Fifty years from now, what will the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibit on the Movement for Black Lives look like? Will the exhibit feature videos from the hundreds of protests that erupted around the United States and the world, alongside pictures of children with signs that say “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Say Her Name?” Will there be displays of the canisters of tear gas thrown by police at protestors, and a copy of the Vision for Black Lives policy plan for visitors to read? And, most important, will the exhibition describe how the US federal government monitored and secretly surveilled protests, vigils, leaders and movement participants? Or will that part of the history — how the government used early 21st-century social media sites against nonviolent protestors — remain hidden?
The new Smithsonian museum opens its doors in Washington, DC, in the midst of the Movement for Black Lives. Its exhibits and events include discussions of the Black Panther Party — discussions that surely include some mention of the state repression that the Panthers faced — but will it also acknowledge that the same government that harassed and surveilled the 1970s Black Panther Party 50 years ago continues to spy on today’s activists and organizers?
At a time in which the Smithsonian museum is working to document American history, the US government is repeating American history. This October, reports revealed that 500 law enforcement agencies used Geofeedia, a site that collects data, to sift through and gather social media posts. While the data compiled was meant for advertisers, it is being used to surveil and monitor Movement for Black Lives protesters and actions. In 2015, The Intercept obtained documents, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, demonstrating that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and state and local law enforcement agencies began routinely surveilling and sharing information about protests as early as August 2014 after the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked the movement.