Imagine Your Entire Neighborhood Under Surveillance

In the Chicago suburbs, there's a little town that feels a lot like any other. It's a small, industrial town with schools and quiet streets. But in the '90s, the Arab-American families living in Bridgeview started to notice odd things—vans parked in the streets, a sense of distrust. In recent years, revelations that Muslim communities in New York have been the target of mass surveillance makes Bridgeview residents' stories seem less like vague myths and more like an accurate vision of reality. 

Filmmakers Assia Boundaoui, who grew up in the neighborhood, and Alex Bushe are investigating the widespread suspicions that the neighborhood was under surveillance for years by the FBI. Their film, The Feeling of Being Watched, interviews numerous families in the neighborhood and discusses the impact that years of fearful whispering had on the community. The team is currently running a Kickstarter to raise the money needed to finish the film. I talked with Assia and Alex about the powerful story they're exploring. 


SARAH MIRK: When did you feel like your family was first being watched?

ASSIA BOUNDAOUI: Well, I mean it's hard to parse out the earliest memory, but I think one of them was when I was about 14 or 15. I woke up in the middle of the night once, it was like 3:00 am, and right outside my bedroom window on the street, there was a utility worker installing something on the streetlight. I was so frightened, and I remember waking up my mother and telling her, “Oh my god, there's somebody outside the window that I see in the street, and they're installing something on the lamp.” And I was really freaked out, and I remember her being not that surprised about it and really calm and just saying, “Well you know, yeah, that's just probably the FBI again, and it's okay. Don't worry about it, and just go back to sleep.”

I also remember 1999, we had a visit from the FBI from two FBI agents who came into the house and questioned my mom about relationships with our neighbors and people, and it was like an hour-long interview that they had in our kitchen. So there are all these kind of early memories of this thing that existed that we never specifically talked about, but just this general suspicion. You know, I went to school down the street, right across from the mosque. We walked like three blocks to school, and everybody at our school, all the kids used to joke about it too. It was just kind of a pervasive sense among even us kids at the time that there was something going on, that there were people watching us, that there was a suspicion that we were all living under.

What did that feel like? What was it like to share stories with other kids of potential FBI surveillance?

ASSIA: Well, you know, we were kids, and so it was kind of a joke, actually. It was a funny thing. Like any time we would see a stranger in the neighborhood that we didn't recognize, we would all be like, “Oh, that's probably an FBI agent.” Sometimes we would go up to the cars that were parked on the street for hours on end, facing the mosque or around the neighborhood, and try to talk to these guys that are in the car. We'd be like, “Why are you here? What are you doing in our neighborhood?” and try to get to the bottom of something. But we never really got any answers. But it was kind of a joke. [Nowdays] even the names of the wifi networks are kinda like a testament to this inside joke. There's so many of them that read things like FBISurveillanceVan wifi network or TheNSAsWatchingUs wifi network. It's like so pervasive it's kind of banal, it's mundane. It's a bit of a joke. But where does it come from? Why did it happen? Why everyone feels this way? Why is it such a normal thing, is the question.

What sort of stories about surveillance did you remember hearing growing up, and what stories do you still hear today?

ASSIA: You hear a lot of stories about the cars parked, strangers in cars. This was something that was more in the '90s. People talk about suspicion that their phones are bugged because they hear clicking on the phone, they hear feedback on the phone, or they see utility workers on the phone lines at strange hours. Then also actual stories of informants in the neighborhood too. This was something that's a part of our story and that happened. There were actually informants working for the FBI that lived in the community and that were part of the neighborhood, and all of the suspicion around who was an informant or who might be an informant was also something I remember always talking about, people were always suspicious about. So there's really just a sense of distrust, of not knowing who you can trust.

So growing up, you heard all these stories about surveillance and people making jokes about FBI vans, and then parents saying, “No, for real. It actually is an FBI van.” When did you go from hearing stories and urban legends to trying to investigate whether the FBI actually was here, watching you?

ASSIA: I think a lot of things changed after 9/11, actually. It became much more overt, the surveillance and also the relationship with law enforcement in general. So after 9/11, it went from just suspecting we were under surveillance or under investigation to kind of knowing that there were certain people in our neighborhood that were definitely under investigation. Some people started to get arrested. There were trials. So after 9/11, it just became very apparent that, in fact, there was something that happened here that resulted in all these trials. It never became clear that there was a link necessarily between all of the surveillance in the '90s and the arrests that happened after 9/11 in the neighborhood, but there certainly was. In making the film, we found a lot of these links.

Assia Boundaoui interviewing a neighborhood resident in her kitchen. 

Can you tell me about getting started on the process of investigating the surveillance with film?

