Photographing Public Art Could Get You Labeled A Potential Terrorist By the U.S. Government

July 15, 2014 | Amy K. Nelson

When James Prigoff roamed the streets in the 70s and 80s photographing graffiti and murals, he likely didn’t have to worry about being labeled a possible terrorist, at least not officially. But some 30 years later, Prigoff, now 86 years old, finds himself in a U.S. government counterterrorism database and he — along with four other people — is suing the Department of Justice for violating his rights.

Last week in San Francisco, the ACLU filed a lawsuit that claimed the five men have been labeled potential terrorists by the U.S. government. All five have been observed — at least in the eyes of others who reported it to the government — of suspicious activity, which landed them in a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR), part of a national database that is designed to track threats. The threshold of proof is that someone views whatever you happen to be doing at that particular moment as suspicious and reports it, which later is vetted by local or federal law enforcment.

That’s what happened ten years ago when, Prigoff, the author of Spraycan Art, was shooting in Boston what he famously has shot for the past 69 years: public art. As he was capturing a rainbow-splashed gas tank, security guards told him to leave public property they claimed was private and reported his activity as suspicious.

That landed Prigoff in the post-9/11 database, a collaborative effort between the FBI, the DOJ, the Department of Homeland Security and local agencies. An FBI agent later visited Prigoff’s Sacramento home and the photographer’s name has remained on a list that is accessed by law enforcement throughout the country.

“I lived through the McCarthy era,” he said last week, “and I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy careers and lives.”

According to a report released last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the information in the government’s database doesn’t track whether any difference has been made in counterterrorism and whether any arrests or convictions have come as a result.

(Photo: Kevin Rutherford/Wikimedia)