Jacinta González: Oral Histories of Surveillance
Part of the reason that this work is so hard is… it feels like part of the work that we’re constantly doing is peeling back the curtain and trying to see what’s happening. Then, trying to understand what’s happening. Then, how do we explain it to people? How do we fight it? It’s a constant processing of new information that’s just really, really hard.
Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Jacinta González, Senior Campaign Organizer with Mijente, based in Phoenix, AZ. Previously, she worked at PODER in México, organizing the Río Sonora River Basin committees against water contamination by the mining industry. Jacinta was the lead organizer for the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice Congress of Day Laborers (2007-2014). In Louisiana, González helped establish a base of day laborers and undocumented families dedicated to building worker power, advancing racial justice, and organizing against deportations in post-Katrina New Orleans. The transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Mariella Saba: What is the work that you do? Help us understand where you, Jacinta, are coming from into this work.
Jacinta González: I’ve been organizing around—like, as a profession, as my job—for a while, since 2007, I want to say. I started off organizing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and was organizing day laborers and undocumented families. That was my entry point into a lot of this organizing and into all of these sectors. Like, it was surveillance, it was policing, it was immigration, it was labor, it was gender—There was a bunch of different things that were just kind of coming out for our folks. I got to this point in the work because we had been, you know, before Mijente even existed, we had the Not One More deportation campaign and through that campaign, we were fighting individual cases, we were fighting for local policies, we were fighting for federal stuff, but the way that immigration was acting was slowly changing all the time, right? When I first started organizing, I started organizing under Bush so I actually remember the first time I had a case of workers arrested in Texas and they had verbal detainers [requests made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of local law enforcement agencies to hold individuals in local jails or prisons if they are potentially “deportable”]. This is before they even had actual physical detainers and Secure Communities [also known as S-Comm, a federal information-sharing partnership between Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)] and all of these kinds of digital tools, so to kind of see how it went from that, to having S-Comm and all of these different programs under Obama [and] them starting to get people more and more.
When we first did New Orleans and won against the sheriff—After a three-year campaign, we won a policy where the Sheriff would not submit to detainer requests from ICE and wouldn’t even let ICE agents into the jail. It was a huge win. It was the first policy in the South. It was a really big deal, but ICE immediately started to go into communities. They started doing these raids and I remember—I always laugh at myself—I was like, “Here I am to defend some Bible study.” It was, like, who knew I was gonna be doing that? But we would literally have folks in their homes doing Bible study and ICE agents would come and take the Bibles out of their hands to take their fingerprints on the spot because they couldn’t get people inside of the jail. That just kind of made me realize—What are these mobile fingerprinting devices? What databases are they comparing it to? What’s going on?
I remember really clearly that moment where I was like, “What is this?” We started to do research and realize that these mobile biometric devices were originally created for the war in the Middle East, and that was the way that they were trying to get biometrics from people and start building file samples, right? So that’s just kind of made me realize like, “Oh, wait, there’s some connections here that are happening.” After the Trump win, there was a big question about as immigrant rights groups at the federal level what we were going to be pushing for because, you know, Trump was awful, so there weren’t a lot of options. That’s when we decided to do the research and come up with the “Who’s Behind ICE?” report and things kind of really took off from there in a lot of ways.
Mariella Saba: What year was that when you started to do the research?
Jacinta González: I want to say that we put out that report… I want to say it was either the Fall of 2017 or the Fall of 2018. I think it’s been three years now, so maybe it was 2018?
Mariella Saba: Tell us about your first encounters with surveillance in your community.
Jacinta González: The thing was… It’s such a hard question to answer because I feel the more you know about surveillance, the more you’re like, “Oh, no, that was surveillance. Oh, that was surveillance,” and you kind of backtrack and you realize that it was present much sooner than you ever kind of realized it was there.
