Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In her new documentary, journalist Assia Boundaoui explores the effect of constant surveillance on her predominantly Muslim neighborhood in suburban Illinois.
Late one night when she was 16, Assia Boundaoui woke up to a light flashing in her face. She got out of bed, walked to her window, and looked outside into the still streets of her hometown of Bridgeview, Illinois, a middle-class suburb of Chicago. That’s when she saw them: two men perched on the telephone pole, fiddling with the wires, with flashlights in hand.
Frightened, Boundaoui ran to her parents’ room and relayed the incident—but received little reaction.
“My mom was like, ’Calm down. It’s just the FBI—go back to sleep,’” she recounts in the opening scene of her new documentary The Feeling of Being Watched.
The film is full of unnerving anecdotes like this, told by Boundaoui, her family, and her neighbors: mysterious cars parked outside the driveway; strange men rummaging through trashcans; crackle on phone lines, suggesting they were tapped. Then there were the actual physical encounters with FBI agents, knocking on doors and seeking to interrogate the Muslim residents of Bridgeview.
It was not just a one-off incident, and it was not just paranoia. In the film, Boundaoui learns that over 33,000 pages of records exist on FBI’s “Operation Vulgar Betrayal”—a counterintelligence initiative through which her community was surveilled as far back as 1985. Via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, she obtains these documents, which are almost 70 percent redacted, but clearly support that the FBI secretly sought to collect information on her family and their neighbors.
These revelations fit cleanly into the history of disproportionate surveillance of communities of color—black civil rights leaders, LGBT populations, native activists, religious minorities, and immigrants. Since 9/11, in particular, law enforcement has explicitly monitored mosques, community centers, and schools in search of turning up connections to terrorism, often in vain.
But Boundaoui’s film, at the end of the day, isn’t just about the suspicious gaze that American society casts upon Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S.: It is also about how these communities see, and define, themselves.
CityLab caught up with Boundaoui to chat about her film, which is being screened across the country.
What did it feel like growing up in Bridgeview, Illinois, a community where the feeling of being watched was so pervasive?
I don't ever remember a moment when it started, or a moment where someone told me, “Oh yeah, we’re under surveillance.” It was just something that we always felt had no beginning point.
It manifested itself in so many ways for us as children. We used to make a lot of jokes about it. The Wi-Fi networks in my neighborhood had tongue-in-cheek names like “FBIsurveillancevan2” and “theNSAiswatchingthisnetwork.”
You can trace a direct line between the tactics the FBI was using in our community and the negative effect. For example, the use of informants in the community really created distrust among people. You didn’t talk out loud about what was going on, because you didn’t know you know if your neighbors might suspect you of being an informant, or if they themselves may be informants. People censored themselves.
There were many other things—students not signing up to be a part of Muslim student associations, for example. They were afraid that they might open themselves up to more surveillance. There were small chilling effects, and then larger ones.
After a legal battle over delays over the release of FBI’s massive trove of documents on “Operation Vulgar Betrayal,” a judge ordered that 3,000 pages be processed every month. You’ve been getting a slow trickle of records you requested and you’re still fighting the lack of transparency in court. What you have learned so far? What do you still not know?
What we do know is that the FBI started this investigation in the ‘90s that resulted in the profiling of thousands of Americans—that secretly collected information on more than 600 American Muslim individuals, businesses, organizations, and schools.
We also know that the FBI field office in Chicago shared the records with dozens of other field offices in cities across the country. This investigation, Vulgar Betrayal, was the beginning of many other investigations that started after, similarly profiling American communities across the country.
The biggest thing that’s redacted in the records is why. And it’s the question I get all the time. I tell people, “You should ask the FBI.” It’s a question I don’t have an answer to yet.
I think the historical record sheds a lot of light, though. The most interesting information in the records from COINTELPRO, [the FBI's 1960s operation targeting civil rights leaders, among others], is the why. It’s very explicit. It has nothing to do with looking for a specific crime but it’s actually about disrupting the political organizing of a movement that the FBI saw as a national security risk.
