The Mapping Project: “We see the struggle to free political prisoners as an important part of every struggle against oppression”

Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network salutes the important work of The Mapping Project, a newly announced initiative that makes clear the links between repressive institutions in the Boston area. The Mapping Project’s work presents a clear view of the connections between imperialism, Zionism and associated reactionary forces and how this global analysis is manifested practically on a local level. 

The Mapping Project, an anonymous and multi-generational collective of activists and organizers, participated in this interview with Samidoun specifically to highlight the connections between the work they are doing in Boston and prisons, policing, surveillance and repression, in Palestine and globally.

We encourage all supporters to visit the Mapping Project and use its interactive tools and resources:

                    An Interview with The Mapping Project Collective

Screenshot from Mapping Project (geographic view), showing the locations of police stations (blue dots), state prisons (orange dots), and police departments whose activities have been documented by the Mapping Project (purple circles).

1. The Mapping Project highlights a wide array of links, illustrating the systemic relationships of imperialism, Zionism and reaction as they exist on a local level directly in the Massachusetts area. How do you view the interrelationship between Zionism, imperialism and complicit forces has a practical effect on local politics, justice and injustice, in addition to their global relationship?

US Empire, Zionism, and other complicit forces receive support from Boston’s elite institutions of knowledge production (universities), its weapons developers, and its pharma, tech, and biotech corporations, all of which maintain expansive presences in our communities. These entities occupy considerable local real estate, while attracting workers into the Boston area who are, on average, wealthier and whiter than the pre-existing residents of the neighborhoods they move into, driving up housing, rental, and living costs, and making it increasingly difficult for long-time residents to afford to remain in the communities they have called home for years if not decades.

This high concentration of powerful institutions—elite universities, tech companies, weapons producers—carries with it a need for increased policing and surveillance to protect the interests of these institutions and the wealthy professional classes connected to them. There is a connection between police surveillance and repression against anti-Imperialist and anti-Zionist dissidents, and the hyper-policing of working class, Black, Brown and Indigenous residents who experience direct material harm as these entities transform their community spaces into professional laboratories and think tanks of war and empire.

The sheer number of Massachusetts state, local, federal, university, and other policing agencies on our map, as well as the number of “Law Enforcement Councils” and other police coordination bodies linking them with one another, is notable. Both the Northeast Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) and the Greater Boston Police Council (GBPC) have explicitly linked the origin of LECs and their “mutual aid agreements” to the policing of anti-war protests in the 60s and 70s. We see this local concentration of repressive forces directed against Eastern Massachusetts working class, Black and Brown community members as inseparable from the local concentration of universities, weapons developers, and multinationals which support US Empire, Zionism, and other complicit forces.

Screenshot from Mapping Project (graph view), showing the links between police forces/policing agencies. Organizations such as NEMLEC, SEMLEC, and ICE stand out as “hubs” that interconnect several policing organizations.

2. One manifestation of these relationships is seen in the use of “counter-terrorism” policies for policing. In addition to the mutual exchange of repressive techniques between settler colonial powers, counter-terrorism policies are also used to criminalize and repress local activism. How do you see the use of the “terror” framework illustrated through your research?

Nationally, the “war on terror” has increasingly replaced and expanded the “war on drugs” and the earlier fight against “communist subversion” as a catch-all for programs of mass surveillance and political repression (more on the “war on drugs” below). Under cover of “counterterrorism,” the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has played a central role in integrating local, state, and federal police forces, militarizing these forces for the suppression of popular uprisings and preparing them for urban warfare, all while coordinating intelligence gathering and sharing of information on political groups and oppressed communities inside the United States. This centralization and coordination of surveillance and information sharing took place in parallel with other developments of the US police state, including the passage of the Patriot Act (which further legalized secret surveillance and the use of secret evidence in political trials), the public normalization of torture, the expansion of the “extraordinary rendition” program, indefinite detention without trial, and mass imprisonment of groups because of their nationality or religion. The “terror” framework has done essential ideological work to justify these and other escalations in state violence and repression.

In 2004, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) established five “homeland security planning regions” to receive funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Metropolitan Area Planning Council manages DHS grants for Homeland Security Advisory Councils set up for four of these regions: Northeast Homeland Security Region Advisory Council (NERAC); Central Region Homeland Security Council (CRHSAC); Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council (WRHSAC); and Southeast Regional Homeland Security Advisory Council (SRAC). Like other “Homeland Security” initiatives, under cover of “counterterrorism,” these regional councils work to further integrate local, state, and federal police forces and to militarize these forces for the suppression of popular uprisings and for urban warfare. Meeting minutes of the regional councils show consistent spending on equipment and training for “Law Enforcement Councils,” private professional organizations that link local police forces to share equipment, train together in military style exercises, and form SWAT teams.

