But while policing protest this way may once have been unfathomable, none of us can claim it’s unprecedented. American police have used technology to combat dissent—especially dissent by communities of color—since before there was a United States of America.The scene will sound familiar to many: Black and Brown New Yorkers are eyed suspiciously as they walk the city streets, with police using technology to see where they go and who they meet with. But the technology in this scene isn’t a drone or cell phone data—it’s a simple lantern. Back in the 18th century, colonists, fearful that those who they sold, imprisoned, and killed might turn against them, required every slave and Native American to carry a lantern with them after dark. In 1791, they passed the oldest surveillance law in New York City, a time long before the state had declared independence or eliminated slavery.
These lights became a tracking beacon, a way to prevent slaves and Native Americans from coming together to fight their bondage and oppression. Technology served the same function then that it does today in policing marginalized communities: It makes it cheaper and easier to monitor dissent.As technology evolved, so did the police’s power to track and combat protesters. During New York’s Civil War draft riots, government officials relied on the cutting-edge communications technology of the day—the telegraph—to coordinate their response, allocating officers and sharing intelligence on the suspected leaders of the protests.As Gilded Age titans became fearful of revolts throughout the late 19th century, they not only erected the massive, fortress-like armories that dot major American cities to this day, they built up networks of informants and monitoring to track those who might resist the status quo. The infrastructure only expanded during the early 20th century, as a growing fear of anarchists, socialists, and just about anyone other than full-throated capitalists led to new powers for monitoring the mail. Under the Sedition Act of 1918, the Postmaster General was empowered to block the delivery of any letter containing “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States.”
But with the 20th century came an inflection point in the criminalization and monitoring of dissent: electronic communications. Empowered by wiretaps, eavesdropping bugs, and then-cutting-edge recording devices, it became routine for police to monitor those who would dare to dissent. For the FBI, a fear of “communist ties” was the pretext for wiretapping and recording Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he fought to end the terrorism of Jim Crow. The recordings were never used to arrest the champion of nonviolent civil disobedience, but the FBI sent them as a threat, along with a crude note urging King to take his own life.