The FBI used a made-up category to justify surveillance of Black activists. What else is it doing?
In October 2017, Foreign Policy broke the news of an FBI intelligence assessment on “Black Identity Extremists.” This assessment of a potential violent threat posed by so-called Black extremists was dated Aug. 4, just days before the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a “white supremacist rally … turned deadly.” [Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger / Foreign Policy]
Last week, the Center for Media Justice and the ACLU sued the FBI and Department of Justice. The lawsuit demands an adequate response to public records requests for documents, going back to 2014, that contain phrases such as “black nationalist,” “black identity extremist,” and “black separatist.” The requests also seek any records that reference “extremist” violence by Black people. [Janie Har / Associated Press]
In its reporting on the assessment, Foreign Policy concluded that the category of “black identity extremism” was completely made up. “FP found only five references to the term in a Google search; all were to law enforcement documents about domestic terrorism from the last two months.” [Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger / Foreign Policy]
The FBI report said: “It is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.” It identified the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 as the trigger for anger and violence, with “alleged” police abuse fueling more violence. In effect, the FBI viewed legitimate, warranted protest against police violence as a reason to surveil those protesting the violence.
The assessment attracted widespread condemnation. The NAACP released a statement that said: “In a time when white supremacists are marching down city streets with loaded weapons and tiki torches—organizing rallies of terror around the country—it comes as a great shock that the FBI would decide to target black identity groups protesting police brutality and their right to exist free of harm as a threat.” [Aaron Morrison / Mic]
The criticism also came from current and former law enforcement members. One former FBI agent testified to the Congressional Black Caucus that the assessment was “of such poor analytic quality that it raises serious questions about the FBI’s purpose in producing it.” Michael German, a Brennan Center for Justice fellow and former FBI agent, expressed concern about the assessment’s “potential to incite irrational police fear of black political activists.” He said: “Irrational fear, unfortunately, too often in the past translated into unnecessary police violence against unarmed and unthreatening black men and women.” [Testimony of Michael German / Brennan Center for Justice]
Black law enforcement members criticized the label. The president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives told Mic: “I didn’t see the value of law enforcement safety with that document.” He also noted the lack of diversity at the FBI, saying, “If [the agency] had some diversity in that leadership, when they discussed a document such as this, it probably would have had some pushback and they would have rethought it before they published it.” [Aaron Morrison / Mic]
Two months after Foreign Policy broke the news of the “black identity extremist” assessment and designation, Rakem Bolgun was arrested in Austin, Texas, in what was believed to be the first arrest of a person targeted under the designation. German of the Brennan Center told The Guardian that the case against Bolgun appeared to use a “disruption strategy”—the FBI bringing low-level charges to disrupt a suspect’s life because it struggled to bring terrorism charges. Bolgun was jailed for five months before the case against him was dismissed. He described the time as a “a nightmare for my entire family.” He missed five months of the first year of his daughter’s life; he lost his job, home, and vehicle; and his son was forced to move and switch schools. [Sam Levin / The Guardian]
The consequences of the FBI’s targeting of Black activists go far beyond Bolgun’s arrest. In his testimony before the Congressional Black Caucus, German said, “Since the BIE report came out, I have seen training materials produced by state and local law enforcement agencies adopting its language. The problem is much bigger than one report.”
Last year, Rashad Robinson of Color of Change described the chilling effect of unconstitutional surveillance on lawful and necessary activism. Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights obtained thousands of pages of heavily redacted records about the FBI’s targeting of Black activists. Among the documents they received were multiple references to a “Race Paper,” a document which was itself completely redacted. [Rashad Robinson / American Prospect]
The documents showed how federal law enforcement “often in coordination with local police departments across the country, continues to use its expanded authority, dating from the beginning of the “War on Terror,” to demonize and intimidate Black activists … through surveillance and harassment.” The chilling effect goes beyond those surveilled and discourages others from exercising their right to free speech. And none of this is new. As Robinson wrote:
“Americans have seen these moves before. It took a generation, but we eventually learned of government-led programs like COINTELPRO and their pervasive efforts to discredit and destroy Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other movements through the decades to the present day … Americans honor Dr. King’s legacy by continuing to fight back against the government’s terror tactics and pervasive racism. An entire generation of Black activists must not be intimidated and criminalized.” [Rashad Robinson / American Prospect]
Just this month, the NAACP linked the problems of domestic terrorism and unlawful surveillance of Black activists in a letter to Congress. “For the communities we serve, domestic terrorism has a long and brutal history,” the letter stated. In those same communities, there are concerns about “possible infringement on the rights of activists to protest issues like police misconduct.” The letter demanded “transparency and clarity” regarding any government activity “which links or defines protesting with terrorism”—as the FBI’s “black identity extremist” report appears to do. [Jamiles Lartey / The Guardian]