Emblazoned with the FBI’s gold-and-blue seal, the “situational information report” told local law enforcement to beware of a serious threat to social order. The agencies sworn to protect lives and keep communities safe should have presumably been able to count on intelligence more reliable than, say, an article in The Onion.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Antonio division warned of websites, “rumored to be managed by antifa,” that were recruiting professional protesters to “agitate and commit violent acts.” As of June 2, it cautioned, “unidentified individuals” were using crowdsondemand.com and protestjobs.com to “facilitate payments to violent agitators.”
“Targets and locations were also discussed on the websites,” the memo counseled.
“Crowdsondemand.com provides clients with protests, rallies, flash-mobs, paparazzi events and other inventive PR stunts,” the FBI further explained. “Services include celebrity events, protests, rallies and advocacy and corporate events and audiences.”
Canada-registered protestjobs.com, which offered “rioters” for $99 a head, seemed to have a more political bent, the FBI advisory observed. “They organize and securely pay all protesters with Bitcoin currency,” it elaborated. “The company offers a variety of protest packages that include, but are not limited to, providing spray paint artists, broken storefront windows, and car and dumpster fire upgrade options.”
The website cited glowing testimonials from its cast of career rioters. “I was a broke college student but now I protest professionally and bring in over $7,000 a week,” one boasted. “I was even the president’s ‘Black Guy’ at one event! How cool is that?” Another called the mercenary demonstrator gig “great work to supplement my trust fund income.”
While the FBI accurately quoted the services advertised by protestjobs.com, it failed to convey some important context. The obvious takeaway should have been easy to spot by any office intern: it was a parody.
A fake. A joke. Made-up. Hardly the kind of analysis that organizations with guns, tear gas, billy clubs, arrest powers, media flak, big salaries and fat pensions should rely on when safeguarding the public.
Spawned in 2017 to mock right-wing conspiracies about paid leftist activists, the site pokes fun at President Trump, offering a free National Parks Service tweet “comparing the size of your protest to the inauguration.” The Protest Jobs prank languished in obscurity before going viral in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, with far-right Facebook groups citing it as evidence of a concerted effort by anti-fascists to incite chaos at anti-brutality protests.
Fact-checkers at Snopes.com debunked Paid Protesters on May 31. The very next day, the website’s creator added a prominent disclaimer on its landing page. “REAL: 120,000-PLUS AMERICANS ARE DEAD.” And then, “FAKE: THIS WEBSITE.”
On June 3—the same day Reuters affirmed the Snopes verdict—the FBI alerted police across the nation about the Protest Jobs threat.
The misinformed alert circulated among thousands of briefings on the recent protests transmitted to local law enforcement through anti-terrorism agencies known as “fusion centers.” One of those data-sharing clearinghouses, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC, pronounced “nick-rick”) in San Francisco, sent daily updates to more than 14,000 Northern California cops.
Though it’s unclear whether South Bay law enforcement saw that particular rioters-for-hire memo, the steady diet of overblown threats received from federal authorities seemed to inform the San Jose Police Department’s violent response to protests that erupted in the city’s heart this past spring.
Records show that during the late-May-through-early-June protests in San Jose, federal agencies issued constant alerts with transparently dubious intel that suggested local police were under imminent threat from conniving aggressors. Dispatches from the local fusion hub apparently galvanized tensions that culminated in San Jose with clouds of tear gas and a close-range barrage of rubber bullets, flashbang grenades and pepper balls.
The FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies sent persistent warnings about perceived threats from anti-fascists, “black racially motivated violent extremists” and obscure social media users.
Sent multiple times a day, the bulletins signal-boosted flimsy open-source tips and unsubstantiated rumors from private online chats and anonymous social media posts. At 10am and 6pm daily for the duration of the protests, the NorCal fusion center sent lists of upcoming Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the Bay Area with no mention of the public safety reason for tracking the events.
Over a two-week period from late May through early June, more than half the bulk emails NCRIC sent to Bay Area police related to monitoring largely peaceful protests. Meanwhile, local police fed info back to NCRIC through “Suspicious Activity Reports.” The vast majority of those reports during that time frame involved planned protests, social media screenshots mentioning looting and rioting and two reports of death threats against Black Lives Matter activists.
NCRIC’s Terrorism Liaison Officer program, whose mission statement is to bring law enforcement up to speed on terrorist tactics and trends, handled much of the Black Lives Matter intel. A message appended to each list of upcoming anti-police brutality protests called the information therein “for situational awareness only.”
“Agencies may use this information for planning/staffing purposes or as they see fit,” it stated. “Some of these events involve criminal activities such as planned looting, vandalism and threats of violence.”
