Stalking: The Threat of Surveillance for Activists in the Public Eye by Araya Baker (2024)

Stalking: The Threat of Surveillance for Activists in the Public Eye

Unregulated surveillance states can intrude upon civil liberties with impunity.

Araya Baker, M.Phil.Ed.

Psychology Today, Updated January 8, 2024

Key points

Historically, surveillance has been a ruthless counterforce to social change.
Collective surveillance is known as gang-stalking or organized stalking.
Smart technology can democratize information, while endangering activists.

Note: The author used credible and authoritative sources of investigative journalism to verify each statement, as indicated by hyperlinks. Additionally, freedom of press extends to freelance journalists as much as staff journalists. And, for all U.S. citizens, critiquing elected or appointed officials — as well as government policies and practices — is a constitutionally-protected form of civic engagement.

“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.” —James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s FBI file contained 1,884 documents.

From the 1940s until 1970, the FBI vehemently stalked, harassed, and censored Baldwin, who, in 1960, was allegedly “connected with several Communist Party front groups,” and, in 1968, “had joined a growing movement of prominent individuals supporting the struggle of Oakland’s Black Panther Party.” According to the newest Baldwin biography, All Those Strangers, undercover agents followed Baldwin to Britain, France, and Italy; tapped his phones; and posed as publishers and car salesmen to entrap him.
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In a 1976 essay, Baldwin even wrote that agents once escorted him out of a diner, backed him against a wall, and belittled him with expletives.

The FBI upped the ante in 1964, when Playbill published an interview—following the Broadway run of “Blues for Mister Charlie”—during which Baldwin stated that he planned on eventually writing a book on the FBI. Spooked by a potential expose, the FBI began officially investigating Baldwin, and, until 1970, amassed a file half as thick as Malcolm X’s.

None of this, however, was unusual.

“Discredit, Disrupt, Destroy”: From Bullycide Plots to Protest Psychosis

During his 48-year tenure as FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover—whom Baldwin once referred to as “history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur”—surveilled nearly 250 artists, political activists, and thought leaders. Hoover’s Cold War-era crusade to eradicate communism in the United States included a roster of “threats” such as Ernest Hemingway, Fannie Lou Hamer, Fred Hampton, Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, Marcus Garvey, Nina Simone, Ray Bradbury, Richard Wright, and Susan Sontag, among others.

According to these leaders’ publicly accessible FBI files, Hoover’s FBI unit charged them with spreading communism, anti-militarism, and socialism. Yet despite many futile investigations, the FBI shockingly never reconsidered aborting its relentless invasions of privacy and ruthless tactics.

“No holds were barred. This is a rough, tough business,” testified William C. Sullivan, Hoover’s assistant FBI director, before the U.S. Senate. For instance, an anonymous letter from the FBI once warned Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that suicide would be a better choice than surviving an expose of private conversations about his extramarital affairs.

Dr. King’s autopsy, conducted at 39, revealed that stress had aged his heart so much that it looked like a 60-year-old’s. There is little doubt the FBI contributed.

In 1967, a year before King’s assassination, Hoover launched a covert surveillance operation on “subversive” Black leaders and civil rights groups. The objective, according to the FBI memo, was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” their decolonizing, liberatory agenda.
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By 1968, the year of King’s assassination, Hoover publicly declared that the Black Panther Party—whose free breakfast program the federal government copied and whose organizing aided passage of Section 504—“without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

Jonathan Metzl, author of Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease, argues that during this same period, many psychiatrists endorsed and legitimized “protest psychosis,” a fabricated diagnosis intended to stall the Civil Rights and Black Power movements with mass institutionalization of activists.

Gang-Stalking: An Old Strategy With Modern Tactics

Gang-stalking, or organized stalking, consists of a coordinated effort to outmaneuver and sabotage an outspoken victim—usually a whistleblower who is perceived as a threat to a reputable regime, institution, or leader—before their attempt to break silence and expose the truth gains traction.