When I was a day labor organizer in New Orleans, we used to have ICE kind of present on the corners—A lot. Sometimes they would pretend to be contractors and picked up some of our members and would arrest them that way. They would be watching from across the parking lot. You know, they would be having conversations. I remember we would have a hearing, for example, when we were doing this campaign against the Sheriff, and the the Field Office Director or the Assistant Field Office Director of ICE—who I was kind of in regular contact with because we were fighting deportation cases—he called me and was like, “That was a great hearing. Good job,” and I was like, [makes disgusted noise]. You know, right? This feeling of not only are they watching you, but they’re making a point to let you know that they’re watching you. It was super, super creepy. It was really terrifying. But I think, to me, it just kind of made me realize that ICE as an agency was a surveillance agency. It’s just a question of what techniques and technologies they’d have to expand their reach to be able to do more with that. That was definitely a time when I realized how much they were watching us and how much control they were trying to have over those sort of things.
I think in general… it’s funny. I didn’t get a cell phone myself until my last year of college and I didn’t join Facebook until my last year of college, too, and I was definitely a lagger. You know, like, everybody had one, everyone was on it, and I only got Facebook because I was like, “Oh shit, I’m gonna graduate. How am I gonna see all these people? What’s going to be that conversation?” So, I can’t remember, again, being very conscious of it but there was just something—I even remember when I started Facebook, I remember my mother saying something about like, “Aren’t the cops gonna know something about you?” or whatever and my Dad making a joke, like, “The FBI already knows everything they want to know.” So, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realized it, it feels like now when I look back on things, I’m like, “Oh, this was all kind of leading to this point and this analysis because it was unfolding as we went.”
Mariella Saba: I like that you just linked ICE’s work was as a surveillance agency. They were constantly watching.
Jacinta González: We would get infiltrators all the time. I mean, we had a huge base of organization but we would get folks that—I would find out through a variety of different ways, but ICE would tell people, “If you tell me what’s happening here, maybe I’ll stop your deportation,” or things like that. So, that conversation around infiltration, surveillance, how the state was trying to monitor us and control our behavior was always a big part of how we organized. I always love the way y’all talk about ‘”Power not paranoia.” But that was a huge thing because, you know, people would be like, “Well, what if we have infiltrators in the meetings?” and I was like, “What? They’re gonna go back to ICE and tell them we, like, listened to cumbias and played with a ball?” There actually was something around them knowing what we were doing that actually made us safer, because it was just a way in which we were operating and leading with our principles and our values. I think the conversation about how the state is watching you or how they’re trying to control you has always been part of the organizing.
Mariella Saba: Where were you when you first decided to organize against ICE police surveillance?
Jacinta González: My parents… my mom’s from New York, my dad’s from Mexico. My parents ran a community organization here, and so I always grew up doing community work and, you know, literally the way you are with [your kids]. That was me. Like, my mom was out somewhere breastfeeding me while she was doing something. So, you learn certain things by, like, call it osmosis. You just absorb it, you just start to operate in that. But I moved to the United States to go to college and Katrina had just happened. We did a road trip to New Orleans and I just remember being on the day laborer corners and it just felt like—It just clicks, you know? Like, there was just a way where I was like, “Oh, you know, I can talk to the cops and I can go to the courts and I can talk to the day laborers and I can think of the policy.” There was just something about it that made sense to me and it clicked to me.
You know, I think sometimes when you’re like ni de aqui ni de alla [not from here nor from there], there’s this thing about building bridges and helping form those connections, that just kind of… Literally, I got there and I was supposed to be in New Orleans for two weeks. And then it became three weeks. And then I went back to college, and they were like, “Can you come back once you graduate?” And then it was two years, and then it was seven years later. Those are still my closest comrades, you know? My best friends are some of the folks that grew up through that base.
So, again, it was kind of an extension, but once I was there—When we were starting to organize there was tremendous pressure to organize around labor issues, like wage theft, but there was just no way to organize around anything without addressing cops and ICE. The only reason people weren’t getting paid was because the cops were coming and they were afraid ICE was going to deport them. It was always about a power imbalance and around policing, so we really quickly transitioned over to that kind of work. I always tell people with organizing, we have to have goals and know where we’re going but we also have to allow ourselves to give into the experience and let it flow, because the work takes us into different places when you’re able to listen. We also came up with this whole model of—I would talk about it as we’re not offering services, but we’re offering accompaniment to people as they’re confronting the state and state violence. So it’s like, you have a traffic ticket? We’ll go to traffic court with you. You have an ICE check-in? We’ll go to ICE check-in with you. If your person is detained, like, we’ll figure out how to go and help with that whole process and through that you realize what the system is doing, you can figure out what the levers are, and you’re building bases to be able to combat it, right? So, there was also all of these things that just kind of snowballed, I guess, and one thing led to another that led us to this point.