Alongside the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has capitalized upon the “terror” framework to expand its collaborations with local, state, federal, and university police forces, helping train these forces to more effectively criminalize and repress activists and community members. In the midst of the climate of heightened racism and open repression which followed September 11th, 2001, the ADL stepped up its facilitation of trainings for US police department leadership in methods of so-called “counterterrorism,” coordinating expenses-paid trips to the “National Counterterrorism Seminar in Israel” for leadership from a wide array of US police forces, while providing “counterterrorism” trainings to an even wider array of police forces here in the US. Whereas the ADL nationally leveraged the “terror” framework following the attacks September 11th, 2001, its local affiliate, the ADL of New England, similarly leveraged this framework following the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. Following the 2013 bombings, the ADL of New England stepped up its collaborations with Massachusetts police, ICE, FBI, and other agencies around so-called “counterterrorism,” coordinating expenses-paid training trips to Israel for leadership from a wide array of Massachusetts police departments, and regularly hosting trainings for Massachusetts police on methods of “counterterrorism” here in Massachusetts. As one example, in 2019 the ADL of New England coordinated a “Law Enforcement Seminar” in Foxboro MA which featured presentations from an “Israeli counterterrorism expert” on “The Ten Commandments of Counterterrorism,” and “Actionable Strategies for Securing Events and Open Spaces in Communities.” The ADL of New England has also produced multiple dossiers on “extremism,” which the ADL sent out to a mailing list of New England police department leaders it maintains. And, the ADL is listed as an “official partner” of the Boston and Massachusetts so-called “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) programs, which, as noted by Muslim Justice League, “falsely legitimize discrimination against Muslims and dissidents.”

Local elite universities, such as the Harvard Kennedy School, Boston University and Northeastern also play a role in providing both ideological and technical support for this use of “counterterrorism” as a broad framework for political repression. HKS has a long history of promoting leading reactionary scholars like Samuel Huntington, with his orientalist “clash of civilizations” framework for justifying the imperialist “war on terror,” and also hosts working seminars for FBI and Homeland Security officials on the nuts and bolts of leading the domestic institutions of repression, such as their “Program on Crisis Leadership.” Boston University hosts yearly meetings of the Police Executive Research Forum, which brings together police executives from across the country to develop and coordinate counterinsurgency policy, and also brings US police to Israel—where they have been involved in setting up “security coordination” between Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Jordanian police and intelligence officials. (This latter initiative—the Middle East Policing Project—is reminiscent of the worst policies of the “Public Safety Programs” funded by USAID during the Cold War, where US police set up programs of torture and assassination in places like South Vietnam, Brazil, and Greece). Northeastern hosts a Homeland Security “Designated Center of Excellence,” which works to produce surveillance technology, the latest iteration of which, called SENTRY, promises to turn public spaces into a panopticon that will “integrate elements such as crowd-scanning sensors mounted atop light poles, video feeds, cell phone traffic, aerial drone footage, and social media posts.”

3.  Surveillance is another mechanism of repression that is used by the state and by private parties. This includes both the public display of surveillance—via Canary Mission et al as a form of terror—and concealed intelligence gathering. The use of surveillance technologies like the notorious “Pegasus” software by NSO group, an Israeli corporation, has been used against Palestinian activists and strugglers for justice internationally. How do the relationships between tech firms, universities, police agencies and other forces intensify surveillance power or expand surveillance networks by the state and aligned forces?

Microsoft and IBM along with other multinational companies, occupy expensive physical space in the Boston Area (driving displacement), attracted to Boston by their desire to establish partnerships with the city’s elite universities (Harvard and MIT in particular). Both Microsoft and IBM have acquired numerous Israeli tech start-ups, many of which focused on surveillance and repression, and some of which originated from within the Israeli military. Microsoft and IBM have done this while celebrating and even using their resources to promote and expand upon the Israeli-state backed effort to inculcate more Israeli tech start-ups. IBM, for its part, runs an initiative called “IBM Alpha Zone,” through which IBM works to cultivate Israeli startup companies. IBM claims that as of December 23, 2021, IBM Alpha Zone had trained or supported 103 Israeli startups. One of the Israeli startups trained by IBM, DigitalOwl, collaborates with Israel’s secret police, the Shabak, through a Tel-Aviv University program called Xcelerator that aims to foster collaborations between the Shabak and computing startup companies.

