BLOG 2: Runaway Slave Advertisements & Counting Violent Extremism

By: Rihan Issa, Executive Articles Editor, Vol. 27

In part one of the blog series, I presented an overview of Simone Browne’s argument in Dark Matters. She argues that one cannot understand the history of surveillance without examining its racial past. She presents a few examples of the racial roots of current surveillance practice to illustrate how current practices were shaped by the enslavement of Black bodies. In part two, I provide one instance in which her argument is applied to a counterterrorism initiative.

Simone Browne observes that our ability to critique surveillance practices through the lens of institutionalized racism in a post-9/11world, “[is] halted when they are interpreted as a questioning of security measures that are deemed necessary, and as such that very questioning and those who do the questioning come to be seen as a security threat.”[i] Underlying this interpretation is a false dichotomy: issues like crime and terrorism exist because of a lack of security, and the only solution possible is to increase surveillance. This logic is harmful in that it discourages a nuanced dissection of complex issues such as foreign policy, class warfare, and policing. As Browne argues, surveillance practices should not be viewed in a silo nor be viewed as new phenomena.[ii] To understand the surveillance mechanisms in a post-9/11 world as only a direct reaction to the attacks would be disingenuous, and usually politically motivated.

As we pass the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I use Browne’s framing to place the government surveillance program, Countering Violent Extremism (“CVE”), within the larger context of surveillance in the U.S., and in particular within the historical roots of chattel slavery. Racializing CVE within the Dark Matters framework disrupts the assumption that CVE is harmless, objective, and chiefly, an effective method of preventing extremism.

One surveillance practice Browne explores is “totalizing surveillance.”[iii] This form of surveillance relies on the eyes of normal everyday persons to do the surveilling.[iv] Here, in the process of trying to catch runaway slaves, “citizens (the watchers) are deputized through white supremacy to apprehend any fugitives who escaped from bondage (the watched), making for cumulative white gaze that functioned as a totalizing surveillance.”[v] Those being deputized, the citizens, “frame blackness through stereotypes [and] abnormalization…in spaces that are shaped for whiteness” thereby perceive behaviors of those being watched, as criminals.[vi] Under the watchful eyes of the white gaze, seemingly non-threatening, neutral behaviors and actions are presumed suspicious.

The watchers maintained control over enslaved persons in a variety of ways: a set of rules slaveowners followed on the plantation, pass systems, and runaway slave advertisements.[vii] One of the core information technologies used during chattel slavery was a system of “written slave passes, wanted slave posters and advertisements for runaway slaves and servants, and organized slave patrols.”[viii] A rulebook commonly used by plantation overseers prescribed methods for controlling enslaved persons.[ix] Composed of eighteen rules, it emphasized the disciplinary power applied on enslaved bodies that included punishment practices, daily routines and norms to account for every moment of an enslaved person’s day, and most importantly emphasized the general notion of systematizing every aspect of an enslaved person’s life.[x] These rules created the contours of how to ensure an enslaved person does not deviate from the plantation nor the social norms.

To maintain this control, white owners established a robust surveillance system in the form of a ‘pass system’ that required enslaved people to have a pass to leave the plantation, to enter a plantation, and to do just about anything else that fell outside their ordinary slave duties.[xi] This system was further enforced by slave patrollers who had the power to whip any persons who did not follow this command.[xii] This system also relied on advertisements for runaway slaves and servants in order to maintain this system of control.[xiii] These advertisements included in-depth information about the runaway slaves that included their physical description, skills, knowledge, and tactics used to run away and ones that could be used to stay hidden.[xiv] These descriptions included vague and generic descriptions that essentially labeled everyone who was black as a possible suspect.

The CVE program was established by the Obama administration in 2011.[xv] The program’s aim is to develop relationships between law enforcement and Muslim communities with the goal of identifying potential extremists and developing intervention strategies.[xvi] The program is executed by awarding communities federal grants.[xvii]

Social service workers, doctors, teachers, and religious figures are trained to identify “risk factors” and then report those risk factors to the appropriate law enforcement agency. This would lead to revealing confidential information, and at times being added to an intelligence database of suspicious activity.[xviii]  These risk factors are obscure and reveal the hidden intent of the program. The risk factors include “frequent attendance to mosque, frequent travel to Muslim majority countries, reading religious scripture, perceived economic stress, sense of being unjustly treated, low trust in institutions and law enforcement, lack of access to health care and social services, [and] concerns about anti-Muslim discrimination.”[xix] Underlying these risk factors is a “false assumption that Muslims are uniquely predisposed to commit violence and merit specialized government interventions.”[xx]

