Newly Obtained Documents Reveal Surveillance of Teenage Activists in Tucson, AZ

Newly Obtained Documents Reveal Surveillance of Teenage Activists in Tucson, AZ

By Ryan Fatica

Documents newly obtained by Perilous Chronicle demonstrate an effort on the part of the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS), in collaboration with the Tucson Police Department (TPD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to surveil and compile intelligence on protestors fighting for an end to police violence and racism in Tucson.

The documents, obtained through a public records request, expose investigation into Stand Up Fight Back Tucson (SUFB), a local group of youth organizers that formed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department. According to the documents, surveillance of SUFB by DPS began in the lead-up to an August 1, 2020 protest in response to the announcement of the death of Carlos “Adrian” Ingram-Lopez at the hands of Tucson police.

The first slide in a slideshow presentation created by the Arizona Department of Public Safety presenting information on Tucson-based activists (Source: Arizona Department of Public Safety).

The week before the event, DPS intelligence analysts combed social media, ran background checks and license plate numbers, and compiled information on at least fourteen supposed SUFB organizers and “associates”. Some received more focus than others. DPS agents used police intelligence gathered from previous protests to trace car license plates believed to be associated with the organizers. They also compiled a 21-page slideshow on the organization.

According to the documents, DPS intelligence analysts were aware that the organizers of the August 1 event were mostly teenagers. “The primary organizers of the group are aged 15-19 years old,” they wrote in the notes of a slideshow about SUFB.

The slideshow, compiled by DPS Criminal Intelligence Analyst John Beech and updated and edited by DPS Criminal Analyst Supervisor Suzanne Neumann, includes photos of those believed to be members of SUFB as well as their addresses, driver’s license numbers, known places of employment and other biographical details. All the information appears to be culled from publicly available social media accounts, police intelligence gathered from previous protests that summer, and law enforcement databases.

DPS agents also ran reports on most of the activists from an Arizona-wide law enforcement database called the “Joint Web Interface,” which is owned and operated by Maricopa County and  “provides access to over 265 legacy data sources along with many integrated data sources”, according to the Maricopa County website. The reports include information on prior arrests and other personal information.

DPS did not reply to a request for comment. 

The reports show that DPS analysts were also gathering information on the Southern Arizona Street Medics Alliance (SASMA), which formed in March 2020 to provide street medic services to protests against police violence in Tucson.

In an August 1, 2020 email to a superior, Detective Morts wrote, “I was going to focus on all the Tucson based organizers.” Then mentioning two names in specific, one of whom is a prominent member of SASMA, Morts wrote, “I figured if we watch her she may lead us to the others.”

When shown the documents detailing the surveillance, the SASMA member named in the report, who asked to be identified as Sonne, said that it was not surprising that the police are surveilling the group. According to Sonne, there’s a long history of police surveilling, harassing and even attacking street medics during protests, even if they clearly identify themselves as medics.

It’s unclear from the documents why Detective Morts sought to gather information on members of SASMA. According to Sonne, SASMA medics do not engage in any criminal activity and are not even protestors. “SASMA has an internal code of conduct that we are not at the protest to protest,” Sonne said. “We don’t hold signs, we don’t get into cops’ faces; our job is to keep our hands free and our attention on the protestors in case an emergency should happen.”

Although they attempt to remain neutral during protests, Sonne made it clear that the group’s presence in the streets is an act of solidarity with protestors. “Our mission statement is to protect marginalized groups when they are exercising their First Amendment Rights,” said Sonne.

Throughout the report, DPS Detectives’ main concern appears to be protestors pulling items, such as traffic cones and construction signage, into the street as they march.

“When items are dragged behind a march it’s to slow the police from gaining on the march. They must stop to pick them up,” reads one slide. “Organizers brought pile-ons [sic] and supplied to protestors for the march,” reads the caption to a photo of a protestor, purported to be a SUFB member, carrying a road cone as they march.

A slide, compiled by DPS intelligence analysts, reporting on tactics allegedly promoted by Tucson activists which involve toppling construction signage during marches (Source: Arizona Department of Public Safety).

