How The Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group became Oakland Privacy
By Lisa Rein.
Soon, we will be publishing the documents that we received from our first city (Sacramento).
I asked Tracy Rosenberg if she would explain the history and origin of Oakland Privacy, which she had mentioned to me actually started out as the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group.” I enjoyed learning that the organization that has been so pivotal in helping put Oakland’s current surveillance policy framework in place had its roots in Occupy Oakland. (We will be talking to Tracy more about that framework, and how it can be used as a model for every city across the country.)
But I had no idea what a relevant slice of history I had unearthed, and it seems like we could all benefit from learning more about it.
This is the first of two interviews with Oakland Privacy’s Tracy Rosenberg. (Second Interview here.)
Lisa Rein: Okay so it’s January 2012. Occupy Oakland is still alive, but waning.
Tracy Rosenberg: Right. So, Occupy Oakland, as you know, had a reputation as one of the more militant occupy encampments. It was one of the later ones. One of the last ones. After about two weeks of occupation in the plaza it was forceably busted by police, with tear gas and multiple injuries. Veteran Scott Olsen had his head basically split open by the police.
LR: With a tear gas grenade, correct?
TR: Yes. There were a bunch of re-occupations and episodes that continued up through January 28, 2012 or so, which was one of the last confrontations between Occupy Oakland and the police happened.
Occupy Oakland’s January 28 event was an attempted occupation of an abandoned building. An abandoned, county-owned building in the City of Oakland. The idea was that spaces that weren’t being used by the government needed to be available as public spaces or common spaces for people who were economically disenfranchised. (Economically disenfranchised = The homeless and people who were just displaced.)
So, the #J28 “occupation” of this government building was militant and controversial. Essentially, it sort of drew a line in the sand for a lot of people. There were people who sort of identified with the general idea of Occupy, but weren’t super duper comfortable with militant activism and the physical occupation of public property that was increasingly appening with Oakland Occupy. And, ultimately, a lot of people walked away after #J28.
Occupy Wall Street starts
September 17, 2011
Occupy Oakland starts
October 10, 2011
Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group starts
July 2, 2013
Oakland Privacy starts
July 15, 2016
LR: I heard that there were a lot of problems with the businesses in that area during Occupy. What was going on there?
TR: Well, there were a lot of business in the downtown area, which, at that time, were struggling somewhat. These last seven years, we have had a lot of gentrification in downtown Oakland, but back then, in 2011, Downtown Oakland was a hard place to have a business. So, there were a lot of small businesses – a lot of “mom and pop” stores – that were just beside themselves.
LR: Wait I’m sorry. I don’t understand. How was the occupation affecting them negatively? I would have thought it would have brought in more business for them, by drawing more people out in mass numbers for so many weeks in a row. (I know in San Francisco, after a protest, all the restaurants are packed.) So why were they “beside themselves?”
TR: They said that their customers were too frightened of the Plaza to come down and patronize their business.
LR: Oh. So, it gave downtown a bad reputation for a bit because people didn’t know what to expect? But that wasn’t really the protesters’ fault was it. Wasn’t it more because people were afraid of possible police confrontations, often unprovoked, in that area?
TR: Yeah, it was a combination of things. Occupy Oakland kind of wrapped itself up with the “Fuck the Police” ethos. Especially towards the end. Many folks who had been involved with it started to think about the fact that they’d seen a lot of police ammunition and equipment driving around the encampments. There seemed to be a lot of federal agencies participating.
These folks weren’t really sure what had been used on them, or how. So they started to do a little bit of research on these issues. What equipment had been used? What police tactics were being used? What were some of these other agencies? People started taking pictures of the federal trucks. “What was all of this?” They wondered. “What exactly were they using against us?”
LR: Oh I remember that! “What’s in the truck?!”
TR: Yeah. What’s in the truck? What kinds of things were they shooting at us, for example. What were the different tactics that were being deployed against us and who were all these federal agencies that had been called in?
LR: Got it. That’s scary. So a group started looking for answers?
TR: Yes. It wasn’t formally anything. But it became a group of people who were doing police research. We aimed to get more information about what was being done to us, as a sort of a self-initiated citizen’s project.
Then, all of sudden, someone who happened to be working somewhere in the City of Oakland found something in the garbage can. That something turned out to be a city-wide surveillance dragnet funded by the Department of Homeland Security. (The DAC – Domain Awareness Center.)