IBM has brought these and other technologies of surveillance and repression to bear upon working class, Black and Brown communities in Massachusetts. In collaboration with the software company i2, IBM developed COPLINK, an expansive police database which has been called “google for police officers.” According to IBM, COPLINK enables “law enforcement agencies of any size to access one of the world’s largest networks of law enforcement data comprising more than a billion shareable documents from the Cloud.” In practice, US police forces use COPLINK to organize and share data across different wings of the carceral state, organizing and integrating information on the broad scale necessary to carry out their regimes of criminalization and punishment of Black, Brown, Muslim, Indigenous, and/or working class peoples. In addition to facilitating information sharing between dozens of MA police agencies, Massachusetts-based agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regularly search entries submitted into COPLINK by MA police departments for information to aid ICE’s regime of surveillance, detentions, and deportations of Black and Brown migrants.

IBM also operates the central database of Israel’s Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, providing data organization capacities to the Israeli state which are similar to those COPLINK provides to US police forces, and which the Israeli state uses for comparable purposes. The Israeli Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority’s central database includes Israel’s Biometric Population Registry, which the Israeli government uses to document the ethnic and religious identities as well as the geographical residencies of the different peoples who live under its control, enabling the Israeli state to organize population information on the broad scale necessary to systematically subject Palestinians to a tiered system of limited rights and freedoms relative to Jewish Israelis. In addition to curtailing the rights and freedoms of Palestinians, Israel’s Biometric Population Registry facilities the Israeli state’s intentional fragmentation of the Palestinian people from one another—between ’48 Palestinians (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship), Palestinians with “residency” in East Jerusalem, Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian refugees living outside of historic Palestine. Israel’s fragmentation of the Palestinian people into these separate groups with tiered rights and freedoms relative to one another is part of an intentional Israeli state effort to prevent and disrupt unity across the Palestinian people, unity which has the proven potential to upend Israel’s system of colonization, land theft, and apartheid rule. *

4.  On the other hand, the Mapping Project uses publicly available research to “counter-surveil” or hold accountable government institutions, large NGOs and universities, and repressive structures, by making their connections visible. What do you think is the potential, necessity and possibility of expanding this kind of popular counter-surveillance to expose ties and connections that those in power would prefer to remain covert?

Our research for this project has convinced us of the utter necessity of expanding popular counter-surveillance in order to understand the actions of and connections between government institutions, large NGOs and universities, and repressive structures. Prior to this project, each member of our collective possessed knowledge about certain aspects of how power and oppression operated locally. By collectivizing this knowledge through our work together, and expanding it through targeted research and conversations with allies from other struggles, we have been able to build an analysis which sees and grapples with the whole of how power is operating locally, rather than just seeing its parts in isolation.

We now see the networks that sustain our opponents as also containing a potential vulnerability: there are so many areas of overlap and shared struggle among the groups who experience the harmful impact of their activities. We see promising paths of action growing out of that—actions that aim to dismantle the entities and the networks that harm our communities in Boston, Palestinians, and colonized peoples worldwide.

In addition to popular “counter-surveillance,” this project has been a practice of political education–for us as well as for organizers from other struggles with whom we have engaged. We are confident that this project will aid other organizers in the Boston area to better understand and to more effectively resist the forces of devastation and repression they are working to combat, and to unify their efforts across struggles.

5. Political imprisonment is one major tool used by the occupation regime to control or suppress Palestinian resistance and leadership. Within the US, criminalization and imprisonment are both mechanisms of repressing resistance and political organizing and retaining settler colonial domination and the capitalist system. How is imprisonment in the U.S. (and specifically in Massachusetts) implicated in these maps, and how do you relate this to the struggle and situation of Palestinian prisoners in Zionist and imperialist jails?

We recognize imprisonment as an essentially colonial institution, both here and in Palestine. This is true across the board, whether we are speaking directly of “political prisoners” or whether we are speaking of policies of mass incarceration that have been constructed and repackaged over the years as instruments of domination against colonized people.

Sundiata Acoli’s “Updated History of the New Afrikan Prison Struggle” powerfully illuminates the political and colonial nature of US prisons throughout their history as instruments for repressing the freedom struggle of the New Afrikan nation, tracing the development of the prison from the “pens that held captives for ships bound west into slavery,” to the early Quaker penitentiaries, to the convict lease system during the Civil War period, to the massive increase in imprisonment immediately following the Civil War and the even more explosive growth in the post-Civil Rights era. Slavery, criminalization through “vagrancy laws,” the “drug war” and the use of so-called “anti-gang” policies to criminalize whole neighborhoods and communities, are all part of this system of colonial domination.

As we’ve discussed above on surveillance, both in the US and in Palestine, police and the military have constructed biometric databases aimed at tracking entire populations of oppressed and colonized groups. In Boston it’s called the “gang database.” We discuss these developments and parallels in our entries on the Boston Police Department and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, and observe also that Boston’s policing of gangs has its precursor in the system set up in Los Angeles in the 1980s–which became a model for the country–and was itself influenced by the biometric tracking system set up by US police forces (including Frank Walton, former Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Police) in Vietnam, and which used the US and Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s as a consistent point of reference. (The ordinance that expanded the use of the first gang-database in LA into a statewide system of surveillance was called the “Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act,” and was accompanied at the time by extensive media discussion comparing Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles to Beirut, making explicit the connection between the politics of policing “gangs” and the politics of policing “terrorism.”)