Another slide, which lists “tactics” associated with SUFB, identifies the use of road cones as a defensive measure against tear gas. Cones have been used around the world to cover tear gas canisters, allowing them to be extinguished with water.

Much of the information about protest tactics in the documents appears to come from “Listen Up Tucson,” a publicly accessible channel on the social media platform Telegram. The channel was created last summer by Tucson community members to disseminate information about local anti-police and Black Lives Matter protests.

Although the DPS report attributes the channel to SUFB, no publicly available information draws any connection between the group and “Listen Up Tucson.” When asked about Listen Up Tucson, SUFB members said their organization does not run the channel and that they do not know who does. 

Slides detailing “tactics” as well as items Stand Up Fight Back members are alleged to promote protestors bring to marches, including water and food. (Source: Arizona Department of Public Safety).

Another slide discusses “tactics” DPS agents believe SUFB to use, including carrying umbrellas to protect against smoke. Although the summer’s protests nationally as well as locally did involve property destruction, rocks thrown at police and even setting fires, no such acts are attributed to SUFB in the documents. The majority of the tactics listed by DPS intelligence analysts appear to describe defensive efforts by protestors to protect themselves. 

Other tactics describe nonviolent forms of resistance such as “kneeling outside TPD, as well as on frontage roads in front of Mobile Field Force” and “attempting to gain access to Interstate 10.” The slides also discuss the use of disruptive or evasive measures deployed to prevent the police from following the march too closely.

One SUFB member named in the documents who asked to be identified only as Dre, said they think the police are targeting them because they’re scared. “They’re kinda fucked,” Dre reflected. “They realize that we do have some type of power and that our voices do have power and they need to do something about it so they don’t get fired—so they don’t get abolished. It’s out of fear from them.”

“Police are going to surveil whoever they fuck they want to surveil,” said another SUFB member named in the documents who asked to be identified only as Isa. “They’re going to repress everybody that they want to repress because they can and they have the means to and they’d rather suppress the truth than allow it to abolish and re-form their institutions.”

“They’ve been doing this forever, ever since the establishment of the police,” said Isa. “The government’s been doing this for as long as anyone can remember.”

Surveillance of Activists

On his surveillance rounds in the lead-up to the August 1 protest, Detective Morts visited the home of Lisette DeMars, a member of the West University Neighborhood Association and the Historic Fourth Avenue Coalition. DeMars says she attended the protests last summer because she wanted to participate in a community event in support of people of color in her community.  

“I tried to attend as many of them as I could,” said DeMars, speaking of the protests in Tucson. “I think my language of love is showing up, so it was the least I could do to show up locally for my community.”

Tucson resident Lisette DeMars, who was surveilled by DPS Detectives last summer (Photo source: Courtesy of Lisette DeMars).

DeMars was surprised to hear she had been a target of police surveillance as a result of her attendance.

According to the documents, intelligence analysts with DPS believed that DeMars’ roommate’s vehicle had been used as “protestor transport” for SUFB. According to DeMars, her roommate is a doctor at a local hospital and was busy responding to the city’s COVID-19 outbreak when the protests were happening last summer. Although she doesn’t think he ever attended a protest himself, DeMars said he may have dropped her off once.

DeMars said she felt disappointed and frustrated that tax dollars are being spent on surveilling activists. “I have grown up here in this community and we have a lot of needs,” DeMars said. “And so to know that our tax dollars are being spent to take pictures of cars of people who were carpooling to a community gathering is just silly.”

“The idea that any of us are an actual threat of any kind to our community is outrageous,” said DeMars, speaking of those who participated in the protests.

Arizona State Trooper surveillance photo of a car registered to Lisette DeMars, a prominent figure in Tucson’s West University Neighborhood. (Source: Arizona Department of Public Safety).

A Threat to the Community

In the weeks leading up to the August 1 protest, SUFB activists and DPS agents were both involved in efforts to call attention to and disseminate information about those they deemed threats to the community. For DPS, the threat came from a group of disruptive teenage activists vocally concerned about police violence against people of color. For SUFB, the threat came from law enforcement itself.

“Our protests are about reducing harm caused by police brutality,” said Dre. “We are literally trying to save people’s lives and make sure that people continue to live and are free to live in the bodies they inhabit. But cops are literally trying to stop us from doing that.”

