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BLM Wants to Recontextualize: “If You See Something, Say Something”

Instead of calling on communities to surveil one another, BLM uses the slogan to encourage us to look out for our neighbors.

Credit: Vanessa Gutierrez | KNOCK.LA

To live in America is to be familiar with the phrase, “If you see something, say something.”

Anyone who has taken a bus or flown on a plane or attended a sporting event has heard this propaganda from Homeland Security. Government agencies adopted “See Something, Say Something” post-911 to encourage citizens to report potential threats of terrorism.

Of course, Homeland Security’s version of “terrorism” centers unattended packages — rather than, say, brutal beatings or extrajudicial murders — and encourages anti-Muslim profiling. The campaign, which did little to reduce or expose crime, encourages communities to surveil and report on one another to a violent law enforcement system.

But “See Something, Say Something” has found a new home in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. While the slogan began as a call to view our neighbors with suspicion, as potential threats, the Los Angeles chapter of BLM has transformed the phrase into a call for compassion and accountability. When BLM activists say “See Something, Say Something,” it becomes a demand that we look out for one another.

It redefines the terrorists in our communities not as our neighbors, not as the man next to you on the subway or the person you pass on the sidewalk. The real terrorists are the systems that criminalize and brutalize the people they’re meant to protect and serve.

When BLM tells protesters to say something when they see something, they’re asking us to be more cognizant of our role in speaking out against the systemic racism that has always been present in the United States. It’s our responsibility to look out for one another and protect each other when we witness acts of injustice — whether they be from violent police officers or corrupt prosecutors or spineless mayors.

Credit: Bailey Benningfield | KNOCK.LA

To fully understand how BLM repurposed “If you see something, say something,” it’s important to examine where the phrase originated.

After 9–11, advertising firm Korey Kay & Partners pitched the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security on an ad campaign to make Americans more aware of potential terrorist threats. The Federal government turned down the firm, which then approached the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) of New York. The MTA paid $3 million for the ad campaign and officially adopted “If You See Something, Say Something,” as its anti-terrorism, surveillance-state slogan.

“See Something, Say Something,” spread across the country, from Chicago to Oklahoma to Boston. Eventually, the Department of Homeland Security licensed the phrase in 2010, emphasizing “the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper… law enforcement authorities.”

States as well as corporations — including Walmart, the NHL, and the NFL — partnered with the DHS to promote the phrase. When the Super Bowl adopted the campaign, then-DHS secretary Janet Napolitano said, “Our partnership with the NFL on the ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ public awareness campaign… is a critical part of our efforts to ensure the safety of every employee, player and fan.”

But how many instances of U.S.-defined terrorism has “If You See Something, Say Something,” really thwarted? It’s hard to say — Homeland Security doesn’t publish data about successful tips. But an investigation by the New York Times from 2008 found that of the tens of thousands of calls New Yorkers made to the city’s police counter-terrorism hotline, seemingly none resulted in a fruitful investigation, much less arrest.

Wikimedia Commons/Steven Lek/CC BY-SA 4.0

“See Something, Say Something” caused needless hyper-surveillance among New Yorkers, who were urged to view their neighbors as threats. After MTA adopted the phrase, reports of unattended packages increased significantly. None of these reports led to the discovery of a bomb — most were items commuters accidentally left behind.

Similarly, when a caller reported someone taking pictures of the subway tracks, photographers became subjects of distrust. The MTA even justified the public’s suspicions — they claimed photographers could be terrorists “[casing] out… locations.” Once again, the tip wasn’t substantiated, and didn’t lead to any arrests.

Predictably, calls to the police counter-terrorism hotline were often racist. In 2007, 11 callers reported Muslim men allegedly “counting” the number of people on subway cars. Some expressed fear that the commuters were collecting data to maximize casualties in a terrorist attack. In fact, the men were counting prayers with a digital device, which was essentially a high-tech version of Islamic prayer beads, called Misbaha or Tasbih. The devices were easy to find at shops around the city.

As recently as January 2020, Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio used the phrase to invoke fear of Iran, after President Trump assassinated Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Although Iran didn’t directly threaten the U.S. after Trump’s ill-advised attack, de Blasio gave an alarmist speech to New Yorkers, warning of potential retaliation.

He ended his address with, “If you see something, say something,” encouraging hypervigilance against a nonexistent threat. De Blasio took the opportunity to increase police presence on subways, where Black and Hispanic men are explicitly targeted and arrested at much higher rates than the rest of New York’s population.

Given the divisive, pro-policing history of “See Something, Say Something,” I was surprised to hear BLM activists using the phrase at protests in Los Angeles this week and last.

Something in my small, animal brain had a visceral reaction of fear — when I’ve heard, “If you see something, say something,” on crowded buses or in airports, it serves as a reminder: you are not safe. Someone here could hurt you. Don’t trust the people around you.

But it wasn’t until BLM organizers re-contextualized the phrase to make it one of safety and community that I realized how awful it feels to hear, “See Something, Say Something” in everyday life. There was the knee jerk reaction of, “I need to watch out.”

But the follow up thought, “Wait, no. This is a call for us to protect and love one another,” placed into relief just how isolating and alarming that slogan truly is. I hope this new definition can make all of us more aware of the language the U.S. government uses to divide communities and create fear toward one another.

At their Los Angeles protests, BLM flips “See Something, Say Something” on its head — rather than surveilling our own communities and reporting our neighbors, we’re watching the racist government officials, exploitative capitalists, and the violent police state that harms and divides us.

We’re speaking up against the injustices that keep our communities impoverished and criminalized for the benefit of a wealthy few. Instead of being afraid of one another, we must have each other’s backs.

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