Monday, July 15, 2013

Armed at the Trayvon Martin Rally: A Recent History of Open Carry at Phoenix Protests

Consider this a tale of two photographs from two protests.  The idiotic but entirely predictable verdict in the Zimmerman trial over the shooting of Trayvon Martin set off a wave of protests across the country over the weekend, including one in Phoenix Sunday night.  The NAACP and outraged residents came together at the federal courthouse to protest the result.

At one point, according to photographer Tim Johnson, who took the below photo Sunday, a man showed up armed with an AR15 to the rally and, under the excuse that the protest was on federal property, was told to take his rifle and remove it.  Johnson reports on his Facebook page that the man followed their instructions, stored it in his vehicle and returned to the protest unarmed.

Photo via Tim Johnson Photography

(And by the way, for those keeping score, the plainclothes officers in that picture are members of the infamous Phoenix red squad, who have been revealed in recently released documents to have engaged in a variety of very questionable acts of surveillance, disruption, infiltration and corporate collaboration against Occupy Phoenix and anti-ALEC protesters.)

Of course, despite the excuse, and given the nature of the Zimmerman case, the turning away of an armed black man from the protest raises its own red flag.  After all, Phoenix has a recent history of armed protesters.  Most famously, of course, was the case of a protester who open carried his AR15 outside a 2009 Obama speech in Phoenix, causing quite a ruckus in the media.  Other cases included anarchists carrying openly against the white supremacist National Socialist Movement, also in 2009, as part of their campaign to destroy that group, which had been trying to intervene in the state's racist politics.

But perhaps the most famous open-carry protest fanatic in recent history was infamous Nazi (literally) JT Ready.  While anti-immigrant activists in general often open carry at their own rallies, Ready was remarkable in that he and his small cadre of boneheads frequently showed up to non-right wing rallies armed, to intimidate and strut about.  Ready showed up several times armed to the teeth at immigrant movement rallies over the years, and was never turned away by the police.

Most famously, though, JT Ready and his white supremacist anti-immigrant border militia showed up at the first day of the Occupy Phoenix protest, decked out in military gear and fully armed with a variety of weapons, including AR15s (despite it being an inferior desert weapon compared to the easily-maintained AK47).  Importantly, JT Ready was infamous for his various threats of violence, which included advocating for landmines at the border, engaging in a shootout in 2006 after following several Mexican men for no apparent reason and being listed as a gang member by the Mesa Police.  Despite all this, JT never had a problem from the cops when he decided to show up somewhere armed (and by the way, cops, where are those JT Ready files?  It's been well-over a year since he offed himself.)

JT Ready at Occupy Phoenix

Indeed, JT's appearance at Occupy Phoenix caused quite a stir on the internet, as right wingers stupidly fell for the line that the militia attended to provide security for the protest.  You know, supposedly using their guns to protect the exercise of rights, and other nonsense.  Nothing could have been further from the truth, as anyone familiar with his armed antics in the past would have known.

Given this history, the special attention given to police on Sunday to the man carrying his rifle is interesting, but what's even more curious is the silence from the right.  The debate about the Zimmerman killing of Trayvon Martin has focused on two very related issues: race and guns.  While some have wondered what would have happened had Zimmerman not been armed that night, some others have wondered what the outcome would have been had Martin been armed as well.

The pro-gun right ravenously consumed the images from the open carry incident at the Obama speech because he was perceived as a "gun-grabber".  But, as of now we have seen no similar reaction to this case.  In all likelihood, all sides want to ignore this.  The armed, white reactionary right has no use for him, and it seems reasonable to assume, neither do the NAACP and other left wing groups who are busy running damage control for Obama by diverting outrage at the verdict into a series of nonviolent protests and an online petition campaign for a Justice Department review.  Basically, this is their "please don't riot" strategy.

