SARs, CVE, & the Gang Database – Chicago Resists Surveillance

On October 24th, 2017, the American Friends Service Committee and the Social Justice Initiative at University of Illinois Chicago hosted a “Resisting Surveillance” panel investigating surveillance programs in Chicago, and how communities are resisting these racist, invasive and dangerous practices. It was attended by organizers and community members from across the city, and differed from other events in the series because it made links between CVE and other surveillance programs, such as Suspicious Activity Reporting and the Chicago Police Department’s Gang Database.  We heard from organizers on the front lines of resisting surveillance in their communities, and the stakes of this work in this moment.

Livestream available here:

Chicago Police Gang Database

Janaé E. Bonsu, an activist-scholar and organizer based in Chicago and member of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), has been a core part of the campaign to end the use of the Chicago Police Department’s Gang Database.  Janae described how together with Organized Communities Against Deportations, they have been building a campaign to stop the arbitrary use of this database, of which 95% of people listed with gang affiliations by the CPD are Black and Latino.  Any Chicago Police officer can put someone into the database based on an interaction with them, however brief, and frequently individuals are listed as being members of rival gangs – as happened in the case of Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, a member of OCAD currently in ICE detention because of his status on the database.  Individuals listed face the risk of heightened charges due to interactions with police, heightened priorities for deportation if undocumented, and have no way of knowing whether they are listed or how to be removed from it.  

Janae described how their campaign has been using direct action, litigation, FOIA requests, social media, & more to challenge Chicago gang database and ultimately end its use.  She was adamant that we must link movements of anti-police violence and surveillance work with immigrant justice work because of the overlap of impacted communities and forces at play.

Suspicious Activity Reports

Danya Zituni, a youth organizer with the Arab American Action Network, has participated in the Campaign to End Racial Profiling. She spoke about how this youth-led campaign aims to end racial profiling, harassment and entrapment by law enforcement against Arabs and Muslims while connecting it to other oppressed communities, including organizing against the Suspicious Activities Reports (SARS) program. SARS reports are filled out by law enforcement and sent to fusion centers for analysis, and encourage racial profiling.  She shared some examples from SARS reports that they have received via FOIA requests:

“Suspicious gathering at private gathering of individuals who appear to be of middle eastern descent.”

“Subject taking pictures of others on train and subject was wearing middle eastern costume.”

Danya went on to point out how “this SARS program uses “terrorism” to collect information about us, criminalize people, our institutions and our movements.”  She described how young people leading the campaign to end SARS have gone door to door on the Southwest side, surveying their neighbors and community members about their experiences with the FBI and found that 1 in 10 have been visited by the FBI – most at their own homes.  They are also planning to canvass more this year to spread awareness of CVE programs, and make sure their communities know the dangers of collaborating with FBI and DHS programs focused on gathering information on their communities.

In closing, she spoke of the importance of connecting the SARS program to the gang database, because of the role of the Chicago fusion center – and the ways that the rhetoric of the war on terror are also used to amp up policing of Black communities and militarize the border.  

Countering Violent Extremism

Nicole Nguyen is on faculty at UIC. Her research examines how national security policies reorganize US public schools, criminalize non-dominant youth, and advance US empire. She currently is investigating how countering violent extremism programs treat Muslim youth as uniquely vulnerable to terrorist radicalization and pressure social service providers like counselors to identify and report potential youth terrorists.

Through CVE, communities are turned into informants and asked to watch out for “warning signs” of violent extremism. She gave an overview of the ways that CVE programs show up in Chicago and Illinois, primarily through the Targeted Violence Prevention Program of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.   Nicole named some of the warning signs actually used by the FBI and law enforcement, including growing a beard, participating in a “pro-Muslim” social group, “urban hip hop gangster clothes”.  In Chicago, she points out, a “public health approach” is vocab used to push forward & reframe CVE  that emphasizes the role of mental health professionals identifying people vulnerable to ‘violent extremism,’ under the assumption that it’s like a heart attack where you can identify clear risk factors, even though there are no scientifically proven risk factors or warning signs of terrorist radicalization.

Nicole also pointed out the key difference between CVE and other surveillance efforts is that it relies on community buy in.  In that way, it is easier to challenge than FBI or ICE raids, because if the community refuses to engage it – it can’t exist.  An inspiring end to the panel, as she uplifted the possibilities for organizing that can actually stop, limit and refuse to allow this racist program to continue or expand.  


Also available at the event were “Resist Surveillance” posters and t-shirts designed by FTP artists Leila Abdelrazaq and Monica Trinidad (respectively), and this CVE zine.  


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