to estimate the probability a new crime will occur, which law enforcement then uses to manage their deployment.
In Los Angeles we waged a successful campaign to show that PredPol, as well as LAPD’s other major predictive policing program, Operation LASER, were nothing more than pseudoscientific racial profiling programs.14 When we used density maps to plot LAPDS’s PredPol hotspots in Central Division we found out that they were forming a digital fence around Skid Row, essentially quarantining it as Los Angeles rapidly developed downtown LA.15 This research culminated in the development of our tool called the Algorithmic Ecology, which helps us understand how it goes far beyond just each individual algorithm and helps us organize against the whole ecosystem the algorithm inhabits. Ultimately, the community forced LAPD to dismantle both programs, but PredPol is still used in many municipalities and Jeff Brantingham is still collaborating regularly with the LAPD. The fingerprints of academia are everywhere—and academics conscious of such complicity must choose a side.
PYM: Some of us are scientists, and we know that our work is beyond the limit of nation states. We call it the science-military-prison-industrial complex. Science is not just complicit, but an active driver. Many scientists today still compete for the desired military contracts—like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman—creating weapons that are given to state actors to oppress their own people: the Azerbaijani state against the Armenian people, Indian state against Kashmir, and of course, the Israeli settler-colonial regime against Palestinians. Notably, Boeing just signed onto a contract of $735 million to sell bombs to Israel after their most recent onslaught on Gaza.16 The tear gas used in Ferguson was first “tested” on the people of Gaza.17 Another example—the US State Department claimed that they are not part of the invasion of Yemen, but the bullets and the bombs are all made in the USA.18
In a way, we (and most SftP readers) live in the belly of the beast witnessing how these things are “sparked.” The tech industry, along with academic science, is also front and center in imperialism. Recently, Instagram censored not just Palestinian, but Colombian activists and posts raising awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG2).19 Oppression can be seen all around us; it is essential to come together at the grassroots, building movements to challenge imperialism, especially as scientists, since we may have insider technical knowledge and proximity to the scientific war machine.
Science is not going to change without a revolution, but the revolution needs science.
SLAPDSC: We’d like to inject some optimism by showcasing the struggle of UCLA anthropology students organizing against PredPol and Brantingham’s collaboration with the LAPD. The students’ campaign at UCLA gathered hundreds of signatories from precarious university workers.20 They linked up with organizers within and outside of UCLA, and fought to undercut the false legitimacy the “academic veneer” gave this racist policing practice.
In another example, the Underground Scholars, a UCLA student-led group has been pushing to debunk the UCLA study featuring research by Brantingham and sponsored by real estate developers and tech entrepreneurs that has been used by the LAPD to legitimize their Community Safety Partnership program. It was revealed that the dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA (the school that had produced the study) defended the flawed research on the basis of “academic freedom.”21 And of course, this “freedom” is not available to academics who had the courage to speak out against Zionism—they are fired and marginalized. We are also starting a collaboration with students at the University of Maryland, who are exposing the school’s harmful involvement in providing data and research about counterinsurgency and CVE in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security.22 These are incredible examples of brave work done by students, staff, and faculties who are often themselves in precarious conditions; they present shining examples of how radicals work in/against the academy.
PYM: Indeed! The question now is how do we move from here. Science is not going to change without a revolution, but the revolution needs science. To achieve the synthesis, we must organize radical scientists, bringing them together, going beyond mobilizations like Earth Day or March for Science—while deserving praise, they were fleeting moments of high intensity and emotion. We need to think about how to sustain that kind of pressure and build power. More and more people are entering STEM with its neoliberalization; there are people with diverse experiences and various paths towards radicalization. But so far, they are vulnerable individuals who can be targeted and weeded out as individuals, because we don’t have a cohesive mass movement.
Now we’re thinking about what a revolution would look like in science, how we as scientists can challenge imperialist institutions; but we should understand that none of it is achievable as individuals in silos. We need people working together both outside and inside academia. For example, we can’t talk about abolishing prisons without prisoners active in the struggle, on top of which we need communities fighting against criminalization, and on top of which we need technologists who have insider knowledge of the prison-industrial complex. I’m glad SftP is revived. Radical science must carry on.
Our goal must be building power: to take on the system, destroy it, and make something anew. Liberation operates on two fronts: the anticolonial and the decolonial. To destroy something necessitates creation of better things. Granted that we are far from that goal, but it’s really important to know where power comes from. It’s the grassroots—the working class, the people of color. In our experience as academic organizers, we have rarely received political support from tenured faculties, or anyone with an ounce of individual power. It’s always the people in the grassroots—the historically marginalized and oppressed—who come through for any successful campaign. We really want to hit on this point: it’s about us getting together and organizing from the ground up. It is the only way we can even think about having a better future.