What’s your next step?
My next project is trying to understand what information has been redacted [from the records I’ve received]. I have a fellowship at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, where I’m using artificial intelligence to help guess what's behind the redactions.
We have the COINTELPRO records that are fully un-redacted, and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents about the surveillance of other people of color that are fully readable. So we’re going to use that as the basis for a machine learning algorithm that will help us guess what’s behind the black holes in the Vulgar Betrayal files. The idea is, how can we use technology to compel a radical transparency, when you can’t get that from the government?
What I found interesting about your film is that it really zooms in into the effect of surveillance, not one person, but on an entire neighborhood. These stories are, of course, everywhere. Dearborn, Michigan, for example, which has a large Arab and Muslim population, also has the highest per capita residents on a controversial and opaque terror watchlist.
When it’s not about the individual—it’s about seeing an entire community being seen as a threat—it makes sense that they would create an architecture for surveillance on top of an entire community.
In our neighborhood, specifically, it’s not just the mosque that’s listed. It’s the two elementary schools; it’s a bunch of the businesses around it. What they did was look at this network of relationships as a network of criminality.
But this is what a community looks like! The FBI really preyed on these relationships to make a case of criminality, and actually this was an immigrant community relating to each other.
At one point in the movie, you talk this idea of “double consciousness”—that you’re simultaneously have to juggle how society sees you with how you see yourself. I feel like that was an approach you employed on a broader level in the film. You uncovered the way the government views your community, but also revealed how the community views that gaze, and how it defines itself, despite that gaze. What story did you want to tell about your own community here?
I wanted to create [something] that reflected nuances and the complexities of who we are and our multiple dimensions—something that looked at not just struggle and trauma, but also joy.
I understand what I’m doing here. This is a counter-narrative to a sea of narratives that depict Muslims in a really specific, monolithic, negative way. The idea was that I wanted to create something not to counter that image amongst other people, but to create an image that we—people of color—could see ourselves in and recognize those faces. For such a long time, specifically in our community, we’ve had to define ourselves in the negative: We’re not that, we’re not this, we’re not terrorists. And we’ve lost in that who we really are.
I was creating something not just to say we’re not this but to also create an affirmative definition or description of who it is we are.
What responses have you received from Bridgeview residents and others since the film came out?
I remember when we got the first batch of documents telling my mom like, “We found all the documents. This is really happening." And she’s like, “Yeah I know. We knew all along.” So for some people, it wasn’t news at all.
I think it’s been more interesting to be able to present that to folks outside of the community—to say, “Here’s the effect it had on us personally. And here are the primary documents that speak to this widespread mass surveillance and mass profiling campaign that the FBI was doing.”
There’s an old-school leadership in the American Muslim community that has a way of approaching these issues that is very conciliatory—that doesn’t want to shake the boat and call out the government because they want to have an amicable relationship with them. And then there’s another younger generation that is really very unapologetic about who they are and insists on an honest, respectful, and transparent relationship with law enforcement.
The community is not monolithic. There are people with different approaches on how we should tackle this issue and how we should talk about it.
Do you plan to go to other cities where Muslim communities have experienced this?
Through our community impact campaign, we want to go to 12 predominately American cities to show the film and then host community town halls, where we have discussions about how this issue has affected that specific community. And we plan to have organizers in the room talking about how folks can engage with this.
Last week we did a guerrilla projection on the FBI Building in Washington, D.C.—the Hoover building. Inside that building are records with my family’s name, and my community’s name. On the outside, we projected the highly redacted FBI documents. In the black holes of these documents were home videos of my family from the ‘90s. The idea is to juxtapose this bureaucratic language the FBI used to cast suspicion on all of us with the really mundane things we were actually up to at the time.
This whole thing has been something people in my community have whispered about for such a long time. How do we create a conversation about how this has collectively affected our community? And what can we do about it?