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Homeland Security used aircraft to surveil BLM protests in 15 cities

And some 270 hours of surveillance footage was broadcast live to a Customs and Border Protection control room.


Black Lives Matter protests continue across the United States.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A New York Times report Friday revealed the extent to which the Department of Homeland Security used drones, helicopters and planes to conduct surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. The aircraft logged around 270 hours of surveillance footage from 15 cities and it was broadcast live in a Customs and Border Protection control room, according to the Times report, which CBP confirmed. CBP is an agency of Homeland Security. 

CBP used Predator drones in Minneapolis -- where protests kicked off following the death of unarmed Black man George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police -- and Del Rio, Texas. The drones had no facial recognition capabilities and weren't armed. They were requested by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, according to the Times report.

Black Lives Matter protests are continuing across the US and globally as people demonstrate against the recent deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and against systemic racism. 

CBP also used aircraft, including helicopters and planes,  in 13 other cities: New York; Chicago; Washington DC; Philadelphia; Detroit; El Paso, Texas; Miami; Aurora, Illinois; Buffalo, New York; Dayton, Ohio; El Centro, California; San Luis, Arizona; and Uvalde, Texas. CBP confirmed 5.6 hours were logged from drones out of the total 270 hours of surveillance footage.

The aircraft were providing "situational awareness, maximizing public safety, while minimizing the threat to personnel and assets," CBP said in a statement on May 29.

Earlier this month, 35 congressional Democrats demanded that CBP, as well as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Guard Bureau, permanently cease surveilling peaceful protests. They said the use of Predator drones to collect live video feeds of protests was an overreach of power.

The Congress members said surveillance of these protests breaches the First Amendment right to protest and the Fourth Amendment, which is designed to protect Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. 

The FBI said it's not conducting surveillance of First Amendment-protected activity. Rather, it's "focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity." Similarly, the National Guard Bureau said it used an aircraft "to provide situational awareness" to National Guardsmen posted in Washington, DC, overnight on June 2 and 3.

Correction, 4:51 p.m PT: This story initially misstated the number of cities where drones were used to surveil protests. They were used in two cities. 

Black Lives Matter. Visit to learn how to donate, sign petitions and protest safely.

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