ALEX BUSHE:  Well, originally when we started shooting, the idea was that we were working with this one family, the El-Harisis, who lived in Justice, Illinois, which is right next store to Bridgeview, where the mosque is located. In the '90s, one day, they were just at home, and they had a knock on their door, and it was some men who were saying that they were utility workers from the city and that a new law had just been passed that basically they needed to come and install more smoke detectors in the home. Now there were required to be more smoke detectors in each home. And so they came in, and they installed a smoke detector in every single room of the house and two in each hallway. And then they left, and that was it. And then, the family—it's 11 girls and one boy—were very suspicious of this right off the bat. The girls had never heard anything about some new law being passed. So after a few weeks, they decided to call the City and ask them what's the story with this new law about smoke detectors. And so they called, and they were told, “Well, there's nothing. No laws have changed. You need to have one on each floor of your house.” And so that, to them, confirmed that something was going on there, and they decided to just start first of all covering them with plastic bags. Eventually, they just started knocking them down with baseball bats and things just to get them out of the house. Cuz they didn't know exactly what was going on, if it was audio listening equipment or maybe if there was some kind of a video camera as well. So it just made them really concerned. And this all was going on at a time when there was starting to be concern about their father being under investigation. And soon after this, they realized that this man their father had hired to be his sales manager was actually working as an informant for the FBI and had been planted there. So the smoke detectors were one of the first incidents for them that really made it clear that they were under investigation and that they were under surveillance.

Did they ever find out, or did you ever find out, who those utility workers were or what the smoke detectors were, if they were actually smoke detectors or if they were something else?

ASSIA: No, you know we haven't. And with a lot of these kinds of stories, it's really hard to check again. There's a story in my neighborhood about one specific light pole that everybody thinks has a camera on there. There's a strange device on top, and we have photographs of this strange device on top of the light poles. And we've looked into it, but there's only so much you can do with these older stories in terms of checking what was actually going on. Whether or not there's a camera, whether or not there's a listening device or something, I don't think we can ever totally confirm. But the idea that people thought that they were there, that many people in this neighborhood think that they were there was really the question. Where is that coming from? We started digging through old court records, through old news stories and microfilm and found that, in fact, in 1993, the FBI did start and investigation. It was the largest domestic counter-terrorism investigation ever conducted before 9/11, and it was in many ways focused on Bridgeview. So we found out that all these stories are actually coming from somewhere that there was, in fact, an investigation. It was code-named Operation Vulgar Betrayal. It's another thing that we found out.

Operation Vulgar Betrayal?

ASSIA: Operation Vulgar Betrayal. It's a wild name. It still makes me laugh every time I say it out loud.

It sounds both poetic and offensive in some way.

ASSIA: Yeah, because it's an investigation. So the name implies that you've already come to some sort of conclusions about what's going on or who these people are, you know? So it's a curious name for an investigation, and obviously really piqued our curiosity, like what a name, you know? So that's what we started looking into. And when we talk about the investigation, that's really what it is:  looking into what was Operation Vulgar Betrayal, why it started, and who it was focused on. So we're just smack-dab in the middle of investigating this and filming this process. [We want to] film directly with the FBI agents and the federal prosecutors that worked on Vulgar Betrayal, not just some other FBI heads. This film is, in many ways, about POV. It's about seeing. It's about surveillance, but it's about ways of seeing. Depending on where you're standing, you see things differently.

Can you speak more to that? Can you tell me what's the difference between the way that the community sees itself or the way you saw your neighbors growing up there versus what you've heard from the FBI agents that you've spoken to about their perspective on what the neighborhood looked like to them and felt like to them?

ASSIA: Well, we haven't interviewed FBI agents about that yet. We've spoken off the record to some people, just to get them on board with the project, and we're happy with how that's going so far. We've gotten some people to agree to be on camera. But the idea of the film is, yeah, to juxtapose those different ways of seeing. Just the media, the way our community was portrayed in the media oftentimes was really scary, with a lens of suspicion and a lens of fear. And the way I saw it was, you know, I mean it was normal for us. We were just an immigrant community. I mean, our parents were immigrants; they were new in this country. They were kind of afraid of a lot of things, certainly afraid of the government, and all of this kind of presence in our neighborhood made them very nervous. But yeah, I saw it as a regular American experience. We walked to school, we played basketball with our friends on the block, all of our neighbors were our friends' parents. I mean, it was a very ordinary upbringing. At least that's the way I saw it.

So speaking from a personal standpoint, how do you feel like the feeling of surveillance and being watched for years changed you?

ASSIA: I think that honestly, I'm quite paranoid [laughs], and everybody that grew up in my neighborhood will say that about themselves. You know, I worked on a film, for example—this is where I met Alex—we worked on an HBO documentary film called Manhunt, which was about Osama bin Laden and the CIA hunt for bin Laden. And that entire time I worked on the film, I never said the name Osama bin Laden on the phone once, not when I was talking to any of the producers or people involved in the film or people that we wanted to interview. I always managed to find a creative way not to say his name on his phone. This was just conditioning from the way I grew up. I didn't even think twice about it, but you just don't say certain things on the phone. this is something that was just kind of hammered, ingrained into me from the way I grew up, and there are a lot of things like that. You start to censor yourself. In terms of effect, I wouldn't say, I mean in terms of negative effect, I think that's a communal thing. Personally, I wouldn't say that this had such a negative impact that it crippled me or had such a terrible effect on me. But it made me want to ask questions and look into what happened. 

Check out the film's Kickstarter here.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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