Targets are usually whistleblowers who publicly name conspirators who are actively and aggressively sweeping corruption and oppression under the rug.

It is not uncommon for wealthy, well-connected leaders and institutions to engage in gang-stalking by blackmailing, bribing, or otherwise incentivizing law enforcement to side against whistleblowers.

With the stroke of a pen, a judge can issue a court order mandating police surveillance and thereby substantiating alarmist and retaliatory reports that frame whistleblowers as a threat to public safety—a classic DARVO tactic.

The ease with which court-mandated gang-stalking can be set in motion has several implications for activist-whistleblowers in the public eye.

For one thing, the ubiquity of smart technology—smartphones, smart homes, smart cities—makes tracking activists easier than ever. And in an era when social media is a primary tool for staying current with citizen journalism, grassroots organizing, and political resistance, the trend toward digital accessibility and transparency can compromise safety for many activists.

While Twitter, for example, is ideal for democratizing access to news and political education, the social expectation that activists and journalists will regularly update their public platforms puts them at risk for cyberstalking.

Relatedly, law enforcement’s social media surveillance practices are largely unregulated, according to The Policing Project. No specific law prohibits police from creating fake profiles solely to monitor activists and movements, even if doing so violates a platform’s community norms or privacy policy.

In Memphis, for example, a police officer broke Facebook’s privacy policy and made a faux profile to ensnare local Black Lives Matter activists and identify protests planned without permits. Several activists who accepted his friend requests were heavily surveilled and barred from public buildings.

The Memphis officer’s stereotyping of local activists mimics a leaked FBI memo from 2017, in which counter-terrorism agents referred to the founders of Black Lives Matter as “Black Identity Extremists.”

These instances of state surveillance do nothing to improve public trust in law enforcement—especially not when many communities still await answers from local law enforcement agencies about local activists who either went missing or were mysteriously murdered after exposing police brutality.

By 2016, for example, six Missouri activists who rose to prominence amidst the Ferguson protests of 2014–2015 had been abducted or murdered—two burned alive in their cars. This year already, police shot a queer protester from Atlanta 57 times. And, internationally, several environmental justice leaders known for challenging the extraction industry have turned up dead.

Further complicating matters, journalist Jon Fasman notes in We See It All: Liberty and Justice in an Age of Perpetual Surveillance that many local law enforcement agencies are coupling social media surveillance with other powerfully invasive surveillance technologies that are also unregulated.

Believing Survivors Matters

As an activist-whistleblower who has taken on a number of powerful institutions, l can attest that gang-stalking is not just a conspiracy or a byproduct of paranoia. It is a legitimate form of state terrorism that, for a prolonged period of time, can become a form of structural trauma.

And for minoritized activists—particularly those connected to descendants of the Black Power, Chicano, and American Indian movements, all of which were undermined by surveillance—gang-stalking is also a historical trauma. Today, there are nearly 15,0000 informants working for the FBI, and the FBI improperly surveilled Americans 278,000 times in 2021. Between 2011 and 2014, informants committed 22,800 crimes, and between 2012 and 2018, the FBI paid “confidential human resources” $294 million.

We cannot truthfully claim to challenge authoritarianism, or wholeheartedly espouse a commitment to justice, while also dismissing targets of gang-stalking. History shows us the price one suffers for awakening critical consciousness, debunking essentialist ideologies, upending hierarchies and supremacist thinking, and unveiling historical revisionism.

Often, the price is being hunted, held hostage, trapped, cornered, and silenced.

We should know by now that a society is only as free as its cycle-breakers feel safe speaking truth to authority, without a single ounce of fear.


Gold HK. Why did the FBI spy on James Baldwin? The Intercept. August 15, 2015.

Mendoza G. Disturbing details found in Dr. Martin Luter King Jr.’s autopsy report. Grunge. December 16, 2021.

Karlstrom E. Organized gang stalking: what you need to know (Re: overt harassment). September 27, 2016.