The FBI has a century long history of targeting individuals and groups based on their race, ethnicity, or country of origin, or based on their ideology, or both. A recently leaked FBI Intelligence Assessment distributed over the summer is evidence that the FBI remains mired in racism and suspicious of dissent.
The assessment, titled Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers seeks to link six unrelated individual violent attacks perpetrated over 3 years in order to conjure up a heretofore unrecognized movement or ideology it calls “Black Identity Extremist.” The report asserts that there is a “resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement.” The report is erroneous and biased, conflates political activism with violence, marginalizes and chills dissenting voices, and could be used by law enforcement to justify crackdowns against peaceful protesters.
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees should immediately hold hearings to thoroughly investigate the genesis of the report, how it has been distributed, and whether FBI and/or law enforcement trainings or training materials have been promulgated based on the report. Additionally, the FBI should disclose how many assessments and predicated investigations into alleged “BIEs” have been opened since this designation began to be used, and the outcome of those investigations. The FBI should also publicly withdraw the report and any training materials based on the report should be discontinued.
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The FBI should provide an unredacted and complete definition of black identity extremists to the Judiciary Committees and the public, as the definition in the report is meaningless: “The FBI defines black identity extremists as individuals who seek, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence, in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society and some do so in furtherance of establishing a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.”
The term “Black Identity Extremist” is apparently already being used by local law enforcement, and is the subject of at least two trainings. The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services Introduction to Domestic Extremism and Hate Groups (see website or screenshot) training and the St. Paul (MN) Police Professional Development Institute Domestic Terrorism and Extremist Groups (see website or screenshot) training advertise the inclusion of black identity extremists among the domestic terrorist groups law enforcement should be aware of. The descriptions of the full day trainings are identical, and echo the premise of the FBI’s flawed report, “…due to several recent highly publicized law enforcement deaths and large scale protest violence, a portion of the course will focus on an emerging anti-police climate anchored by numerous protest groups that are routinely encountered by law enforcement in towns and cities small and large.” The embrace of this theory by local police, and the credence given to it by the FBI’s assessment raise concerns that police will respond to protests with unnecessary and excessive force.
The report gives incorrect guidance on constitutionally protected activity, asserting that “[t]he mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics may not constitute extremism, and may be constitutionally protected (emphasis added).” Those activities are all protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, the report identifies First Amendment protected activities as possible indicators for BIEs posing a violent threat to law enforcement including:
- “Violent anti-white rhetoric”, and
- “Affiliations with others in both the BSE and sovereign citizen extremist movements”
There is no evidence that people using violent anti-white rhetoric or who affiliate with the mentioned groups pose a distinct threat to law enforcement.
The report inappropriately focuses on ideology in order to find a unifying thread, however tenuous, to tie together six different crimes perpetrated in six different states over three years. In so doing, it manufactures a alleged “movement” of a variety of groups, ideologies, and political analyses whose only commonality is that members and supporters are Black. The FBI’s analysis is not only racist, it is inaccurate.
This report is made even more concerning given the history of government surveillance, especially by the FBI, of Black dissent. During his confirmation, current FBI director Christopher Wray cited the surveillance of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the FBI’s “darker periods when it infringed on the civil liberties of America.” His predecessor Jame Comey called the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King “shameful.” However, government surveillance of Black political movements is far greater than a single episode and the treatment of King is the norm, not the exception. For example:
- While pioneering civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph received a Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, the FBI surveilled him and kept a file on him from 1922 to 1970.
- W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson were both subject to state surveillance, including decades of surveillance by the FBI. Both men at one point had their passports revoked by the State Department.
- In 1955, the FBI refused to open up a federal investigation into the brutal murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till, as Hoover considered outrage over Till’s murder to be the work of communist agitators.
- As part of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s notorious program to neutralize political dissent, the FBI conducted investigations into “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups.” This included surveillance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Congress on Racial Equality. As part of these efforts, Hoover issued a directive that the FBI was to “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”
- In 2009, the FBI Atlanta produced an intelligence note on the threat of “Black Separatists.” As part of this note, the FBI included information about the demographic growth of the Black population in Georgia.
- In 2011, it was revealed that the FBI was using training material warning that “Black Separatists” posed a terrorist threat.
Overall, the report gives the mistaken impression that Black Americans concerned about police violence are prone to violence, or that their calls for justice, rather than unpunished police shootings of unarmed Black Americans, are the problem.