“We lack accountability for hundreds of deaths of members of the black community and other POC that occurred at the hands of police,” wrote SUFB members on Twitter last month.

Although Tucson did not experience the level of police violence against protestors as other cities last summer, informal reports of escalation and aggression by law enforcement circulated through social media and activist networks.

On at least two occasions during the protests in Tucson last summer, DPS deployed tear gas canisters at protestors as they attempted to take over I-10.

“It just felt really disproportionate,” said DeMars, reflecting on the police response to the protests. According to DeMars, there were three windows broken downtown by protestors on the first night of the protests in Tucson in early June 2020. Of the three businesses damaged, two of the owners stated publicly that they were not pressing charges and that they were “standing in solidarity with the community in grief,” explained DeMars.  

According to the Tucson Anti-Repression Crew, a local organization that supports those facing state repression for their participation in progressive social movements, at least 23 people faced charges associated with their participation in last summer’s protests, including at least 18 people who were charged with violating the state-wide curfew imposed by Governor Doug Ducey. Many of those cases are still ongoing.

The image on SUFB’s Instagram announcing the August 1 protest features an image of a protest sign that reads “Carlos Ingram-Lopez was murdered in your hometown by TPD, a ‘progressive’ force. Proving that even good cops are bastards. ACAB. Rest in power Carlos.”

Carlos “Adrian” Ingram-Lopez with his 2-year-old daughter. Ingram-Lopez was killed by Tucson Police in April, 2020.

Carlos “Adrian” Ingram-Lopez, a 27-year-old Tucson resident, was killed by Tucson Police Officers in the early morning of April 21, 2020. When officers responded to a call from Ingram-Lopez’s grandmother indicating that her grandson was “acting crazy” and was on drugs, the officers handcuffed Ingram-Lopez, placed a “spit sock” over his head and knelt on his back for nearly twelve minutes until he suffocated in a manner starkly reminiscent of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officers a month later.

Between 2013 and 2021, TPD killed at least 38 people (including two last week) and DPS killed at least 16 more, according to the project Mapping Police Violence. According to the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, between 2005 and 2015, no TPD or DPS officers were found guilty of murder or manslaughter. In 2007, one DPS officer was found guilty of a “sex-related, violence-related” crime committed while on duty and served only two months in prison. He is the only TPD or DPS officer found guilty of a violent crime while on duty during the period of study.

Of those charged with crimes as a result of last summer’s protests in Tucson, only two involve incidents of alleged physical harm to a human from protestors: one in which a police officer’s arm was allegedly “struck” as he recorded a protest with his cell phone and another in which a police officer alleges a protestor rode over his foot with a bicycle. Both protestors were charged with “aggravated assault on an officer.” Both cases remain open at the time of this writing.

Graffiti on a bus stop advertisement in Tucson, allegedly painted by a protestor on the night of August 1, 2020 (Photo Source: Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, Twitter).

Life After Repression

In interviews with Perilous Chronicle, SUFB organizers repeatedly expressed their sense of pride in the work of their group and their resolve to keep fighting.

“Police have a history of scaring and bullying people into silence,” wrote SUFB in a statement in response to the surveillance released to Perilous Chronicle. “This surveillance is yet another example of why the police must be abolished.”

Organizers with the group also reflected an awareness of their place in history and a commitment to the tactics they see necessary to change the world. “Throughout history a lot of the biggest civil rights changes and shifts have been through protests and radical revolutions,” said Piper, a SUFB organizer surveilled by DPS. “To me that on-the-street work has been the biggest movement against a corrupt system. It works a lot better to work directly against the system rather than working in the system because those people in power are going to manipulate your ideas because you’re working with them.”

“Our message that Black lives matter and the protection of marginalized groups will not be silenced by this fear mongering,” the group wrote. “We will not let them scare us and bully us into hiding. Stay safe and stand strong against this repression.”

Graffiti in Downtown Tucson amidst the statewide mandatory 8 p.m. curfew last summer (Photo Source: Ryan Fatica/Perilous).

Ryan Fatica is a member of the Perilous Editorial Collective and a founding member of Perilous Chronicle. He is based in Arizona.