As students at the University of South Florida quietly sobbed during a moment of silence for George Floyd last summer, they had no idea their candlelight vigil, organized before a monument to an assassinated civil rights leader, had been infiltrated by federal agents.
They were not aware that the campus police department charged with their protection had invited federal drug cops to dress in plain clothes and stand beside them as they took turns venting their anger and frustration—fear over the growing number of unarmed Black people being shot dead by police.
The students weren’t the only ones being monitored.
At least 51 times last summer, drug enforcement agents were asked to surveil Americans engaged in First Amendment activities stemming from the backlash over Floyd’s murder. The requests to the DEA arrived from all over the country and came from all levels of government. Once approved, they resulted in a nationwide deployment of agency assets on the ground and in the air; covert agents and other intelligence tools and personnel; and in surveillance, both physical and electronic, the scope of which remains a mystery.
Specifics about operations were revealed only after the U.S. government was sued for unlawfully denying access to materials that lay bare the breadth of the Trump administration’s efforts to surveil protests—authorities granted under the supervision of Attorney General William Barr to foil “anarchists and far-left extremists using Antifa-like tactics,” as revealed by BuzzFeed News at the time.
In a D.C. federal court, the records were finally released this week to Citizens for Ethics (CREW), a government watchdog group that sued the departments of Justice and Homeland Security over a year ago under the federal freedom of information statute.
The records show the DEA approving “covert surveillance” at protests in Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, Newark, Philadelphia, Chicago, Albuquerque, and Tampa, as well as a number of much smaller cities, such as Troy and Plattsburgh in upstate New York.
“The new records reveal the full scope of the DEA’s surveillance operations last summer,” the group said. “While some agencies sought DEA’s help with apprehending people suspected of theft or looting, CREW counted at least 51 instances where agencies enlisted DEA to secretly monitor protesters engaged in First Amendment-protected activity.”
One operation sent DEA agents undercover at the University of South Florida’s Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. Students had gathered around the plaza’s reflecting pool for a candlelight vigil, which was described by reporters in attendance as “peaceful.”
The students gathered and before speaking stood in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time a police officer had held his knee on Floyd’s neck, killing him.
The MLK plaza, founded in 1982, includes a bust of King, which is set at his exact height (5'7") and is inscribed with a passage from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he said, “that all men are created equal.”
A website run by students and faculty says the plaza was established to promote “the activist spirit by providing a place where students can speak freely about issues dear to them.” Agency emails, meanwhile, show the university’s police department wanted undercovers to monitor the students in secret.
Neither USF nor its police department responded when reached for comment.
In other cities, the DEA was asked to surveil protests citing prior incidents of looting and violence that occurred during the nationwide protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of Floyd’s murder and sentenced to more than 22 years in prison in June.
On June 1, 2020, during the fourth day of consecutive protests in San Antonio, a Facebook post went viral showing a police officer bleeding from the head. A senior official said that protesters had gathered peacefully for a candlelight vigil at sundown, and blamed “outside agitators” for vandalizing businesses and hurling objects at police. (A majority of the arrestees were locals, according to local news.) Three other officers were reportedly injured.
Documents show the following day, the DEA’s Houston office was asked to “conduct surveillance during a protest” in San Antonio. The request was made by “CBP Air,” an apparent reference to Custom and Border Patrol’s Air and Marine Operations division.
In some cities, such as Las Vegas and Richmond, the DEA was asked to provide agents for security around buildings, such as a courthouse, which was expected to attract large crowds.
In Albuquerque, agents were asked to infiltrate protests and make drug arrests under the auspices of Operation Relentless Pursuit—a planned “surge” of federal agents into seven U.S. cities supervised by the Trump Justice Department purportedly targeting “cartels and street gangs.”
The DEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CREW, whose freedom of information lawsuit against the federal government is ongoing, said the records underscored the “stark difference” between federal law enforcement’s response to 2020's anti-racism protests and this year’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The inadequate police response to the Capitol attack has been heavily criticized and is widely viewed as a major security and intelligence failure. The Capitol police, among other authorities, have long insisted that no one suspected the Trump rally would devolve into violence. Many reports have since cast doubt on that assertion.
Newly released documents obtained under open-records laws by the nonprofit Property of the People, for instance, show that federal law enforcement agencies were among those alerted in advance about the potential for violence.
A briefing, authored by a private intelligence firm and shared with federal law enforcement on Dec. 24—two weeks prior to the Capitol event—is revealed to have specifically warned about evidence of a growing plot to overthrow the U.S. government.
“A supposedly violent insurrection by [Trump’s] supporters has ‘always been the plan,” the briefing said.