Although introduced as a neutral program, documents related to CVE suggest it is directed at Muslim communities almost exclusively[xxi] and in particular Somali communities in cities like Boston and Minneapolis.[xxii]  For instance, in the grant application submitted by the Boston Police Foundation, the group  “focused on Somali boys between the ages of 13 and 17”, claiming that their “risk for violent extremism” increases due to “unaccountable times and unobserved spaces,” and that “[t]hey are enticed by their capacity to carry weapons, their loyalty, and almost gang-like dress code.”[xxiii]

The deployment of funds and grants to entice stakeholders to surveil communities is evident here – nonprofits need funding and grants to stay afloat and provide necessary services to communities. The government chose to exploit that and utilize the incredulous list of risk factors riddled with bias to have the community surveil and inform on each other. The effect of CVE has led to a loss in trust of community spaces, a barrier in the use of social services, and has more broadly infringed on first amendment rights.[xxiv] It also led to sharp division of communities. As the Muslim Justice League described in their letter to the House Subcommittee on National Security, “[w]hen individuals and entities are incentivized to propose and/or watch for pseudoscientific ‘concerning behaviors’ of fellow community members, mistrust and fear are virtually guaranteed.”[xxv]

It is in the ‘totalizing surveillance’ practice that seemingly benign behaviors of Muslim youth are deemed suspect. The framing of the radicalized Muslim becomes a legitimate reason to otherize Muslims and deem them “lawless out-of-place subjects deserving of little protection.”[xxvi] As Professor Akbar explains this form of oversight “produces a loyalty discourse in which there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, and thereby ‘entrenches the idea of [Muslimness] as a crime of identity,’ “encourages group surveillance,’ and incentivizes Muslims ‘to be available for, indeed advocate for, white racial inspection of [Muslimness].”[xxvii]

As explored, the legacy of surveillance practices such as the use of runaway slave advertisements created the possibility and even normalization of “totalizing surveillance.” Framing CVE as only existing because of surveillance practices used in times of chattel slavery allows us to explore the “dark matter” of the surveillance regime. It forces us to acknowledge the lasting legacy and harm of chattel slavery as it impacts our current realities. Racializing surveillance in this way forces us to question who is doing the surveillance and who is being watched. It forces us to be critical of this relationship and of the impact of the surveillance. Finally, viewing current practices in a historical context “will prove for a new way of understanding surveillance as it exists in our lives today.”[xxviii]  In blog three, I will end with some final thoughts on CVE and explore an instance of dark sousveillance.

[i] Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness 156-57 (2015).

[ii] See Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015).

[iii] Id. at 21.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id. at 20.

[vii] Id. at 50.

[viii] Id. at 52.

[ix] Id

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id. at 53.

[xiv] Id. at 52-53.

[xv] Faiza Patel & Meghan Koushik, Countering Violent Extremism, Brennan Center for Justice (Mar. 16, 2017),

[xvi] Id. at 5.

[xvii] Id. at 6.

[xviii] Id. at 13, 30.

[xix] Id. at 15.

[xx] Nabiha Maqbool, Defunding the Police Must Include Ending the Surveillance of Muslims, The Intercept (Jun. 25, 2020)

[xxi] Julia Harte, Inside Trump’s Divisive Mission to Identify and Deter Potential Extremists, The Nation (Mar. 2, 2020) (“⅔ of the grant receipts in 2016 were immigrants or muslims.”; Patel, supra, at 18.  

[xxii] Patel, supra, at 29 (Boston: “2 of the 3 grants from govt given to organizations working with Somali youth”); Id. at 31.

[xxiii]Maqbool, supra.

[xxiv] Shannon Al-Wakeel, MJL Letter for Hearing on “Combatting Homegrown Terrorism, Muslim Justice League, (Jul. 26, 2017); Patel, supra, at 25.

[xxv]  Al-Wakeel, supra.

[xxvi] Amna Akbar, National Security’s broken Windows, 62 UCLA L. Rev. 834, 843, 884 (2015).

[xxvii] Id. at 885-86.

[xviii] Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness 51 (2015).