JT again with his militia at Occupy Phoenix

White pro-gun advocates on the right have always had a very uncomfortable relationship with armed black folks to say the least (and armed indigenous people as well, while we're at it).  Their biggest problem of course, is that they are late to the dance.  That is, the pro-gun right was not on the side of armed people of color in the past and still maintains an ideological alliance to the police, who currently kill more black men -- frequently unarmed -- than the Klan did at its height.  Likewise, of course with their tokenistic appropriation of the imagery of indigenous resistance.  Armed whites were not on the side of Natives during that period.  Exactly the opposite.  The pro-gun white right is a day late and a dollar short, and their appropriation of the imagery of armed resistance by people of color is disingenuous and opportunistic.

Of course, the whole dialog on the pro-gun white right about guns and liberty has it exactly backwards.  The armed white right in US history has consistently been the civilian vanguard of tyranny, not its opposition.  They have been the informal bulwark of state power, not its enemies.

They formed the anti-Mexican militias in the Southwest (out of which some police forces formed).  They formed the slave patrols and the terroristic Klan night riders that stalked black communities (and also, in the case of the slave patrols, also served the foundation for modern day law enforcement).  And today they fill the ranks of the border militias and anti-immigrant groups calling for a massive expansion of state power and policing infrastructure for the rounding up and regulation of migrant labor.

So I'm interested very much to see the reaction to this man's actions from all parties.  The silence right now is deafening.  Has the white armed right's alliance with law enforcement and, in the Zimmerman case, with vigilantism and the racist application of "stand your ground" laws put them in an impossible position with regard to open armed carry by black people outraged by the legal murder of an unarmed black young man?  Likewise, will the liberal left, so deeply wedded to anti-gun policies, be unable to find solidarity with people fed up both with being targets and of their alleged defenders on the left arguing for their disarmament?

And haven't both left and right silently acquiesced to the most racist form of modern gun control: the disarming of millions of people of color by converting them into felons through nonviolent drug prosecutions?  As seen most recently in the fight over immigration legislation, the left remains paralyzed by the law and order demands of the always terrified white middle class.  But where is the outrage on the right over this blatant and unfair, generations-long, attack on rights they supposedly deem sacred and fundamental to the preservation of liberty?

As usual, armed people of color stand alone, perhaps to be raised as a token by the armed white right in the next generation, but abandoned for now.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Last week the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the FBI for access to their records regarding the function of the forthcoming federal facial recognition program and the potential for a combined civilian and criminal database. The lawsuit came on the heels of a report by the Washington Post on a facial recognition software manufactured by MorphoTrust USA, used in criminal investigations by local and state law enforcement agencies in 26 states.  The software accesses a database of over 120 million photos gathered from police booking photos, and, in some states, driver's licenses and identification cards. In the same article, Arizona is identified as one of 13 states with no facial recognition systems for driver's license photos.

Yet, in journalist Beau Hodai's report "Dissent or Terror", it is revealed that the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC) is using facial recognition software to identify persons of interest through a database composed of millions of photos, and that they have used this system to identify at least one participant in Occupy Phoenix by using a photo taken from Facebook.  The ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit is a division of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) which acts in partnership with ACTIC and participating agencies,  the Arizona Governor's office, Arizona Office of Homeland Security, county and city police agencies, and the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Incidentally, the purchase of the software by MCSO briefly became the subject of controversy in 2008, when it was revealed that $200,000 in seized RICO money, in addition to federal grant funds, had been used in relation to MCSO officers and trips taken to Honduras.  Channel 12 reporter Joe Dana and Phoenix New Times blogger Stephen Lemons documented back in 2008 that the Sheriff's Office used the software as an excuse to built a "Honduras Unit" along with a database of photos from Honduras that related to the gang MS-13. As Lemons pointed out, Arizona was not considered a state with a high number of MS-13 members, and Dana drew out connections between Hendershott and the facial recognition software contractor Hummingbird Defense Systems that may have helped the company financially profit.