We also recognize the importance of specific work around people who have been imprisoned for their political beliefs and activities–the work of groups like the Jericho Movement. We see this as necessary movement self-defense, and an essential feature of anti-colonial liberation struggles here as everywhere, even while we recognize the colonial nature of imprisonment itself and support the complete abolition of prisons. In this connection, it’s worth pointing out that in Palestine, political imprisonment–the imprisonment of people for their political beliefs and activities–is also a system of mass incarceration. In Palestine, hundreds of thousands of people have been held in captivity for anti-colonial resistance.

In 2021, the Spirit of Mandela Coalition organized an international tribunal that found the United States guilty on five charges of colonial crimes, including the crime of genocide. The first three charges relate to policing and imprisonment: “1) Racist police killings of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people; 2) Hyper incarceration of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.; 3) Political incarceration of Civil Rights/National Liberation era revolutionaries and activists, as well as present day activists.” Although the movement has recently celebrated the release of Sundiata Acoli (mentioned above), Jalil Muntaqim, and Russell Maroon Shoatz (who passed shortly after his release), each spent close to half a century in prison, and other revolutionary leaders continue to be locked up–Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal, Mutulu Shakur, Jamil Al-Amin, Kamau Sadiki, Oso Blanco, and many others. The cumulative length of their sentences is staggering, amounting to many centuries of imprisonment between them. Just as the US has the largest number of prisoners in the world, it also takes the record for the longest held political prisoners in the world. This should be a source of critical reflection for the movement outside the walls, since we have a responsibility to free them.

We see the struggle to free political prisoners as an important part of every struggle against oppression. Our map includes some local history of targeted political repression against Palestinian organizers and activists in Boston–a set of experiences that touched our own groups more closely.

Most of the entries in our database that trace this system of colonial repression and domination are concentrated on policing. We plan to include more entries about prisons, jails, and detention centers as we develop the map further. Right now, it’s possible to see the grid of prisons across the state as one layer on the map, and also to see how that interacts with other layers–such as police and evictions.

6. The Mapping Project provides a powerful illustration of the practical relationships between imperialism and Zionism and their allies and how they are implicated in our local areas. The boycott movement has been one significant way that people internationally have been mobilizing to show solidarity with the Palestinian people and their resistance. How does this kind of research point the way to a deeper analysis and more impactful action for groups in the boycott movement? What are some lessons that we can learn and implement in other areas?

The Mapping Project arose through conversations amongst members of our collective over recent years about the limitations of many mainstream Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) efforts which focus upon one corporation or institution at a time. In particular, we sought to provide alternative conceptions of BDS tactics that moved beyond demands upon one complicit entity to act “more ethically” by ending one or a few contracts or partnerships with Israel, without accounting for the breadth of that entity’s support for zionism and other interlocking systems of oppression. As one recent example, we felt disappointed by appeals from some activists for Amazon to end its participation in Project Nimbus, appeals which lacked framing or analysis to account for  the breadth of Amazon’s support for racism and repression in Palestine, the US, and around the world, and which did not address Amazon’s expansive role in the broader system of racial capitalism. We felt that such approaches to BDS missed the full picture of how corporations, institutions, and other entities sustaining zionism and other interlocking oppressions operate: not in isolation from one another, but through webs of connections they establish with one another which enable them to carry out their oppressive agendas.

As we built this project, we were constantly asking ourselves: What actions can BDS activists take to meaningfully narrow, if not cut off, supply lines of material and ideological sustenance flowing from the Boston area to the zionist state? How can we impose a real material cost on the zionist project, from where we are located, in order to make it more possible for Palestinians on the ground to liberate themselves? Moreover, we have asked ourselves: How we can move beyond abstract appeals to one another for recognition of the interconnections between our different struggles, by providing a material analysis of the concrete ways in which each of our struggles is more effective when we fight for and with one another? These are hard questions which we will continue to grapple with as we build this project out over time. We believe projects like the mapping project make it possible to address such questions, and we hope similar projects will emerge in other cities.

We see that boycotts and divestment, while useful, often emphasize the building of campaigns meant to pressure fundamentally repressive institutions into taking action. We are interested in other possibilities for intervening more directly in the flow of weapons, money, technology and expertise. The “Block the Boat” protests in Oakland gave a good example of effective organizing against the flow of capital; past movements against imperialism and war have focused on physically blockading weapons shipments. We hope that more organizers will begin to explore similar possibilities here.