A California police agency that published the names and photos of anti-fascist protesters on Twitter said it was creating a “counter-narrative” on social media and celebrated its high rate of retweets and “engagement”, internal records reveal.
The Berkeley police department (BPD) faced widespread backlash last month after posting the personal information of arrested activists online, leading to Fox News coverage and harassment and abuse against the leftwing demonstrators at a far-right rally. New emails have shown that the city has an explicit policy of targeting protesters with mugshot tweets, with the goal of using “social media to help create a counter-narrative”.
Officials have further praised the “unusually deep and broad publication and attention” to activists’ mugshots, saying it helped create a “narrative about the City’s ability to enforce the rule of law”.
The records have sparked fresh scrutiny of the northern California police department, with critics accusing law enforcement of aiding the “alt-right” by shaming anti-fascists online after making questionable arrests. City lawmakers, citing the Guardian’s reporting, have now proposed an ordinance that would ban police from posting mugshots on social media unless the arrested individuals posed an immediate public safety threat.
“It is devastating that BPD would endanger people for the sake of their public relations campaign,” said Andrea Pritchett, an activist with Berkeley Copwatch.
Police arrested 20 people on 5 August, and all were counter-protesters and anti-fascists who came to demonstrate against a far-right event, according to the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) of San Francisco, which is representing some of the activists.
Many arrested were cited for “possession of a banned weapon”, which police said included “anything” that could be used in a “riot”. Some were arrested for bandanas and scarves that police considered “masks” and sign poles cited as “weapons”, according to the NLG, which is representing activists. It appears that none have faced any charges.
The records, obtained by police accountability group Lucy Parsons Labs and reported by the East Bay Express, shed light on how officials internally have defined and justified the social media policy for protests. Officials said the “social media-driven protests” have created the need for a “Twitter protocol for mug shots” and acknowledged that the tweets would get “broad national exposure”. One police email had the subject line, “Info flow from Jail to Twitter.”
The policy also made clear that police would post mugshots on Twitter only when the arrests were “protest related”, drawing criticisms that the practice was aimed at discouraging free speech activities.
“They are just trying to punish people who haven’t had a trial,” said Blake Griffith, a Democratic Socialists of America activist whose mugshot was posted on Twitter last month. “They don’t really care whether or not we actually did anything wrong. They just care that they look good and that their response looks publicly justified.”
One protocol document officials wrote last year said police should post the name, age, city of residence, charges and booking photos on Twitter, noting that they would be “quickly reprinted across television, online and print media platforms”. Police received more than 8,000 retweets, 11,000 “likes” and 1.7m “impressions” (times people saw the tweets) in one case, the document said.
“They considered the likes and retweets, but they didn’t count the number of death threats that were made in the replies – and the rape threats,” said Griffith, who was cited for misdemeanor vandalism, but hasn’t been charged.
Eddy Robinson, one of the first anti-fascist activists targeted under the Twitter mugshot policy last year, said he was shocked on Thursday to read that Berkeley had a policy outlining this tactic.
“I already felt like my civil rights had been infringed by that arrest,” said Robinson, who was jailed for a “banned weapon” because, he said, he was carrying protest signs. “To see that it was done in pursuit of a messaging goal was just bizarre.”
His mugshot was posted again when he was later accused of “participating in a riot”, but he was not convicted. His mugshot remains on Berkeley’s Twitter.
“It seems fundamentally unethical,” he added.
Veena Dubal, a University of California law professor and former Berkeley police review commissioner, said the mugshot policy was “really deviating from the role of the police department, which is public safety”.
She said she was also stunned by the “counter narrative” language: “If the prevailing narrative is these rightwing, white supremacist rallies should be stopped, and we don’t want them in the city, then the ‘counter-narrative’ is we do want them in our city, and the counter-protesters are the problem.”
The documents have come to light at a time in which law enforcement in California and across the US have come under fire for their response to neo-Nazi rallies. Activists have repeatedly accused police of shielding far-right groups while aggressively targeting anti-fascists for prosecution – releasing records that could be used for “doxing”, the practice of publishing people’s personal information to encourage abuse.
Matthai Chakko, a city spokesperson who outlined the policy in the internal emails, defended the practice in an interview Friday, saying the strategy was a response to “exceptional circumstances” and “exceptional amounts of violence in Berkeley” at previous rallies.
He could not, however, provide specific details about any alleged acts of violence on 5 August when police posted mugshots. One individual was cited for “battery”, but he said he had no further information about the circumstances. Police reported smashed windows at the time, but said there were no injuries.
“What we’re trying to do is prevent violence,” he said. “Removing weapons from people before they get to the site of conflict is a strategy … We have never identified anyone’s particular views.”
Asked if police considered possible abuse and doxing risks when creating the mugshot policy, Chakko declined to comment.
“They broke the law,” he said.
He also declined to comment on why the cases have repeatedly resulted in no formal charges or convictions, saying: “We are comfortable with our arrests.”