SOCIAL/JUSTICE — The FBI is using its ‘Black Identity Extremist’ report to crack down on activists

By Melanie Schmitz & Kay Wicker

Image: Clay Banks (Unsplash)

Last October, an internal FBI report flagging the threat of so-called “Black Identity Extremists” went public, after Foreign Policy magazine obtained a copy of the document and published it online.

The troubling report cited numerous instances of violent extremism, pinning them on the current wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and allowing law enforcement to pursue aggressive surveillance and investigations into individuals they believe may one day pose a threat.

Now, six months on, fallout from the report is beginning to be seen. On March 26, a trial reportedly got underway in a Texas court on what some say is the first “Black Identity Extremist” (BIE) case to be prosecuted in the United States under the new FBI guidelines. Although the FBI has refused to confirm whether the case against Black Dallas resident Christopher Daniels falls under the BIE label, to many activists, the connection is clear.

The leaked report, originally issued in August, claimed that FBI agents found that people they labeled as Black Identity Extremists were more likely to believe that African Americans are unfairly the victims of police brutality, and to engage in “premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.” The report pointed specifically to the August 2014 police shooting of Black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri as a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement. The document predicted worsening resentment in the African American community which could “feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement,” it stated.

The report added that “BIEs have historically justified and perpetrated violence against law enforcement, which they perceived as representative of the institutionalized oppression of African Americans.” But it said they had “not targeted law enforcement with premeditated violence” prior to the events in Ferguson. Moving forward, it concluded, instances of violence against law enforcement by so-called “Black extremists” are likely to escalate.

Backlash to the report was swift. “When we talk about enemies of the state and terrorists, with that comes an automatic stripping of those people’s rights to speak and protest,” staff attorney Mohammad Tajsar at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told the Guardian. “It marginalizes what are legitimate voices within the political debate that are calling for racial and economic justice.”

On Capitol Hill, Black lawmakers also pushed back. “It’s a characterization and it’s very inaccurate of the movement that is going on,” Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chairman Cedric Richmond told a group of reporters in November. “We don’t want anyone to view Black Lives Matter or other organizations that protest as an extremist group or a domestic terrorist group because we think that’s very dangerous.”

For his part, Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who in the past has been accused of racism —  told members of Congress that he was convinced of the merits of the report. “I’m aware that there are groups that have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity, and some have transformed themselves even into violent activists,” he declared.

The activists were aware of being monitored, but were unfazed. “We knew that we were likely being watched,” said Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson. “This is confirmation that the work of social justice continues to threaten those in power.”

On March 20, members of the CBC and a small group of experts gathered at a panel to address the BIE report and figure out next steps. Among them was Dr. Erroll G. Southers, a professor and director of the the University of Southern California’s Safe Communities Institute who also serves as director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the Sol Price School of Public Policy.

Southers, a former assistant chief of police and FBI special agent, argued against the report’s findings and said black activists who lash out against white police officers likely were more motivated by anti-government views than anti-white bias.

“While there are groups whose ideologies include principles of racially based hatred, black supremacy and/or separatist ideologies, the cases cited in the FBI assessment do not present evidence of racist ideology but instead present consistent evidence of anti-government sentiments,” Southers said.

“The attackers likely targeted police officers because they were representatives of the government and not due to their skin pigment — a conclusion reinforced by the fact that officers who were killed were of a variety of ethnicities,” he added.

Southers’ comments referred to a shortlist of supposed BIEs, including Micah Johnson, who in July 2016 shot 11 police officers at a protest in Dallas, Texas, killing five. Also included on the list were Zale Thompson, who in October 2014 attacked four white NYPD officers with a hatchet, citing a “recent spate of deaths at the hands of the police,” and Gavin Eugene Long, who shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in July 2016, in response to a wave of police violence against Black victims.

A growing list of African Americans who died at the hands of law enforcement meanwhile, includes Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man fatally shot by police in 2016. Louisiana authorities earlier this week said no charges will be filed against two Baton Rouge officers in Sterling’s death, despite evidence showing that one of the officers had pointed a gun at Sterling’s head and declared, “I’m going to kill you, b—.”

“Security agencies want to perceive a threat that is political, a threat that ideological,” historian David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told Foreign Policy in October. “But what we’re actually witnessing is men, almost entirely men, acting out in violent criminal ways and grasping at some chimera of political justification.”