All but a few of the events listed in the “situational awareness” updates related to Black Lives Matter, including a “Justice for Breonna Taylor” lie-in and a defund-police rally, both set for June 5 at San Jose City Hall.
From May through June, Bay Area police asked NCRIC for help in 20 cases involving civil unrest. Most requested info about upcoming protests and helped keeping tabs on social media related to the demonstrations. Two officers asked the agency to track down the source of doxxing threats against white teenage girls who posted racial slurs online.
Suspicious by Nature
Silicon Valley law enforcement repeatedly framed activism as “suspicious” by flagging certain events for NCRIC intelligence.
When 20-year-old hip-hop artist Simon Vertugo tweeted about the “Black American Experience” get-together already on NCRIC’s watchlist, San Jose State University police filed a “suspicious activity report” through the fusion center’s website.
His entry marked the forum—described by organizers as a talk about how to prevent “future civil injustice, police brutality and reform our judicial system”—for review for potential “radicalization/extremism.”
While San Jose police conducted their own social media monitoring, counterparts in Palo Alto and Sunnyvale asked NCRIC for help gathering similar open-source intel.
A smaller share of protest-related suspicious activity called attention to anti-Black Lives Matter sentiment. On June 2, the California Highway Patrol reported a middle-aged white man who threatened to shoot and kill protesters. The man reportedly called all protesters “thugs” and said he was armed to the hilt and that he had “no problem blowing off” heads of activists who got near his house.
A day later, the West Valley-Mission Community College Police Department alerted NCRIC to a Snapchat video posted by someone “wearing a KKK-style hood” and throwing up “a white power hand gesture” along with a call to “‘burn crosses, not buildings.’”
Reams of the internal police memos emerged weeks after the protests in a trove of documents known as BlueLeaks, which was published online by self-described “transparency collective” calling itself Distributed Denial of Secrets. The documents—a staggering compendium of fear-inducing memos—offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Bay Area’s police intelligence agency. They also shed new light on SJPD’s priorities during the protests that gripped the city in recent months.
In the new report analyzing their protest response, San Jose police cite several previously undisclosed NCRIC briefings “to contextualize the mindset of the officers in the days leading up to and throughout the civil unrest.”
As protests began spreading from Minneapolis, where Officer Derek Chauvin fatally kneeled on Floyd’s neck, to other cities throughout the country, SJPD began closely monitoring the intelligence updates. The advisories warned of all kinds of crimes, including “looting and crowd violence erupting from initially peaceful protests,” San Jose police say in a just-published “after-action” report.
The fusion center reported how protests in other cities had been infiltrated and co-opted by extremists, including domestic terrorist groups, SJPD officials state in their hindsight analysis. The briefings also documented numerous attacks on officers, including some who were reportedly targets of premeditated assault and murder.
“Domestic terrorists could exploit ongoing unrest to engage in violence against law enforcement and others engaging in protected activities,” read one NCRIC bulletin received by San Jose police.
“The types of people or groups seeking to carry out violence in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has shifted in many cities,” read another advisory. “The initial violent looters and protesters were believed to be organic members of the local communities. However, domestic violent extremists are attempting to structure the protests to target specific symbols of state, local, and federal authority.”
Others described the assassination of a federal security official in Oakland, various plots to take over public buildings and an improvised bomb turning up in Minneapolis.
Many memos from NCRIC cast organized protest tactics as inherently threatening.
“DHS assesses that illicit actors seeking to incite violence at otherwise lawful protests probably are monitoring local law enforcement communications to identify vulnerabilities in their operational security posture,” another memo warned SJPD. “The emergence of publicly accessible applications allows users to search and listen to law enforcement channels streaming online, potentially providing illicit actors insight into operational planning and response efforts. Some technically advanced actors may seek to undermine law enforcement’s situational awareness and ability to coordinate operations by disrupting or interfering with law enforcement communications.”
Based on admittedly unconfirmed reports, NCRIC advised Bay Area police to look out for a large group that tried to rent a bunch of U-Haul vans to take from Napa to San Francisco. “This may be indicative of a tactic that could be employed to deliver weapons, IEDs, or threat actors into [local jurisdictions] … or to carry away loot,” SJPD was told.
Another DHS memo predicted that “organized groups” would try to incite violence by amplifying social media and news coverage of police aggression at protests.
During the first few days of protests, SJPD got word that “at least 100” police throughout the nation had sustained injuries while responding to protests, mostly from “projectiles and physical assaults along skirmish lines, while defending property, or in vehicles, but also by vehicular assaults, shootings and edged weapon attacks.” The bulletin, which cited open-source articles, advised caution for “the tactics, techniques and procedures employed by criminally minded actors to devolve peaceful protests into violence.”