LR: Wow. So now, the Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group had a real target to fight.
TR: Yep. We called it “the DAC.” The formal name was the “Domain Awareness Center.” And what it was was an interlocked network of cameras, microphones, and license plate readers. It was essentially a net all over Oakland – feeding into one data center, that would communicate with other federal information centers in the area, as a mini-fusion center, .
LR: I remember at the time it was being positioned to us like a little DHS in Oakland, that would communicate with the big DHS.
TR: Pretty much. It was a multi-phase project, with the idea that it would be sort of snuck in, in pieces. There would be a “Phase 1,” a “Phase 2” and a “Phase 3.”
They got quite a bit of the way on the down low. Through part of Phase 2. Most of it using what’s called the “Consent Calendar.”
LR: Okay what’s the deal with the “Consent Calendar?”
TR: If you’ve ever been to a City Council meeting, the “Consent Calendar” is the stuff that nobody talks about. They just stick it on the agenda, without too much detail, and then they say “let’s move the consent calendar,” and everyone says “yes.” And that’s it! Bam! Done.
LR: You mean, one can just stick something on the Consent Calendar and it won’t really be debated?
TR: Yes. Unless you have Council people who start asking questions, and in this case, we did not. Or unless you have citizens that are reading these things, and saying “what the heck is this?”
It had gotten quite far. They had been sneaking it through the that way for almost two years. It had appeared on the Consent Calendar numerous times. Nobody had a clue. We found out from talking to council people that they barely knew anything about it, except something vague about “well, it’s a grant and it will protect the port.” Just no concept what it was. And it was a major project.
LR: Ok, so let’s run through this drill. I am in the meeting and they say “Okay, time to move the Consent Calendar.” I can say “Hey wait! Regarding #3 on the Consent Calendar – I want to talk about that!” — Like that?
TR: Well, by then, it’s really too late. What you need to do is look before the City Council meeting – usually a day or two ahead of time at least, the agenda will be there. Then you can pull down that agenda and take a look and ask yourself “is there anything suspicious going on there?”
LR: And if there is?
TR: Well then, again, in the days before the meeting, you would start emailing Council People — and picking up the phone. (Gasp! I know it sounds extreme, but here’s where actual phone calls in real time will make a difference!)
LR: So you are cold calling Council people and saying “Item 3G, look at that.”
LR: So the goal is to get the suspicious item removed from the Consent Calendar?
TR: Exactly. You will need a Council person to get it off of there. And, if they are not up for doing it voluntarily, then you have to push them into it, with more emails and phone calls from other interested parties. There is strength in numbers big time. Either this Council Person is going to think you are the only person that cares about this issue, or their phone isn’t going to stop ringing until the issue is taken off the Consent Calendar.
LR: So we just keep calling them up and saying “Hey, there’s an item on the consent calendar that shouldn’t be there. What the hell is it doing there? Get it off.”
TR: Yes. Exactly. Don’t mince words. Be polite, but direct. “Get it off until it can be properly debated. And keep it off.”
LR: Forceful but polite. Got it.
TR: The attitude I try to go in with is that “you have to listen to me. You actually are my employee. I am going to talk to you as an equal, because I am a citizen of this place, and this impacts me. So, you do need to hear me out.”
LR: Makes sense. Thank you for the “Crash Course in Getting Crap Off of the Consent Calendar” 🙂
TR: So that was kind of the process that was fighting the DAC. It was amazing to learn that high profile major surveillance projects can slip through the cracks and find their way to the Consent Calendar, without anybody paying the slightest bit of attention. It was really just a fluke that that activists found out about it in time.
LR: Ok so, before I went off on “How To Get Things Off Of The Consent Calendar 101” – you were saying the DAC had come quite a long way, but then, Oakland was able to stop it, using the strategy that you have outlined for us. Thanks so much for that. Back to our story 🙂
TR: From the time that we became aware of it to the time that it essentially was pulled back and stopped was about a year. And it was a year of constant agitation and constant pressure on the council. There were demonstrations. There were alternative press news articles that we were able to put in. There were lawsuits threatened.
LR: And this is the same core group of people that were doing all these things? The group known as the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group?” It was just working in an ad hoc fashion?
TR: Yes. With lots of help from all sorts of groups around the city, but the Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group was the hub. People had been working on it since 2013, and a number of people came in because once there were articles in the paper and so on, some people read about it and said OMG what’s going on and came down. I got involved in early 2014.
