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When the FBI Is Asked to Go After the Right, It Inevitably Comes for the Left

The FBI was never meant to address right-wing extremists. We can’t look to it to stop the right.

Fencing is seen outside the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on August 16, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

In the wake of the Trump-inspired siege on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, many liberals have called for wide-ranging investigations and prosecutions of the “insurrectionists” as a way of condemning political extremism and restoring public respect for the “rule of law.” On its face, this appears to be a progressive intervention aimed at reducing the power of growing right-wing nationalist movements — a blow to the threat of fascism.

To accomplish this, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been encouraged to beef up their political surveillance operations in an effort to ferret out “extremist” political actors.

But such expansions of political policing invariably fall most heavily on movements on the left, which the U.S. government always asserts to be more inherently threatening than those on the right, even when right-wing movements are much more clearly associated with violence. The FBI had extensive intelligence about the potential threat posed by militia groups during the January 6 U.S. Capitol protests and yet took no action to intervene or even prepare the Capitol for a potential assault.

In 2022 a previously undisclosed FBI document from 2021 was made public that sought to identify a variety of “extremist” organizations, including various militia groups, animal rights groups, and the general heading of “Anarchist Violent Extremism.” The document displays a number of symbols that are associated with so-called violent extremist political activity such as right-wing militia insignia, Earth First and Animal Liberation Front logos, a black cat, black flag, the Circle A and an Antifa logo.

This document is part of a larger ecosystem of criminalizing radical politics that includes a more detailed assessment of the threat of anarchist extremism that lists terms like ACAB and May Day as potential indicators of “anarchist extremism.” This process of identification is then used to generate national threat assessments created by law enforcement agencies and backed up by police dominated academic programs like those at George Mason that accelerate and legitimize the criminalization of dissent through seemingly independent reports.

In response to this escalation of law enforcement hysteria a number of prominent national civil rights organizations sent a letter to the Department of Justice in July 2023. The letter signed by the ACLU, Brennan Center, Center for Constitutional Rights and LDF links the rise of this discourse to the violent repression of the No Cop City movement in Atlanta and calls for an end to the labeling of political activity as “extremism.”

The point of the document is to aid law enforcement at all levels in identifying “extremist” political activity as part of investigations, surveillance, threat assessments, and potentially decisions whether to arrest and file charges against political organizers and activists.

As is often the case, the link between political action deemed as “extreme” and “illegal” behavior gets lost in the shuffle. It is often assumed in law enforcement circles that political violence is an outgrowth of extreme views, and therefore movements with radical or transformative views are inherently deemed to be sources of potential violence. Law enforcement may tacitly understand that not everyone in such movements or organizations is engaged in criminal behavior, but in order to find those that would engage in such behavior, they consider it necessary to surveil whole movements to “prevent the worst from happening.”

This can be seen in the FBI’s decision to label many of the individuals and organizations tied to the Black Lives Matter movement “Black Identity Extremists.” Such a label enables the FBI and others in law enforcement to justify intensive surveillance, record-keeping, harassment and disruption.

Nowhere in the “extremist” document does the FBI distinguish between the lawful political activity of anarchist-oriented activists and organizations and those that engage in what the state labels illegal activity. This opens the door to the common problem of conflating radical political demands with threats of violence. The FBI, like much of law enforcement, views radical political demands as inherently threatening to the social order.

Some of this work of disrupting radical movements is done directly by the FBI, but this particular document appears intended to aid other law enforcement agencies. Much of this is done through a variety of federally funded fusion centers and joint terrorism task forces that emerged in the wake of September 11, 2001. As Brendan McQuade points out in Pacifying the Homeland, these centers spend little to no time addressing the threat of “foreign terrorism,” especially in places like Nebraska, Idaho and Arkansas. Instead, they increasingly focus on surveilling local political activity and assisting police in criminalizing poor communities.

These resource sheets, designed to help law enforcement identify political extremism, feed into an information collection process that regularly generates threat assessments for local law enforcement, government, and a variety of private actors such as corporations resisting labor organizing or environmental protests. The Department of Justice even publishes a guide to help facilitate such arrangements. Overall, this creates what McQuade calls “threat inflation,” which incentivizes local police to treat otherwise innocuous political activity as something that should be monitored because someone put a black cat on a flyer or carried a black and red flag at a demonstration.

When we empower the FBI because we think it will help us solve a political problem, we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the institution. The FBI doesn’t exist to provide public safety in some general sense that benefits everyone equally. The FBI was created and has historically functioned to solve a set of political problems for social elites through the suppression of left-wing movements for peace and liberation, and the inculcation of deeply conservative social and political values. Beverly Gage, in her new biography of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, G-Man, points out that Hoover was invested in a broad social crusade around so-called conservative values that had no direct connection to the law or public safety. He worked closely with conservative politicians and organizations to target those he viewed as a threat to capitalism and patriarchal Christian nationalism — exactly the values at the heart of the current movements the FBI claims to be trying to neutralize.

We do need to take steps to rein in the growing threat of right-wing political extremism, including its use of violence and intimidation. But as Natasha Lennard points out in her book Being Numerous, we cannot expect the state to do it for us. Our movements must directly oppose the fascists by disrupting their marches, speaking events and political organizing. And we must hold to account the elected officials and corporate leaders who fund and support them. To do this, we must build our own institutions of political power. Yes, we must be prepared to punch some Nazis, but that alone won’t be enough.