The state murder of an activist

By now, the facts are well known to millions, but it is worth going over them again. On July 10, a 28-year old woman, an activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, who had recently moved to Texas for a new job at a university, was being followed too closely by a speeding car on a highway. She changed lanes to get out of the driver’s way, and that should have been the end of the story, a non-event in her life. But the driver, 30-year old Brian Encinia, was a police officer, and he put his flashing lights on and made her pull over.

Three days later she was dead in a jail cell.

I found out about Sandra Bland’s death after I watched the video of her arrest and abuse by Brian Encinia. When I watched it, I thought it was another routine example of police abuse and violence against black women in the US, like the crazed attack on a 14-year old girl in a swimsuit by Eric Casebolt in June (also in Texas).

Instead, it turned out I was watching the beginning of a long, drawn out sequence of torture and murder. Murder is the only word that can describe this, since, even if the extremely implausible story of her suicide turns out to be true, there is no way she would be dead now if she hadn’t been arrested. Not unlike the murder of Eric Garner by a group of police in New York last year, the main killers being Daniel Pantaleo and Justin Damico of the NYPD. Or the murder of Walter Lamer Scott by Michael Thomas Slager, who gunned the man down while he fled. These are just a fraction of the cases that have been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement (which numbered Sandra Bland among its activists).

And Black Lives Matter, while gathering the numbers and leveling a systemic critique, can conceivably only focus on a fraction of the hundreds of people killed by law enforcement personnel in the US each year. Killings by US police are far higher than most other Western countries. There are different ways of counting, and different institutions doing the counting. But whether you look at the Guardian’s database, the database, the Fatal Encounters database, or some other, we seem to be living in the midst of an upsurge of murders by police, targeting especially ordinary unarmed black citizens, male or (now) female.

Watching the videos of these murders, several things stand out: the extraordinary cowardice of the police, who attack completely defenceless people from a position of complete safety; the careful attention to covering up that begins immediately after, or even during, the attack; and the steady, methodical escalation of the situation by the police until they are able to attack. For all of these things, the video and transcript of Sandra Bland’s arrest by Brian Encinia, as well as the accompanying coverup operation, is the most extraordinary example so far.

Encinia is in complete control of the interaction at every moment. He pulls her over, she complies. He asks her what is wrong, she tells him she is upset to have been pulled over, and he uses this information to escalate (“are you done?” he asks). He then tells her to put out her cigarette, something she knows she doesn’t have to do, but seems to do anyway. She is accepting the ticket he has written for her, when he escalates again. Before long he has opened the door and commenced the attack, during which at various points he tells her to move, and then tells her not to move.

At each stage, Sandra talks to Encinia as one human being to another, telling him the harm he is doing to her arms, to her ear, to her head, about her medical conditions; and also reminds him of the legal framework in which they are supposed to be operating. Encinia simply proceeds with his assault.

My conclusion from this video is that there was absolutely nothing Sandra could have done to save her life. From the moment Encinia decided to pull her over, he could have de-escalated at any one of twenty or thirty moments. It is easy to imagine how the same dynamic continued at the Waller County Jail, where she was detained for three days, after which the jail authorities produced her body along with a series of impossible photos, edited videorecordings, nonsense about Sandra’s supposed depression, and botched autopsies that are designed to ensure that no one is ever punished for Sandra’s murder. The County Sheriff is running the investigation into her death. The County Sheriff also runs the jail where she died. The discrepancies in the reports and videos that they have put forward to date, with straight faces, are, if taken at face value, a staggering declaration of incompetence. The obvious alternative explanation is that we are watching a coverup unfold.

Despite the presence in the media landscape of people like Harry Houck who will defend any violence that police do, Sandra Bland is an extraordinarily difficult person to present as a physical threat to an armed police officer. The best that Houck could come up to defend her murder with was to say she was “arrogant”. Arrogant while being arrested, then suddenly depressed and suicidal, presumably. What Sandra Bland’s case demonstrates is that black women are targets as black men are, that being non-threatening won’t save you, that knowing the law and asserting your rights won’t save you, that the legal framework that is supposed to govern and constrain police interactions with people, and investigations of these interactions after they become fatal, is viewed by police as optional.

How widely is this view that the law is optional for police shared by the US public? This view seems to be held by the police as a group, as well as most of the US media that defend them. But what do the people think? The police captured in the iconic videos of the Black Lives Matter movement are the objects of well-deserved fear, contempt, and revulsion. But they are also the recipients of widespread unearned solidarity, offered without any conditions, from within their group and from within society. Much of this solidarity is because of racism. Part of it is because of respect for the law and the legitimacy of institutions, which work better for some than for others.

A society that offers widespread unconditional solidarity to police will end up tolerating the intolerable, and it has. The idea that Black Lives Matter is the idea that this unconditional solidarity can be cracked if the facts can be heard. Maybe it could even be replaced by solidarity with the ordinary people who, more than ever after Sandra Bland’s murder, are being told to live in fear that police can kill them with impunity.

