Whos Watching You?
Who's watching you? agrobacter / Getty Images

Four Portland city staffers spent the past few weeks in England learning about a social surveillance program perhaps best known for infiltrating American Muslim communities to seek out terrorists.

Unsurprisingly, this news doesn’t sit well with Portand’s Muslim population.

The surveillance tactic, called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), is also the name of a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program which helps law enforcement spy on Muslim communities in their mosques, schools, and communities. The DHS program purports to prevent terrorism by getting community members—including teachers, nonprofits, and mental health providers—to monitor their clients, students, friends, neighbors and family members for signs of radicalization and report suspicious activity to federal agents. The expectation that those in charge of Muslim youth should report them to the authorities for their opinions undermines the trust those youth can have in their schools and authority figures.

Existing CVE programs in England—programs Portland employees have learned about—have proven to negatively impacted children they serve. One Muslim student decided to write an essay about the psychology of terrorists for class, but her Google searches on a school computer flagged her for investigation by CVE-trained teachers, who pulled her aside for questioning. A 14-year-old who talked to his teacher about raising money for Palestinians had police come to his home with a file on him—he was already being watched, and his teacher had reported his speech to authorities. Even children under the age of nine are flagged for investigation under England’s CVE program.

Over 100 academics and professors have come out against the UK’s CVE program, noting its lack of basis in science and the negative impacts on the communities it monitors.

Khan says that that kind of flagging system has been used in the United States to create “false terrorism charges using entrapment,” similar to how FBI agents worked with a Muslim man to plan a terror attack on Portland's Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 2010. (This plan was unrelated to CVE, however).

In 2009, a Somali non-profit in Minneapolis was set to receive federal funding for CVE programs like after-school programs and job training—an attempt to provide young Muslim kids alternatives to joining extremist groups. But the federal funding came with strings attached: it required program team members to “identify radicalized individuals, gang members, and violent offenders who refuse to cooperate with [the program’s] efforts.” In other words, Muslim kids might be flagged as potential terrorists if they refuse to join the after-school programs. After significant outcry from community advocates, the non-profit rejected the federal CVE funding.

According to legal experts, the federal CVE program has escalated under the Trump administration, with triple the budget and an added focus on non-Muslim minority groups, including Black Lives Matter.

While Portland city employees—including a police officer—spent time abroad attending the US-UK CVE Community Leaders Exchange, members of the local Muslim community have voiced concern that this exchange may escalate tensions in Portland between the police and the Muslim community.

“CVE can be used as a tool to oppress the people who don’t think like you do. It can be a tool of the state to criminalize free speech,” says Zakir Khan, the chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Oregon.

Portland does not currently have a CVE program. However, the Portland officials were joined in the UK by delegates from Seattle, a city that has a federal CVE program in its police department. In Seattle, that looks like a Somali community outreach program receiving orders to spy on the Somali community, and FBI agents showing up unannounced on an immigrant’s doorstep to question her about phone calls to family in Afghanistan.

Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office says the city staff aren’t in England to receive CVE training, and that any learning will likely be applied to hate crimes and gang activity, not “radicalism.”

“The focus in England around community policing is on countering extremism and radicalism, but the city can learn a lot from the methods they employ to build cohesion within communities, and reach youth and polarized communities,” says Sophia June, a spokesperson for Wheeler. She calls the the program a “cultural exchange” to “learn about best practices for policies and programming.”

Portland’s Muslim community already has a tense relationship with Portland Police Bureau (PPB) thanks to the bureau’s participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). The JTTF is a partnership between the FBI and local law enforcement which gives the FBI access to detailed information on local community members for the purpose of preventing terrorism. JTTF programs act similarly to CVE programs, in that they are government-funded and are known to target minority groups in every city they operate in, including Portland. Portland has an on-again, off-again relationship with the JTTF, with the most recent fling beginning in 2010, after a five year hiatus.

The JTTF has been widely criticized by groups like the ACLU for its secrecy and for assisting the feds with profiling operations. PPB has assigned two officers to work with the JTTF, but their identities are unknown.

One PPB officer, lieutenant Tashia Hager, attended the CVE exchange program in England alongside three other city employees from the mayor’s office, the city's Office of Equity and Human Rights, and the Office of Youth Violence Prevention. Khan says the representatives from Portland are hallmark examples of the groups the federal government tries to enlist to report on Muslim communities: law enforcement, nonprofits, youth services and educators.

For Khan, who already worries about the negative impacts of the JTTF and the rising tide of anti-Muslim hate crimes, the possibility of Portland acquiring a CVE program is troubling. UPDATE (July 30): Since the publication of this article, Mayor Ted Wheeler's Chief of Staff, Michael Cox, has said: "the city does not and has not had plans to develop a CVE program."

“The world that’s being created for Muslims in Portland is a world where we are being treated in a discriminatory fashion,” he says. “We’re not getting equal justice under the law.”

Randy Blazak, chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes (CAHC), joined the Portland officials in the UK for the CVE program. In messages to the Mercury, he argues that the program isn’t about targeting the Muslim community, it’s about identifying people “at risk of radicalization.”

“I understand people have issues with CVE. But this work is much broader than the American idea of it,” Blazak says. He dismisses concerns by Oregon Muslims, saying “it’s the opposite of whatever they’re going on about.” Blazak cites a CVE program in Luton, England as a positive example: a soccer team for Muslim girls called the Luton Tigers.

Blazak says he joined the US-UK exchange to learn about fighting right-wing extremism. “My goal is to learn what's being done here to fight right wing extremism and see if any of that is applicable to the Oregon landscape. That's all,” he says.

Khan's not convinced. He strongly believes there’s no funding for programing against right-wing extremists—the CVE focus in the United States is entirely on Muslim communities.

“We’re worried about the investments that are being made,” Khan says. “That’s highly concerning because the Muslim community is already dealing with hate crimes, we shouldn’t have to also deal with a CVE program in Portland.”