More recently, the FBI has used the BIE report to track individuals like Daniels, a father and the co-founder of Guerilla Mainframe, a revolutionary grassroots political organization that supports the Second Amendment and promotes proper weapons training, community service, and equal treatment of all citizens.

On December 12, 2017, armed FBI agents stormed the one-bedroom Dallas, Texas apartment where Christopher Daniels and his son were sleeping and forced the two outside. Agents began to raid the apartment, seizing two firearms: a Taurus Protector Poly 38 Special and a Norinco AK-style assault rifle, according to Foreign Policy. They also confiscated a book, Negroes With Guns, by civil rights leader and armed resistance advocate Robert F. Williams.

The agents placed Daniels under arrest on a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm, citing a 2007 misdemeanor domestic assault conviction in Tennessee, which they said barred him from owning a gun.

Daniels’ friends and family, however, believed he was arrested for his political views and his previous comments about police. Daniels, known among the community as Rakem Balogun, had been under FBI surveillance since 2015, when a video of attendees at a Guerilla Mainframe/Huey P. Newton Gun Club rally began circulating in right-wing media outlets. In the footage, some of the protesters were seen chanting “oink oink, bang bang” and “the only good pig is a pig that’s dead.”

Although Daniels had not made any direct threats to law enforcement, the footage was apparently enough to prompt authorities to begin monitoring him. For the next two years, FBI agents kept a close eye on Daniels’ social media posts — specifically those with anti-police sentiment — and paid visits to his friends and acquaintances.

In one instance last November, a friend of Daniels’ who lived in Detroit said that a man in a black car showed up in his neighborhood, holding Daniels’ photo inquiring about Daniels’ whereabouts and place of employment.

Another friend, Johnathan Thrower in South Carolina, said that two FBI agents visited his mother’s home and left business cards, saying they wanted to “close out” an investigation.

The FBI did not say whether it considered Daniels a “BIE” when it arrested him in December, and also did not disclose a reason for surveilling him. In a January court filing, his public defenders argued that the FBI had no cause to charge him for illegal possession of a gun because the federal definition of “domestic assault” and the Tennessee definition were at odds with one another.

Around the same time, FBI agents also admitted there was no evidence that Daniels, who currently is being held at the Seagoville federal correctional facility in Texas, had threatened or expressed a desire to hurt any law enforcement officers himself, arguably rendering any future attempt at labeling him a BIE moot, since the label largely depends on an individual having committed or conspiring to commit “targeted, premeditated attacks against law enforcement officers.”

Despite his lawyers’ attempts to have the case against Daniels thrown out, the first phase of his trial got underway this week. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

“We’ve seen this before. This is history repeating itself,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) said during the March 20 Congressional Black Caucus panel, addressing the BIE report. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) echoed that sentiment. “We can’t view this report as an anomaly,” he said.

Indeed, the FBI’s practice of tracking so-called “Black extremists” goes all the way back to the early 1900s, when, in 1919, a document called the “Final Report on Negro Subversion” landed on the desk of 24-year-old Justice Department staffer J. Edgar Hoover. As Jelani Cobb explained in a column for The New Yorker this past December,

[The document] portrayed the civil-rights movement as potentially Bolshevik-inspired, and suggested that black discontent might easily turn into support for Communism. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan, which had been all but crushed by a series of anti-terrorism laws passed during Reconstruction, surged back to life after the release, in 1915, of the film ‘Birth of a Nation.’ Yet its transformation from a Southern phenomenon into a national one elicited little concern from law-enforcement officials, some of whom were members.”

The targeting of Black activists continued throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with the arrival of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence program.

Established in 1956 to “cause disruption and win defections” inside the Communist Party USA, COINTELPRO later include surveillance of Black civil rights leaders, specifically targeting founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), including Martin Luther King Jr.

“We’ve seen this before. This is history repeating itself.”

— Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA)

Under the leadership of Hoover, who had been named director of the FBI in 1935 (he previously headed its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation), and with the approval of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, FBI Agent William C. Sullivan began tracking King’s movements and wiretapping his phones. In 1963, following King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, Sullivan wrote a memo to Hoover and his bosses at the FBI, titled “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question,” in which he suggested the bureau label King a “dangerous” threat to the nation.

“Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech…he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses,” Sullivan wrote. “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”

COINTELPRO was also used to track other civil rights groups, like the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and its leader Dr. T.R.M. Howard, as well as sow discord between several prominent Black political groups, such as the Black Panthers and the cultural nationalist US Organization.

Before the FBI arrived at the term “Black Identity Extremists” they were busy monitoring what they called the “Black Separatist” movement. In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discovered an intelligence memo from the FBI Atlanta office assessing the “threat” of “Black separatist extremist groups” like Southern Poverty Law Center-identified hate group the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) and the similarly labeled Nation of Islam (Nol). The memo claimed that there was a “strong alliance” between the NBPP and the the Crips, a Southern California-based gang.

The memo, while highly redacted, appeared to indicate that the FBI was homing in on Black nationalists for their appearances at political rallies, rather than over any sort of extremist acts.

Via the ACLU

“[The memo] focuses undue attention on the First Amendment-protected activities of the groups it identifies as ‘Black Separatists,’ including appearances at political campaign events and protests against police violence, rather than any alleged acts of terrorism,” the ACLU wrote in May 2012. It added that the last acts of violence attributed to groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army “were more than two decades ago.”

In 2011, the ACLU learned that the FBI was also conducting racial, ethnic, and religious mapping, automatically ascribing specific kinds of criminal activity to individual minority groups and tracking their presence in certain regions of the country. Targeted communities included Arab-Americans in Michigan, African-Americans in Georgia, Chinese and Russian-Americans in California, and “broad swaths of Latino-American communities in multiple states.” It had also profiled Muslim communities in Michigan.

The criteria for those subjected to FBI mapping was based on little more than stereotypes about which ethnic and religious groups were most likely to commit certain types of crimes. For example, Muslim communities were tracked because the FBI claimed they had a “tendency” for violence. In more arbitrary instances the motivation was based on myths, such as the unsubstantiated belief that there was more organized crime in China, which prompted the FBI to monitor predominantly Chinese neighborhoods in San Francisco, the largest Chinese population outside of mainland China.

“Targeting entire communities for investigation based on erroneous stereotypes produces flawed intelligence,” the ACLU wrote in a subsequent report. “Empirical data show that terrorists and criminals do not fit neat racial, ethnic, national-origin or religious stereotypes, and using such flawed profiles is a recipe for failure.”

They added that preemptively labeling certain communities as “problem” areas further alienates them from law enforcement.

In response, the FBI claimed that it opposed “racial and or ethnic discrimination” and did not “investigate individuals, groups, or communities based on ethnicity or race” — despite clear indications to the contrary. It admitted only that “the FBI cannot simply wait for people to report potential threats,” as the rationale for the mapping program.

“Certain terrorist and criminal groups target particular ethnic and geographic communities for victimization and/or recruitment purposes,” it stated. “This reality must be taken into account when determining if there are threats to the United States.”

Despite efforts by former Attorney General Eric Holder to crack down on racial profiling in 2014, updated FBI guidelines from as recently as March 2016 reveal that agents are permitted to take into account a person’s gender, orientation, ethnicity, religious affiliation and other characteristics when considering whether to investigate a subject. Former FBI Director James Comey said that sort of profiling can be useful when cultivating sources.

Via the Intercept

“When there is a threat from outside the country, it makes sense to know who inside the country might be able to help law enforcement,” he said in 2014. “It is about knowing the neighborhood: What’s it like, where’s the industry, where are the businesses, are there particular groups of folks who live in a particular area?”

At the March 20 CBC panel, Rep. Bass expressed concern that the practice was ongoing. “The Congressional Black Caucus and I are planning next steps to continue examining this report, especially in light of testimony regarding FBI ethnic and racial mapping and how the term (BIE) itself affects law enforcement and Black activists,” she told ThinkProgress in an email.

The FBI, for its part, continues to maintain that the practice is sound, and followed with a firm understanding of the ground rules. “[The rules] are very clear that the FBI cannot predicate investigative activity solely on the exercise of First Amendment rights, including freedom of religion, or on race or ethnicity,” a spokesperson told The Intercept in January 2017.