So yeah. We screamed, we yelled, we spread the word. We researched stuff and started writing and doing press, and it gathered momentum. Finally, there was a lawsuit approach, because there were nuclear contractors that were involved. SAIC was going to do some work on it. SAIC has a nuclear weapons business, and Oakland is formally a “nuclear-free zone.” So, we threatened to sue them for violating their own policy. And they cut the contract with SAIC, and looked for a different vendor.
So there was some “slowing it down” kind of stuff. And we built up a considerable amount of steam, going into 2014, and then there was a big vote in March of 2014, where they scaled the project back substantially, said “ok, we’re going to do it but only at the port, not in the civilian areas. Essentially a 75% rollback of the project. It was hard to jump up and down because, although it was a victory, and a huge victory, it wasn’t a 100% victory.
LR: So they were throwing you a bone!
LR: What luck that they were open to capitalizing on all the research and strategizing you had done. You were doing a lot of their work for them in many ways.
LR: And, how did they ever go for this? (To approve it.) How did you convince them?
TR: The community convinced them that it did not want unfettered secret surveillance. We convinced them that our community could get 300 people to City Hall and do public comments for 5 hours straight if they didn’t work with us.
It was also an education process, and the council members started to see that things could get out of control very fast. Because of the scale of the project, we could get people to show up to the meetings. It was dragnet. It was Bladerunner. And people said “Hey! We don’t want to live like this.”
LR: Ok. So, it’s the Spring of 2014, and you’ve won this victory.
We have to know in advance, if something like this is coming down the pipeline, and we have to have a permission process in place. Last time, the police said, we wrote a grant, Homeland Security gave us the money. The end, basically. And just because Homeland Security gives you the money every time the police have an idea, it shouldn’t mean it’s a done deal.
LR: Is it common for the police to get grants for whatever they want, without any oversight?
TR: I think this was always partially the case, but the Federal government has been increasingly aggressive about funneling public safety money.
LR: “Funneling” it? What do you mean?
TR: I mean back in the 90s, the 10333 program was put in to take surplus military equipment and give it away free to police departments. The Urban Areas Security Initiative or (UASI), was set up after 9-11, basically to funnel funds to local law enforcement for counter terrorism activities.
LR: So this enables them to keep buying outdated military equipment, and give it to police departments?
TR: When these gadgets came along, local police departments could now afford them, because they would just go write a grant; “give me one of these;” “give me one of those;” and the money kind of rained down from Washington DC. Essentially they were like “law enforcement: give us your dream list, and we will fund whatever insane thing you come up with.”
LR: Does it seem like all of the police and sheriff departments just asked for everything they could get?
TR: Yes. Everybody asked for everything they’d ever heard of. Give us a bomb robot. Give us 8 drones. They would come up with some kind of rationale and ask the Councils. Hey, it’s free money.
LR: See the bomb robot is interesting because, until it blew someone up, and the robot itself was seen as a weapon, bomb robots were pretty non-controversial, ya know? Everyone was in agreement that sending a robot in to diffuse a bomb was going to save a human (potentially). It was a no brainer. But now that we realize those bomb robots can detonate bombs themselves and blow people up… that they are literally ROBOTS with BOMBS themselves – that can kill you – that changes things a bit, right? Suddenly it’s like “whoa,” should every Police Department have one of these things, and what kind of safety training is involved? Everything needs to be reconsidered.
TR: So they present, “We got this free money. It will help keep our community safe.” And everybody just rolls over. There was never any push back at all.
LR: So, in Oakland anyway. Things have calmed down a bit? This hasn’t been brought back to the table?
TR: Absolutely not. In Oakland, they have been educated by the experience and nothing like the DAC has come forward since.
LR: OK so, it’s the Summer of 2014. You beat the DAC. When did Oakland Privacy officially form?
TR: Technically, Oakland Privacy formed the summer of 2013, but we kept up the Oakland Privacy Working Group name, until in 2016. We finally figured out it wasn’t a working group of Occupy any more. So, in 2016, we finally said “OK the Working Group has got to go” and it formally became Oakland Privacy. We are a collective with “core members,” but are open to the public.
LR: Well I want to thank you and Oakland Privacy again, for all your help with the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project. It’s been fascinating learning from you and I’m so excited about sharing all the information I’ve learned from you these last six months.