Mariella Saba: Thank you for sharing that. I love that you said you’re listening. You’re shining in your path. I just want to appreciate you listening and you’re talking about that deep listening.
Jacinta González: It’s honestly—Sometimes it’s the hardest because sometimes you have an idea of where the fight is gonna be or how it’s gonna happen. But sometimes you just kind of have to—There’s instinctual things, right? Because you start to learn all this stuff and so then there’s just things that once you start to see them, they click and so a path kind of… they just solidify for you. Similarly, sometimes you’re doing stuff that’s like not going anywhere, so you gotta figure out how to fix it.
Mariella Saba: What was a typical—or is a typical—surveillance encounter that someone in your community has experienced? What is the typical day in the life of surveillance, at home or in the street or at work or at school? You have described some of this at the worksite.
Jacinta González: I think that the lines between encounters—It’s actually becoming harder and harder to figure out like what the encounter is because it’s omnipresent. We would talk a lot, especially with ICE [and] you can have ICE directly surveil you. Like, you can have a physical ICE agent outside of your door, watching what you’re doing, right? Or you can have an encounter with someone and then they take your fingerprints, right? But at this point given they’re using data brokers, they’re using private data sources, they’re using all of these things. So, as soon as you go into your house and actually have electricity, you’re interacting with surveillance, because that utility bill is probably going to go into some database that’s going to be sold to a data broker that’s going to end up in ICE’s hands. So, I think what a typical surveillance encounter looks like in a data economy, it’s everything we’re doing constantly. Like, what we’re doing right now is actually an encounter with surveillance because there is actually a record of what’s happening that can be used in any way, shape, or form. So, it’s harder to define, I think, but I think it’s important for us to always be realizing that, yes, it’s not only government sources of data, but private sources of data that are being used by policing agencies and that really changes the nature of what the interactions are.
Mariella Saba: I agree with that completely. It also makes me think about some other specifics that you have learned with the No Tech for ICE campaign and how Palantir came up in the work and maybe describing what you’ve learned there. What does that system and that data sharing look like?
Jacinta González: I think what was really helpful, what’s been helpful—I will just say that part of the reason that this work is so hard is… It’s always really hard because it feels like part of the work that we’re constantly doing is peeling back the curtain and trying to see what’s happening. Then, trying to understand what’s happening. Then, how do we explain it to people? How do we fight it? It’s a constant processing of new information that’s just really, really hard. I just want to acknowledge that because I do think all of the learning around the surveillance stuff [has] been a steep learning curve and it’s been hard. Also, other movement people will say, “What are you talking about? Why do you keep talking about tech? What does that got to do with anything?” Like, making the case to fellow organizers and activists has actually been really tricky. So, I do just want to preface what I say, because I do think that it can be a huge challenge.
When we started to look into the ICE machinery, it was helpful to know that there’s actually different providers, or different people are doing different things, right? Different companies. First, we were focused on Palantir because we knew that they were custom building the software for ICE to be able to process all of this information. So, their integrated case management system is really kind of the repository where a lot of this information lands and where they can make a lot of these connections. But when we started to go from there, we realized that there’s a bunch of other players too, right? So, like, the data brokers that are selling them the information—Because Palantir will say, “We’re not a data broker. We just analyze. We don’t get the information, we just process it and are able to compare it.” You’re like, “Okay, well, where do you get the information?” and that’s where we’re able to find companies like Thomson Reuters [which] a lot of lawyers will think are legal research tools but turns out that they’re some of the biggest data brokers that are getting everything from our utility data to our DMV data. So you know, that was a huge flag.
