WASHINGTON ― Federal agents on Friday morning released boxes of cloth masks that Black Lives Matter organizers mailed to cities across the county to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 during nationwide demonstrations against police brutality.
Four boxes of the masks were shipped to Washington, St. Louis, New York City and Minneapolis on Wednesday afternoon, and were supposed to arrive in each city by Thursday. But until Friday morning, the boxes of 500 masks apiece that read “stop killing Black people” and “defund police” never left Oakland, California, because they were seized by the government. Federal agents with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service were involved with the seizure.
“These packages were originally set aside for further investigation because there were indications that they contained non-mailable matter,” the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said in a statement to HuffPost on Friday afternoon. “Once Postal Inspectors confirmed the contents of the packages were in fact mailable, they were immediately placed back in the mail stream to be delivered at their intended destinations without further delay.”
The USPIS, responding to a follow-up question about what kind of non-mailable material they suspected the packages contained, said that “specific investigative methods used by Inspectors are sensitive and must remain confidential, but they are effective in helping to locate non-mailable matter of all kinds.”
Mark Jamison, a retired postmaster, told HuffPost that he suspects that an outside law enforcement organization was involved in the investigation, which the U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service denied. The U.S. Postal Service logs mail for law enforcement, and Jamison believes at least one of the organizers who was set to receive a package of masks was of interest to law enforcement.
A spokeswoman for the Movement for Black Lives, which paid for the masks, called the USPIS statement “insufficient and a cause for concern.”
“Cloth masks are mailable items. And they admit clearly that they received faulty intelligence about what was in the packages,” said Chelsea Fuller. “So the question remains: which agency moved to use the Postal Service as a domestic surveillance tool?”
An organizer involved in producing the masks, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they received a call from a USPIS employee on Friday morning, hours after HuffPost’s initial story on the seizure ran. What was strange about the call, the person said, is that they weren’t the person who mailed the boxes or the point of contact.
The organizer who received the call said the USPIS official said there would be a refund for the cost of express shipping since the boxes wouldn’t be arriving on time, which would have allowed them to be used by protesters on Thursday night and this evening. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that mass protests against police brutality have the potential to turn into seeding events.
“I feel very nervous for the recipients,” the Black Lives Matter organizer said. “All of the recipients are committed activists that have been doing this work for long periods of time, and so I’m actually nervous that their potential information might be compromised.”
Rene Quinonez of Movement Ink, who produced the masks, mailed the packages and is a regular at his local post office in Oakland, said he had the “weirdest interaction” with employees he knows when he returned to the post office on Friday.
“I normally walk in and they immediately recognize me and say hi,” Quinonez said. This time was different. “The interaction was just really cold. It was strange. It’s not normal, it’s not the level of service that I’m used to getting. Something happened.”
Fuller said it was “frightening that the Postal Service was used in a manner to advance the surveillance and disruption of social movements that Trump wants to eliminate.”
“Taking life-saving masks out of the hands of people in the middle of a pandemic sinks to a new low and shows us that they will stop at nothing to put our lives in danger,” she said.
“My guess is someone is surveilling these people from Black Lives Matter,” said Jamison, the former postmaster. “There’s nothing in this package which would set off any detectors or done anything ― there’s no contraband in them.”
“This isn’t by happenstance. That means that the Justice Department is probably surveilling some of these people under some program,” Jamison said. “I’m old enough to remember [Richard] Nixon doing this kind of stuff.”
The Justice Department has a recent history of treating masks as evidence of rioting. Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, with the assistance of the city’s Metropolitan Police Department, attempted to prosecute hundreds of demonstrators who were trapped in a police kettle and arrested during unrest surrounding President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. The Trump administration slapped the demonstrators ― many of whom the government admitted they didn’t allege were involved in any actual violence or property destruction ― with felony charges that had the potential to send them to prison for decades. Prosecutors were ultimately unsuccessful at two trials, and dropped the charges against all the defendants after securing just a single guilty plea.
In an opening statement at the first trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff described a “sea of black masks” that caused chaos across the city, even as she admitted to jurors that the government did not allege that any of the six defendants on trial committed any violence or destruction. “You don’t personally have to be the one who breaks the window to be guilty of rioting,” she said, after describing their facial coverings.
Kerkhoff later snapped on blue gloves as she dramatically pulled a mask out of a bag that was seized from a 26-year-old who had been arrested when she was working as a medic. The defendant, later acquitted, was carrying a first aid kit, and had red tape on her back in the shape of a cross.
“Have you ever heard of the term ‘balaclava’?” Kerkhoff asked the D.C. officer on the witness stand. He hadn’t, referring to it as a ski mask.
Attorney General William Barr, under Trump’s direction, has overseen an aggressive response to protests and rioting in D.C. and across the country. He’s placed 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the county in charge of efforts to “identify criminal organizers and instigators” and warned that “violent radical elements” and “outside radicals and agitators” were hijacking protests. As of Thursday, the federal government had charged more than 50 individuals with federal crimes in connection with rioting.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the seizure of the masks. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California was looking into the matter.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.