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California Rights Groups Are Demanding Answers About a New, DHS-Backed Surveillance Program

Months after Los Angeles denied federal funding to surveil its communities, the California government is poised to pay non-profits to do the same.
The Department of Homeland Security logo.

Even if Governor-elect Gavin Newsom cannot be convinced to end the DHS-funded PVE program, there are many avenues for rights groups to advocate against it.

California rights groups are calling for greater transparency over a state-run program, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, that would pay non-profits to surveil the communities they serve.

The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services announced Monday it had selected five organizations across the state to receive $125,000 each to participate in the Preventing Violent Extremism Non-Profit Pilot Grant Program (PVE). The announcement comes months after the federal government's failed attempt to establish a similar surveillance program in Los Angeles. In August, following the protracted advocacy of a broad coalition of community organizations, the Los Angeles Mayor's Office rejected $500,000 in federal funding for the government's Countering Violent Extremism program. Los Angeles had been one of three cities across the nation targeted as pilots for the program.

Two advocacy groups, Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, issued a press release Wednesday demanding greater transparency from California officials over the PVE program. AAAJ and CAIR filed a joint Public Records Act request for more information on the program, according to the press release.

"The federal funds seem like they were distributed under a different name/ program than CVE," says Marwa Rifahie, a civil rights attorney with the Council on American Islamic Relations. "I think what they were doing was trying to find more creative ways of introducing CVE-like programs by just releasing federal funds under the guise of a different program. It does look like they are coming up with more savvy ways to fund CVE-like programs, especially ones that don't have to go through an approval process like the L.A. City Council."

Rifahie says she learned of the PVE program in September; although that official announcement of the program said nothing about federal funding, "we reviewed Cal OES Requests for Proposals [RFP] published online and anything PVE related and the RFP mentioned that the funding originated from the Department of Homeland Security/FEMA," she adds.

Among the PVE recipients announced Monday is Human Assistance and Development International, which will receive funding to train San Bernardino City Unified School District teachers to "understand and recognize extremist ideologies in their community [and] identify youth risk factors and behaviors that may be associated with violent extremism." The announcement does not specify what constitutes a problematic ideology, risk factor, or behavior, or what a school teacher would be instructed to do once those are identified.

"HADI's grant is particularly alarming, as it seeks to conduct teacher trainings, carrying the danger of further entrenching dangerous and counterproductive stereotypes of young Muslim, Black, Latinx, and other students of color in an underserved region of Southern California such as San Bernardino County," says Hammad Alam, an attorney at Advancing Justice–L.A.

Other recipients include the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Orange County Human Relations Council.

The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services did not respond to Pacific Standard's request for comment regarding the rights groups' concerns over the PVE program.

Regardless of what their record request yields, Alam and Rifahie are confident that they will forge ahead with activists to combat the Trump administration's community surveillance, in all of its incarnations.

"Advancing Justice–L.A. and members of a broad-based coalition here in Southern California remain committed to stopping CVE in all forms from taking hold in California," Alam says. "We believe protecting vulnerable communities is the most important part of our job, and we are confident that our advocacy efforts against CVE in all forms will make an impact. Regardless of what executive administrations we might see in both the federal and state governments, our message remains the same: we call on all government leaders and agencies to reject CVE."

While they wait to hear back, they will continue to build networks among Californian and American civil society. "This time we are organizing a statewide anti-PVE/CVE coalition and will utilize the advocacy strategies that we used in L.A.," Rifahie says.

Even if Governor-elect Gavin Newsom cannot be convinced to end the program from on high, there are many avenues to advocate against the PVE program, Rifahie says. "One statement from Cal OES to our office stated that the funds are based on a reimbursement structure to the organizations," she says.

"If we cannot inspire the organizations that received funds to return the funds or not move forward with PVE as a whole, then we will be focusing on ways to the communities, including individuals, school districts, schools, universities that they serve as to the problematic and potentially discriminatory nature of CVE-like programs."

Rifahie is hopeful that Newsom's administration can be convinced to halt the program, though. She reminds that Newsom was among the many concerned Americans who took to airports across the country in protest of the Trump administration's travel ban targeting Muslim-majority nations.

"He ran on a platform of California values that is anti-hate, anti-discrimination, and promotes values of inclusiveness for all Californians," she says.