I think it was important to discover that Amazon was actually providing the cloud storage for all of this, right? So, Palantir and ICE had these contracts with Amazon to hold the information there. It really also makes you realize it’s not just that Amazon doesn’t pay taxes. It’s that their biggest profit is from our tax dollars. Since 2010, they’ve been advocating and lobbying in DC to get more cloud storage contracts with the government and that’s why Amazon has the most FedRAMP authorizations [the “Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program” security assessment protocol for U.S. federal agencies], because they want to be able to provide more of these services. Like, the billion dollar JEDI [Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure] contract that they didn’t get, but that’s really where they see the big bucks coming in. So, it’s really important to be able to call that out, particularly in a time when they were trying to have their headquarters in New York. This argument of them being anti-immigrant—in addition to all of the other fucked up shift that they did—was just really good at kind of like mobilizing people and bringing folks together.
Now we’ve also started to focus more and more on some of these tech companies that are doing biometrics, like Clearview, that is doing facial recognition technology. We’re starting to see voice imprints, you know, voice analysis in things that are happening. There’s this huge database, the HART [Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology] database that they’re trying to build up that would be transferring ident information to HART that would include all the surveillance they have on you, but then also all of your biometrics. The new regulations that they have for Department of Homeland Security on biometrics, they want to take iris scans and DNA from babies at the border—Like, children who have no way of actually authorizing them to be taking this information. The ability to be anonymous, the ability to have your own life—We’re starting to see that be basically impossible. If you really understand the fight around immigrant rights, you know that being able to be anonymous has been such an important part of how we were able to move. So, I think that’s one of the things that is also the scariest, and again, all of this information being connected to Palantir in terms of being able to create case files on people and be able to offer “easy interface” for ICE agents—because in addition to being evil, they’re a little bit lazy—so they kind of want everything put in front of them in this way. So that’s why we’ve chosen to go after some of these companies.
Palantir was also really interesting because we’re really focused on the surveillance part that’s connected to policing and racial justice because that’s been where our fight has been, but there’s also a huge thing to be talking about in terms of these tech companies ruling the economy. Palantir just went public [but] they still can’t turn a profit and yet they’re worth billions of dollars. There’s just something about the way that rich white men can make up ideas and excuses and marketing for things, and then just kind of continue to have the economy surrounded around that. It’s leading to global wealth disparities in a way that we haven’t contended with that is also causing forced migration and, like, it’s part of the same cycle. Palantir continues to be really concerning because given that they can’t turn a profit, they’re doing the same thing that Amazon is doing, which means government contracts. Just in the last couple of months, we’ve seen Palantir get contracts with the FDA, Health and Human Services, the IRS. Now, it’s becoming such a staple of the way that government works and it’s incredibly scary to know that they have access to all of this information or are understanding how to map out all of this information, and yet there’s no accountability to how they’re doing it and all of these contracts are happening behind closed doors. I mean, the HHS Protect platform deal that they got, it was written into the COVID bill. Like, there was no actual competition.
You start to realize that they’re lobbying on both sides of the aisle. Peter Thiel obviously has strong connections to Trump and advocated for him in the first election but, you know, [Palantir co-founder and CEO Alex] Karp loves to talk about how he’s a Democrat and loves to talk about how he donated to Biden and definitely is also thinking about how to build those relationships. I think it just poses an interesting challenge to us, because we realize that whether you’re Republican or Democrat, folks are pushing technology and pushing surveillance and companies like Palantir are positioned around that to continue to make a lot of money.
Mariella Saba: I’m just thinking about what the fight is gonna look like with everything that you’re sharing; How to build our defense, our protection, how to rise up for the babies they want to scan. The way surveillance is going, is just really—
Jacinta González: It’s just accelerating a lot of processes that have been happening for a long time. I think the reason it’s overwhelming to us, especially the more you know about it the more you start to realize, “I get the scale of it.” It’s not like I’m used to small fights, right? When it’s undocumented people against the Department of Homeland Security of America, like, that’s a pretty big fight. When you start to realize it’s against the surveillance machine, and surveillance capitalism and, at a global scale, how it’s expanding and how there isn’t one target and one policy demand that you can go at it, right? Like, it’s actually a huge thing that has to do with the economy, that has to do with power and policing, that has to deal with how we identify ourselves and how we interact with people in society. So, I do think that there’s a way in which it can be really overwhelming. I think we’re barely finding out about it and those motherfuckers are already thinking about a few steps down the line. It wasn’t a “scary” moment, but I do think that it gives you pause and makes you realize the generational fight that this is going to be.