Federal authorities told SJPD and its peers to beware of “violent opportunists” and “anarchist extremists” who would target police and critical infrastructure in increasingly sophisticated efforts. In the same bulletin, DHS admitted lacking “detailed reporting indicating the level of organization and planning by some violent opportunists” and acknowledged that “most of the violence to date has been loosely organized on a level seen with previous widespread outbreaks of violence at lawful protests.”
Though NCRIC reminded SJPD that most protests, rallies and marches are protected forms of expression and assembly, its briefings overwhelmingly focused on reports of them “rapidly being usurped by criminals and instigators” and “threat actors” trying to capitalize on people’s outrage and strained public resources.
Nothing from NCRIC suggested that San Jose’s May 29 protest—the first of several daily demonstrations that persisted through the ensuing two months—would become a large-scale event. However, “once violence erupted,” SJPD said in its assessment, “it was evident that San Jose was facing the challenges of rioting, looting and vandalism experienced throughout the nation.”
Looking back, it’s clear that SJPD took the NCRIC narratives to heart.
In the first press conference San Jose police held after the protests kicked off, Chief Eddie Garcia and Capt. Jason Dwyer—the commander who authorized the fusillade of rubber bullets and chemical agents—invoked the rhetoric of an occupying force.
“When my boots hit the ground at Seventh and Santa Clara, I stepped into a war zone,” Dwyer said. “That is not hyperbole, that is not in any way embellishment. … We had rocks, bottles, chunks of asphalt, chunks of wood, rebar—anything you could think of that you could throw at somebody to hurt them, we were getting thrown at.”
Never in his two decades in the field had he seen anything like it, he added.
In defending the department’s level of force and the city manager’s hastily-imposed curfew, Garcia accused rioters of causing “millions of dollars” in property damage and claimed his officers “identified agitators who brought in heavy black duffel bags” full of rocks and that several came armed with knives and walkie-talkies.
“You’ve got sporadic agitators in the crowd,” he told reporters five days after the protests began in downtown. “But we have intelligence showing some have hand-held radios. There are levels of sophistication and coordination.”
Three-and-a-half months later, SJPD has yet to produce evidence of that duffel bag full of rocks—a phenomenon reported in at least one other city in late May—and yet to explain how the radio communication had anything to do with unlawful behavior.
Those property damage estimates are much lower than police proclaimed at the outset. According to Nathan Ulsh of the San Jose Downtown Association, private businesses reported about $160,000 in vandalism and theft.
The city, for its part, estimated just $120,000 in damage—a far cry from the “millions” police used to justify their unprecedented crackdown. The biggest cost, according to San Jose’s damage estimates from May 29 to June 13, was the $1.3 million the city paid to deploy 816 cops, seven firefighters and four non-sworn employees.
While police hyped up the risk to property, they downplayed the physical harm.
At least for civilians.
In the first few days alone of San Jose’s George Floyd protests, countless civilians sustained injuries ranging from broken bones to serious maiming and massive bruises.
An activist who used to train SJPD recruits to recognize their underlying biases may never be able to have kids after a rubber bullet fired by a cop at close range ruptured his testicles. A protester trying to film an officer he thought to be too aggressive with his riot gun underwent a five-and-a-half-hour surgery to repair the knee that shattered under a flurry of baton strikes and dogpile of cops.
A young woman trying to catch a glimpse of the commotion in the crowd ahead got knocked to the ground when a foam baton round split open her temple. Another bystander had to get his right pinky stitched up after a rubber bullet shot at close range hyperextended it until the skin ripped.
Yet like the BlueLeaks memos, San Jose PD’s just-released protest analysis overwhelmingly fixates on officers’ injuries. Over the span of more than a week since the first George Floyd protest, 181 cops reported being struck by an object. Thirty-six reported injuries, the most serious of which involved a concussion from an officer punched after snatching a protester’s phone. Another required knee surgery. The rest sustained bruising or blunt-force trauma.
San Jose PD logged just 10 civilian injuries. The department said it couldn’t document the full scope of injuries because “most often the rioters fled back into the crowd and were not captured.” Nowhere in the report does SJPD entertain the idea of a method besides capture to come up with a more accurate tally.
SJPD kept a similarly meticulous tally of objects hurled their way, but no corresponding data on the exact number of “less-lethal” munitions they lobbed at protesters.
During the first couple days of unrest, San Jose police reported being struck by 222 objects. Among them: two cars, four fists, 65 water bottles “often frozen,” 60 rocks, 23 glass bottles, eight bricks, nine eggs, an apple, a hammer, three metal bars and a full carton of milk. Also included in that count is someone spitting and two instances of people throwing tear gas canisters back at the cops.