Of course, Christopher Daniels was doing just that — exercising his First Amendment rights — when the FBI made the decision to storm his apartment and take him into custody. By its own definition, Daniels did not fall under the criteria for federal surveillance. No matter how much agents disliked his anti-law enforcement views, he simply didn’t fit the profile of a BIE, a “potential” threat, or a “terrorist.”

Daniels has received support from a number of Black activist groups who say the FBI overstepped its bounds in its decision to monitor his activity and arrest him on dubious charges.

“The FBI’s Intelligence Assessment creating the ‘Black Identity Extremist’ (BIE) classification is a destructive policy designed to neutralize developing Black political leadership and retaliate against Black activists who continue to organize against the very real use of force by law enforcement against communities of color,” a group of activists who call themselves the Rakem Balogun Defense Committee wrote in a letter to the House of Representatives on March 23.

“Our hope is to determine whether or not the FBI has overreached [and] our end objectives are to determine if the FBI conducted surveillance in violation of the Constitution, to retract the assessment, eliminate the BIE classification outright, and end surveillance of Black activists in the U.S.”

The group noted that while agents were busying themselves bringing a shaky case against an alleged Black revolutionary activist, a real threat posed by white nationalist groups remains undiminished.

“While primarily white individuals continue to murder innocent citizens in record numbers, our communities are the ones under surveillance and subject to politically motivated arrests and pretrial detention as potential terrorists,” they wrote.

“We’re being photographed, threatened with death…. [Critics] take something like this report and just go to town.”

— Nana Gyamfi

The assertion was mostly true: according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in 2017, there were zero police killings carried out by Black nationalists or left-wing extremists. By contrast, during that same period, white supremacists and anti-government extremists killed at least three law enforcement or corrections officers. Overall, out of the 34 extremist-related deaths in 2017, white supremacists were responsible for at least 18. Black nationalists were responsible for five.

On Capitol Hill members of the CBC have grown tired of trying to highlight that discrepancy.

“I serve on…the Committee for Homeland Security,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) stated during the March 20 Congressional Black Caucus panel. “And forever and ever and ever, we’ve been trying to get the [rest of] this committee to recognize that our threats come from white supremacists more than any other group.”

Meanwhile, the threat to Black activists and Black-led advocacy groups being targeted by the BIE report is already being felt at a personal level.

“We’re being photographed, threatened with death through the mail and social media posts. [Critics] take something like this report and just go to town,” human rights and criminal defense attorney Nana Gyamfi said during that same panel. “People are afraid. They’re afraid to even think about their information being hacked [or investigated]. They think if they speak it, the worst will come.”

So far, there’s little that can be done to repair the damage the BIE report has done.

“Once [a report like this] goes out to state and local law enforcement, it’s out there in the ether,” Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, told the CBC panel on March 20. German stated specifically that he had already seen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) record requests on Black Lives Matter returned with federal surveillance documents, indicating that the FBI was tracking BLM movements without their knowledge. “In law enforcement, we call that a clue,” he joked.

“I’ve already seen this [BIE] lexicon being reproduced at that level,” he continued, warning, “Once it starts spreading in law enforcement…that’s where you’re going to see the rational fears [activists have] turning into actual violence.”

The only recourse, Southers said during the same panel discussion, is for Congress to continue pressuring the FBI to withdraw its original report in the hope of stemming further negative fallout.

“When the Department of Homeland Security analysis on right-wing extremism came out [in 2009], constant pressure on then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano got that report removed and the unit behind it disbanded,” Southern said, referring to a memo that identified returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan as prime targets for recruitment by white supremacist organizations. “Certain members of Congress took great issue with that. Napolitano apologized to veterans and withdrew that report.”

Southers added that while many of the right-wing report’s predictions eventually started coming true, he explained that the best course of action in the case of the BIE report would still be to retract it and revert to previous Obama-era policies, which cracked down on profiling. If not, he said, many Black activists could find themselves the subjects of federal intervention where local-level law enforcement might otherwise have tried to intervene.

“This document has been distributed to 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, some of whom have intelligence capacity,” he said. “So when they get a document that speaks to the topic of domestic terrorism, and they’re given these guidelines on what to look for, this ups the ante in regards to people they come into contact with.”

Southers added, “This is quite different than receiving a ‘be on the lookout’ notice…. You can bet that [if a Black activist happens to fit the description of a BIE], it will now get elevated to a level of national security.”

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