Mariella Saba: I think that the movement and the work you’ve done in community is making a big difference [and] is chipping at the machine and unveiling areas that need to be unveiled that they were really trying to hide, because that’s how surveillance works. It’s so secretive and our strategy of unveiling is one of the pieces that I think brings it down to its knees and eventually dismantling it. Who have you organized? Who are you organizing against? Who do we need to organize?
Jacinta González: With the No Tech for ICE campaign, we’ve tried to be really intentional about organizing cross-sectorally or organizing in different places because I do think that there’s an analysis of, like, if we keep preaching to the choir [and] continue to be organizing very much on the margins of folks that are most directly impacted, yes, but not the only stakeholders in the conversation, then we’re doing ourselves a disservice in terms of how we’re thinking about building power to have transformational change and actually change the conversation and in the narrative around it. Of course, our loyalty [and] who we organized—folks that are directly targeted by ICE, folks who are undocumented, folks who are on the frontlines of communities that are fighting against criminalization—are the folks that we are trying to support and build with.
I think we started to realize, too, that as our analysis of tech and surveillance was changing, that there was also an interesting shift within tech workers themselves within some of these companies, trying to organize or trying to push back against CEOs of their companies for having contracts with ICE or trying to push back against drone programs or other things, particularly thinking about the organizing against Project Maven within Google—There were examples of tech workers coming together. So, we’ve been in conversations with tech workers who are trying to think through how to impact the industry, which is actually really tricky. I’ve organized undocumented day laborers, I’ve organized folks against the mining industry in Mexico that could be killed by the company and still the most intimidated people are these tech workers that are just not used to this level of conflict and organization, so [they] tend to want to take more passive, small steps that have been frustrating and limiting but that led us to a path of organizing students and future tech workers. We particularly partnered with SLAP, the Students for the Liberation of All People at Stanford, who were pushing back against companies that were recruiting on their campuses, companies like Palantir or Amazon that would try to recruit, or pushing back against their university for having contracts with these companies for recruitment purposes. We’ve been organizing with academics or folks from different conferences to drop sponsorships.
We’ve also been organizing with investors [which] has been this interesting thing of trying to figure out—You know, for a long time investing in tobacco used to be considered great until folks were like, “Oh, no, we should probably stop doing that,” or investing in arms used to be a great business deal and then folks are like, “Actually, you might want to reconsider that,” or fossil fuels. So, for us it’s actually really important that some of these same technologies that are leading to surveillance, that are leading to immigration enforcement, that are leading to policing—They should have the same connotation to investors, right? If you actually want to be thinking about this, you have to have a parameter of thinking about what are the human rights implications of some of these companies. It’s been interesting to kind of partner—We know that it’s a tactic, right? It’s a way of pushing a conversation; It’s not something where we think investors are going to come save us, but they do have a role and a lot of these companies will actually listen when their bottom line is affected, so how can we create organizing spaces and create different organizing cultures that will push investors to take different decisions and impact the purse strings. There’s been a lot of different places where that’s happened.
I also think it’s supporting people locally in their fight, whether that’s exposing different things within their police departments around surveillance, trying to figure out how to limit information sharing. There’s been different ways that people can try to use their local power to be able to impact the machine, too, and that’s another place where we’ve been trying to organize. It’s a lot. Sometimes it’s comms. Sometimes it’s an action. It’s kind of combining all of the different things in one pot.