When asked to list all the less-lethal munitions officers fired at protesters, SJPD came up short because too many cops simply documented that they fired “multiple” rounds. “The unprecedented nature of this event does not justify the lack of accurate documentation and need to track the use of less-lethal responses,” SJPD acknowledged.
The report SJPD presented to the City Council this week tends to assign blame to “rioters” and disproportionately focuses on harm done to officers instead of the damage they wrought on the public they’re sworn to protect.
All told, the 243-page review still strikes a more conciliatory tone than the defensive posturing SJPD conveyed in press conferences and news reports during the first few weeks of protests. Though it’s short on recommendations beyond additional training, hiring more cops and a few policy changes, the department admits that a combination of anxieties over anti-cop backlash, inadequate training resulted in the chaos that ensued.
“Most of the department’s officers,” according to SJPD’s after-action review, “have never experienced civil unrest of this type.”
To Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, internal law enforcement communications from the days after George Floyd’s murder expose the militarization of American police as much as their riot gear and armored vehicles.
San Jose PD’s repeated reference to interactions with protesters as a “clash” belies the power imbalance and suggests officers are up against an equally matched opponent.
“On the one side, you have people going out with cellphones and water bottles while police are deploying so-called less-lethal munitions at their groins, their faces, their children,” she says in a phone call Monday. “To characterize that as a clash is such a misrepresentation of what happened.”
In the after-action analysis unveiled this past week, SJPD described being overwhelmed by the crowd and ill-equipped to de-escalate.
Ressle-Moyer’s first takeaway after reading it is that “this is clearly a mess,” she says. “More so than I’ve seen in other places. It’s a mess created by this police department.”
It also reflects the counterinsurgency ethos of domestic law enforcement conveyed in a 2012 Senate investigation of fusion centers, which were created in the wake of 9/11. The federal probe determined that the data-sharing hubs provided intel of “uneven quality—oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering civilians’ liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published sources, and more often than not unrelated to counterterrorism.”
Daniel Mayfield, a four-decade criminal defense attorney who’s representing one of the protesters whose bones were shattered at the San Jose protests, called the SJPD after-action a whitewash. He said its admission of relying on shaky NCRIC intel is “particularly insulting to anyone with an IQ above room temperature.”
“The report even repeats the same lie that [Vice President Mike] Pence used at the GOP convention that the federal officer in Oakland was killed as part of the protests in that city,” Mayfield remarked. “In fact we know the officer was killed—(along with a Santa Cruz deputy sheriff) by a right-wing, active duty military, terrorist.”
Especially astounding, he added, is the “unconfirmed report” cited in SJPD’s after-action review about the U-Haul vans—another NCRIC rumor presented as a serious threat.
“There is no difference between repeating this easily debunked rumor and the current QAnon conspiracy theory that the fires on Oregon were started by antifa,” Mayfield told San Jose Inside. “But it is not a surprise that Chief Garcia repeats this lie when one looks at his list of ... sources of ‘intelligence.’”
Meanwhile, SJPD seemed to shrug off NCRIC alerts about right-wing violence, such as a trend of vehicle-ramming that emerged in response to the George Floyd protests.
When a 19-year-old named Cole Rochlitz struck a protester with his SUV and ran over another’s legs on May 29 while careening down Third Street (an incident captured on video and viewed by thousands on YouTube), police cited him for reckless driving and released him. According to remarks from Capt. Dwyer at press events and a City Council meeting just this week, police seemed to accept Rochlitz’s claim that he only sped through a throng of pedestrians because he was scared.
“There was one documented one where the crowd went after an individual in a four-runner—that was the car that was left burning on Third and Santa Clara—we had to rescue that individual,” Dwyer said in response to Councilman Lan Diep asking whether SJPD observed any attacks on protesters.
Mayfield, who’s representing one of the protesters struck by Rochlitz, took umbrage with Dwyer using language suggesting Rochlitz’s innocence.
“In this case, a 19-year-old individual with a Facebook and Twitter history of right-wing, pro-police, anti-Black Lives Matter posts is seen on multiple video available on YouTube intentionally hitting two protestors and actually running over one protestors, severely breaking her leg,” Mayfield says. “Are the police incapable of doing a basic background check on the right-wing young man they cited and released?”
Police submitted the referred the case to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, which has yet to determine whether to prosecute Rochlitz. Based on repeated statements by San Jose police about the incident being defensive, however, it’s unlikely they recommended anything beyond a reckless driving charge.
BlueLeaks shows how fusion centers during the uprisings that swept the nation this year repeated the same patterns flagged in the 2012 Senate probe. Instead of relying on their own reconnaissance, federal agencies parroted secondhand reports and online chatter.
The disinformation left local cops more vigilant about Black Lives Matter than reactionary violence, and more panicked than prepared for an age of discontent.