According to a 2007 presentation by Norm Beasley of MCSO on "Fusion Centers & their Role in Information Sharing" the Facial Recognition Unit was capable of operating "field deployable for special events and onsite identification" and that the ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit, under the direction of MCSO, was in the process of coordinating a national network of counter-terrorism fusion centers, and obtaining all "criminal images" from participating agencies to buffer the MCSO's own facial recognition database.

While it's unknown if the MCSO was able to achieve the goals outlined in Beasley's presentation, the  information obtained by Hodai from an Arizona Department of Homeland Security record shows that the ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit could access a database of 24.7 million photos from their photographic databases to identify an individual:
"The ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit has the ability to match biometric data contained in photographs -- such as those found on Facebook -- with biometric data contained in roughly 18 million Arizona Driver's License photos, 4.7 million Arizona county/municipal jail 'booking' photos, 12,000 photos contained in the 'Arizona Sex Offender Database,' and 2 million photos available through the Federal Joint Automated Booking System."
According to the MCSO's Counter-Terrorism website, the ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit "contributes to all criminal and counterterrorism investigations by potentially identifying unknown subjects, or locating known subjects, through a comparison of their photographic images to millions of stored booking, driver's license, and other related data bases."

The ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit has been used by Phoenix Terrorism Liaison All-Hazards Analyst Brenda Dowhan, an intelligence analyst for ACTIC, in at least one attempt to identify a person believed to have been involved with Occupy Phoenix. As documented below, in an email obtained by Hodai, Dowhan responds to Phoenix police detective CJ Wren who had asked for help identifying this woman by her facebook photo. 

The facial recognition search was unable to identify the person in the photo amongst the database of nearly 25 million photos.

If the use of facial recognition technology is about furthering the ability of police to catch "bad guys", then why is it that just about anyone who challenges the rich and powerful can end up in an ACTIC database search?  Beau Hodai, the author of the report on the Arizona counter-terrorism fusion centers, was driven to undertake the research after he was ejected from the 2011 ALEC conference in Scottsdale by security as a "persona non grata."

Rather than his removal being a misunderstanding, or the actions of a rogue cop, it was the hidden collaboration between the Phoenix police department and the ALEC planners in identifying and removing unwanted individuals.  In addition to journalists, Hodai's report and police documents disclosed the level of attention paid to Occupy Phoenix, anarchists, and Indigenous activists who seem to be singled out for no other reason than their motivation to take action against the interests of the rich and powerful.

This raises even more questions in what already looks like at the very least to be a case of police abuse of authority.  Already, we have documented on this blog that the PPD and FBI were almost certainly sharing information on protests and protesters with perennial activist target and accused abuser of workers, Freeport-McMoran.  This sharing was direct through emails, but may as well have happened through the FBI Fusion Center, where private security firm Infragard was allowed to participate in information sharing.  Likewise, we have also revealed how Tempe PD anti-terror cops treated local activists as terrorists.

The Washington Post article does not list Arizona as one of the states that uses facial recognition technology to access drivers license databases, but the documents released surrounding Occupy Phoenix and anti-ALEC protests clearly do contain photos taken from drivers licenses.  Are there databases of Valley activists?  Down and Drought has documents that suggest that there are, at least in the case of the Tempe Police Department.  Further, is this activity legal?   Especially when it is being used to target and identify activists.  Many states have laws regulating this kind of activity, or preventing it to be used for political purposes.  What is the case in Arizona?  More and more it appears that regardless of its original intent, the growing police and surveillance apparatus in Arizona, under the cover of anti-terrorism, has increasingly become a weapon for police to target activists and, in so doing, to protect corporations.  While the US is gripped by the NSA spying story, we seem to have our own mini-version right here in the Copper State.

This is part 6 in our ongoing series analyzing recently released police and Federal documents detailing their surveillance and infiltration of Occupy Phoenix and anarchists in the Valley.