First published at TeleSUR english:

#HackedTeam & Colombia: How Surveillance Helps a Violent State

In the past few years, debates about universal surveillance, software and internet freedom, privacy and civil liberties have opened through the efforts and sacrifices of people like Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Anonymous. The governments and private security industry that have been exposed through leaks, hacks, and whistleblowing, have been forced to respond. Some of these responses involved attacking and prosecuting the messengers. Others have involved denial, apology, and the perpetually fresh doctrine of the “change of course”: “yes, we used to violate people’s rights, but that’s all over now”. Some public figures attempted to argue against privacy on principle: “If you have nothing to hide, why should you need privacy?” But, as Glenn Greenwald wrote, none of these anti-privacy people were willing to give him their email passwords on television, despite having nothing to hide.

A small number of those implicated in surveillance violations took a defiant stance, as in: “yes, we violate privacy, and we are very good at it.” One security company, dedicated to offensive hacking, stood out as particularly defiant: The Italy-based Hacking Team, headed by David Vincenzetti. Go to their website today and watch the banners flash along: “DEFEAT encryption.” “Total control over your targets.” “Thousands of encrypted communications per day. Get them. In the clear.” While many of Hacking Team’s competitors were more sheepish, or at least discrete, about their violations of people’s privacy rights, Hacking Team staked out a marketing space based on flamboyance.

With such a casual attitude to violating citizens privacy on behalf of their clients, the hack against Hacking Team that occurred on July 5 was almost inevitable, and it is very difficult to find any sympathy for Hacking Team’s cries that their privacy has been violated. The hashtag #HackedTeam trended for quite a while, along with others like #IsHackingTeamAwakeYet.

The hackers released into the public domain the specialized software that Hacking Team uses to violate people’s systems, exploits HT had discovered and were keeping secret to sell, as well as 400GB of email archives, presentations and documents. Wikileaks speedily made the email archives searchable online.

The main piece of software, Remote Control System or RCS, that Hacking Team sells, allows the client to monitor someone else’s computer. Such a system is of great interest to repressive governments and agencies of all types, and that’s why Hacking Team’s client list includes Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia (about which University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab wrote a report) and many other human rights violators.

In the Americas, Mexico is the biggest client, but HT does substantial business both with, and in Colombia. In Bogota, HT works with the US Embassy and the DEA. Much of the RCS business with Colombia is done through the Israeli surveillance firm, NICE. A series of 2013 emails discuss a $60M deal with Colombia’s directorate of police intelligence (DIPOL). Many emails report on the success of demonstrations of the software. A 2009 email discusses the demo method that later became standard:

“Anti Narcotics Police is very interested in the product. Have you been able to advance on the demo over the Internet. As we discussed the idea would be to infect a computer (and maybe a phone) here in Colombia and have it connected to the > Internet. We would be watching your server using Adobe Connect, we let the customer play with the infected computer, write documents, email, surf the web, chat, Skype, etc, and at the same time we are showing them the info come up on the server. I would really like to be able to do a demo soon, please let me know.”

HT has promised that they don’t sell their systems to anyone responsible for gross human rights violations (how they define gross is unknown). Their job is to sell software, in any case, so they presumably don’t track or know what is done with their systems once sold – even if, like the machines IBM custom-built for the Nazis (see “IBM and the Holocaust” by Edwin Black) the technology is hardly neutral. Because HT is just selling the software and not running it for their clients, we probably won’t be able to tell from their email archives what exactly Colombia (or any other government) has done with HT’s software, and who they are doing it to.

But we have other information that can provide us with some ideas. What would Colombia do with the Remote Control System? Will they be using it to catch cyber criminals? What kind of regime is Colombia? It has elections, after all. It has elected politicians from across the political spectrum. It is currently in negotiations to end its long civil war. Its 1991 Constitution is progressive in many ways. So, why shouldn’t Colombia’s police get some help trying to catch cyber criminals?

Unfortunately, Colombia’s civil war is not a 19th-century civil war of armies battling against each other on a field. It’s a modern war of a state and paramilitaries killing civilians and controlling territories for profit, and guerrillas that took up arms defensively decades ago and have turned them against the people far too many times since.

The targets of state violence (and surveillance) in Colombia – when state violence is targeted at all, and not generalized – are unionists, human rights defenders, journalists; indigenous, afro-Colombian, women, and peasant leaders. If it were possible to find out whose computers were infected by HT’s malware, I would wager that most of the infected devices would belong to such people.

But, as Human Rights Watch documented again just last month, violence isn’t always targeted. The ‘false positives’ scandal in Colombia involved military units capturing ordinary people, killing them, and dressing them up as guerrilla combatants to present high casualty numbers. It is hard to imagine a more evil, statistics-driven exercise. The commanders in charge of the units committing these atrocities are still in charge, and some have risen through the ranks on the bodies of those killed as false positives.

The Colombian state didn’t need HT’s software to murder peasants and dress them up as guerrillas. But to anticipate and prepare for human rights criticism? To stay one step ahead of the FARC at the negotiating table? To target and surveil the country’s many remarkable unarmed movement activists – and put targets on them for murderous paramilitaries? For any of these – all proven tactics of the Colombian regime – HT’s systems sure would come in handy.

First published on TeleSUR english:–Colombia-How-Surveillance-Helps-a-Violent-State-20150720-0015.html