Mariella Saba: I’m hearing a lot of creativity and surveillance is so expansive, our organizing has to hit so many different areas. I was doing a presentation on Our Data Bodies project with some Harvey Mudd College students and a lot of them followed up with me because of the line of work they’re [headed towards] and what they are being trained to do and what they’re being asked to do. After the presentation, they really had some questioning going on and they were trying to get advice on whether they should be part of and not and I just said, “You know, whatever is gonna help our liberation. What isn’t, everybody has a role in pushing back and questioning if they’re being guided towards harm,” so I’m glad to hear that there’s work for students, too, because so much education is going towards tech [and] tech work, so I feel like that’s a good place for intervention.
Jacinta González: Tech companies have been really successful at creating work environments, where people—There’s communication, but they’re so distant from the final product, that they can’t make the full connection because you’re just coding this part of it, or you’re just doing this element of it. So, the actual bird’s eye view where you can see how the end product is fitting into the general policing state, you can’t quite see it and it makes you feel so disempowered and so disconnected.
You know, a couple of years ago, [for] folks at Stanford, if you got an internship at Palantir that was considered really prestigious, really great. So it’s been cool to see in the last couple of years that now students are getting push back or feel that’s selling out or understand a little bit more of the connotations of what that could mean. Again, this is the cultural shift and the conversation shift that we need to do.
Mariella Saba: If you had a song to describe the vision that your communities are working towards, what would that song be?
Jacinta González: This question is definitely playing to my weaknesses because I can never remember the name says songs or artists at all. There’s different songs for different days, because there’s the song of the final freedom place where we want to be but there’s also pumping ourselves up for the battle ahead, right? I actually think that there’s something to be said for the amount of discipline and work and the fight that we have in front of us, too, that we can’t be distracted by in terms of thinking of the aspirational. I think there’s a real grounding in understanding that, like, yeah, we have a lot of challenges that we’re going to have to confront.
I think the final place where we’re trying to go to is one of real self-determination and freedom, you know? That folks can really have that ability to do that and that your identity—like, literally your identity, when we’re thinking about what makes you ‘you,’ what makes you unique, your unique contribution to your family, to your network—that that can’t then be you against you in a way where it’s being commodified and extracted and profited from, but also used against you to control your movement or where you’re supposed to be in society. To me, the thing with technology and data is that it’s automating all of those things, so it’s automating our racism, it’s automating our classism, it’s automating our gender discrimination. For us, there’s been such beautiful organizing work to blow those things up and really kind of question them and challenge them. I think now we just have to understand the way that technology can both be used for that, but then also can be reinforcing the same things that we’ve been trying to fight for, for centuries now.
Mariella Saba: Is there anything else that you’d like to share in the story or that you feel you’d like to share?
Jacinta González: The only thing I would add is I think part of the challenge that we have in front of us is, one, yeah, being able to organize more people into this to have a different conversation, but also to understand how these same technologies are replicating the carceral state and how we have to fight against them. So, thinking particularly that we’re in a moment right now where people are going to be fighting against the detention—That’s beautiful and wonderful and let’s shut down all of those cages and never see them again. But then if the replacement is ankle shackles, or the replacement is, “Let’s not even use ankle shackles. Let’s use the application where you can just call in and we can use your face and know where you are and then that’s enough control,” that’s not moving us forward, that’s just recreating the same issues. Obviously, we understand how people are tracked with them and all of those things, but I think that’s going to be part of the challenge for us; To say, “No, freedom is actual freedom and not replicating some of the same things that we’re seeing with new technology.”
The only other thing I’ll say that was actually really important to me in thinking how I was thinking about this was, you know, I was in New Orleans for seven years and then I moved to Mexico to Sonora, where I was doing work against corporations that were doing mining in the area and were contaminating the river and organizing folks. One of the things that was really striking to me is we didn’t have a cell phone—Like, we had one of those little, old school cell phones because we didn’t want to have the GPS tracker and understood what the company could do. So I also think that it’s important to be thinking about some of these things in international contexts, too. Sometimes it’s not just the state that’s using surveillance to track people. Sometimes it’s actually also corporate interests that are trying to track people to be able to suppress human rights, to fight back against folks that are organizing and building power. They’re using it now to track people’s movements so it’s not only like, “Once you get to my border.” It’s like, “I actually want to know from your country when you’re trying to leave, where you’re going, and what you’re doing.” I think it’s important to always have the international perspective.