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- Henry A. Giroux, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth: Reform Beyond Electoral Politics (New York: NYU Press, 2013).
- John Smiley and David Fakunle, “From ‘Brute’ to ‘Thug’: The Demonization and Criminalization of Unarmed Black Male Victims in America,” Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment 26, no. 3-4 (2016): 350–66.
- Murtaza Hussain, “Federal ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ Grants Focus on Minority Communities—Including in Schools,” The Intercept, June 15, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/06/15/cve-grants-muslim-surveillance-brennan-center/.
- Michael E. Brown and Naval Postgraduate School, “The Reality of the Homeland Security Enterprise Information Sharing Environment” (Naval Postgraduate School, December 1, 2017), https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/AD1053111.
- Lynn Lomibao, “PT 46: Police State and the War on Youth,” Stop LAPD Spying, accessed June 30, 2021, https://stoplapdspying.org/pt-46/.
- Maria Streshinsky, “This Sociologist Spent Five Years on LA’s Hyper-Policed Skid Row. Here’s What He Learned,” Mother Jones, accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/sociologist-spent-five-years-hyper-policed-hellhole-heres-what-he-learned/.
- Associated Press, “LAPD Training Marines for Afghanistan Duty,” Daily Breeze, July 11, 2010, https://www.dailybreeze.com/2010/07/11/lapd-training-marines-for-afghanistan-duty/.
- Southern California Public Radio, “Can LA’s Gang Reduction Strategy Be Exported to Latin America?,” May 7, 2013, https://www.scpr.org/blogs/news/2013/05/07/13553/exporting-los-angeles-gang-reduction-strategies-to/.
- Kenneth Coats, “The Future Of Policing Using Pre-Crime Technology,” Forbes Magazine, August 14, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2018/08/14/the-future-of-policing-using-pre-crime-technology/.
- “Wiesenthal’s Rabbi Marvin Hier Praises Trump for Being Only US Leader to Deliver,” Times of Israel, June 14, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/wiesenthals-rabbi-marvin-hier-praises-trump-for-being-only-us-leader-to-deliver/.
- Massoud Hayoun, “California Rights Groups Are Demanding Answers about a New, DHS-Backed Surveillance Program,” Pacific Standard, November 16, 2018, https://psmag.com/social-justice/california-rights-groups-are-demanding-answers-about-a-new-dhs-backed-surveillance-program.
- Asim Qureshi, “Fight the Power: How CAGE Resists from Within a ‘Suspect Community,’” Palgrave Communications 3, no. 1 (September 1, 2017): 1–11.
- Maha Ahmed, “Aided by Palantir, the LAPD Uses Predictive Policing to Monitor Specific People and Neighborhoods,” The Intercept, May 11, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/05/11/predictive-policing-surveillance-los-angeles/.
- Beryl Lipton, “Eight Years In, LAPD Can’t Measure PredPol’s Effect on Crime,” March 12, 2019, https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2019/mar/12/algorithms-lapd-predpol/.
- “The Algorithmic Ecology: An Abolitionist Tool for Organizing against Algorithms,” Stop LAPD Spying Medium, March 2, 2020, https://stoplapdspying.medium.com/the-algorithmic-ecology-an-abolitionist-tool-for-organizing-against-algorithms-14fcbd0e64d0.
- “Power Up: Biden Administration Approves $735 Million Weapons Sale to Israel, Raising Red Flags for Some House Democrats,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/05/17/power-up-biden-administration-approves-735-million-weapons-sale-israel-raising-red-flags-some-house-democrats/.
- While there is no direct evidence that tear gas is in fact tested in Gaza, the same tear gas is used in Gaza and the United States, and Israel has indeed market munitions as “battle-tested” in Gaza. See also, MEE staff, “The Surprising Solidarity between Gaza and Ferguson,” accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/surprising-solidarity-between-gaza-and-ferguson.
- Alex Emmons, “U.S. Moves Forward with Multibillion-Dollar ‘Smart Bomb’ Sale to Saudi Arabia and UAE despite Civilian Deaths in Yemen,” The Intercept, May 11, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/05/11/american-saudi-arabia-weapons-deal-yemen-uae/.
- Elisa Shoenberger and Tech, “On a Day to Honor Persons Who Disappeared, Indigenous Activists Found Their Instagram Stories Gone,” Daily Dot, May 14, 2021, https://www.dailydot.com/debug/murdered-missing-indigenous-woman/.
- “Over 450 Academics Reject Predpol,” Stop LAPD Spying Medium, October 9, 2019, https://stoplapdspying.medium.com/over-450-academics-reject-predpol-790e1d1b0d50.
- Gary Segura, email message to employees of Luskin School of UCLA, October 19, 2020.
- The collaboration between SLAPDSC and University of Maryland student activists is an ongoing project that has not been picked up by major news outlets.