Janine Jackson: Demonstrations continue in St. Louis, Missouri, over the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley of first degree murder charges in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. Very likely some protesters would tell you they are distraught and angry, not just about this case, but about the undeniable fact that US law enforcement rarely pay any penalty for murdering black people, whatever the circumstance. According to an FBI intelligence assessment recently leaked to Foreign Policy, that may make those people “black identity extremists.”
The report, written up by Foreign Policy’s Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger, was dated August 3, nine days before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The report assesses that
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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.
If that sounds to you like a set-up — a pretense by which anyone protesting police brutality is ipso facto guilty of extremism that calls for action by the “counterrorism division” of the country’s most powerful law enforcement — well, you aren’t alone with those concerns.
Nusrat Choudhury is senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. They’re pursuing the issue. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Nusrat Choudhury.
Nusrat Choudhury: Thank you so much for having me.
What can we say about how the FBI seems to be defining “black identity extremists,” and the vagueness of that term, that we’re all sort of laugh/crying about, could that be the point of it, in some way?
Well, the report is disturbing on so many levels, not the least of which is that it’s a red flag that the Bureau is once again profiling black activists because of their beliefs and their race. And we know that there’s a long history in this country of the FBI using the fear of threats, real or perceived, as a cover for profiling black people, and in particular black civil rights leaders and activists. This report doesn’t make sense, and it raises that red flag that this is happening, yet again, to today’s modern-day black civil rights movement leaders.
I’m going to ask you a little about that history, but what, on the face of it, is what they’re calling evidence for the existence of — I mean, the assessment says, we’re talking about criminal activity; that’s different from protected activity, but what is their evidence for the existence of a “black identity extremist” movement, and then the definition of that as a violent movement?
Right. So the definition is so confusing that it’s really hard to discern, but it seems to be circular. The FBI talks about six separate violent incidents in this internal report, and then appears to assume, it literally “makes a key assumption,” that those incidents were ideologically motivated. And then it even contradicts itself to acknowledge that those six incidents appear to have been influenced by more than one ideological perspective. Yet it concludes that there is some kind of unitary “black identity extremist” threat, I would say a so-called threat.
And what this does is raise lots of questions from the public, from black people, black activists, and certainly the ACLU, and that’s why the public needs to know: What does this term even mean, what’s the basis for it, and what’s the FBI doing after creating this designation? That’s why we have joined with the Center for Media Justice in filing a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking all documents that use this term, as well as other terms that have historically been used as a guise for surveilling black people and black activists.
We know that the general public responds differently when you label something “terrorism,” when you label something “extremism,” and that that impact is meaningful. You know, this sounds like kind of Alice in Wonderland: “If I stab you and you object, you are an anti-stabbing extremist.” But we know from history that a tool doesn’t have to be precise to be used: You don’t have to sharpen a knife if you’re going to use it as a club. So what are the concerns about the way this new designation — even if everybody kind of scoffs at it — how do we think it might potentially be used?
The FBI, when it releases a report like this internally, that kind of labeling of a so-called threat can be the basis for additional surveillance, investigations and law enforcement activity. So creating this new label, even on the basis of these flawed assumptions, these conclusions that don’t make sense on the face of the report, could lead to further surveillance and investigative activity, not just by the FBI, but even by other federal, state and local law enforcement who share information with the FBI.
So for good reason, black people and especially black activists are really concerned. They want to know what this is being used to do, and they have really good reasons to fear that it’s going to be used to promote further law enforcement scrutiny of their First Amendment–protected activities, and even potentially result in racial profiling.
You mentioned the relevant history here. Can you tell us some of that history, which doesn’t go — it starts in the past, but it continues up to the present. What is some of the FBI’s history in this regard, that raise questions for folks?
The federal government and the FBI in particular kept files on civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activists in the 1960s and ’70s. We know that even more recently, since 9/11, that the federal government, including the FBI, kept information on American Muslim civil rights leaders and academics. As recently as 2005 and 2006, state law enforcement were exposed for infiltrating and monitoring peaceful political protests.
So there’s this history of targeting people because of their race, as well as because of their beliefs, and often at that intersection are black activists, more recently also American Muslim leaders and activists. This is a history we know so well, and the exposure of this report needs to be a catalyst to get more information, and really just to demand that this stop.
And I know folks will be thinking COINTELPRO, which is, of course, a program against black activists in the ’50s and ’60s and even into the ’70s, most famously known for targeting Martin Luther King, but also taking aim at other civil rights organizations.
Absolutely. And that history is a long, sordid one; it has been exposed. It involved extensive surveillance of people who were deemed “black extremists” or “black nationalists” in that covert FBI COINTELPRO program. But creating a new label and just extending that type of surveillance to the modern day, we know what the harms are, and that’s not what the federal government should be doing.
We also know that people within federal, state and local law enforcement have been raising concerns about far-right violence, and about violence by white nationalists and white supremacists, those types of threats. So at a moment when there are many people in the intelligence community stating that those threats are on the rise, why is the FBI creating a new designation for a so-called threat of “black identity extremists,” without sound methodology or conclusions that the threat even exists?
I certainly see the problem that a lot of folks are pointing out, saying that they’re lumping together various groups. And I also, though, appreciate the comments of Hari Ziyad on Afropunk. They talked about our desire to find a meaning in the violent/nonviolent distinction, and they said — one of the cases that the assessment cites is Micah Johnson, who killed police officers. And Ziyad says:
Because there aren’t too many Micah Johnsons, we reason, “extremists” like him can continue being unethically bombed by robots as long as we don’t get bombed too. But black people always get bombed, literally and figuratively, in an anti-black world, and no amount of distance between us and black “extremists” will change that.
In other words, the supposed safety that we’re offered, if we are not like those extreme black people, doesn’t exist. And it seems to me an important point, because I think, again, those who are not immediately impacted may buy the idea that they aren’t going after black people, they aren’t going after black activists, only violent people, and that seems an important distinction to kind of play with, or to at least interrogate.
I think that’s right, and the public wants safety; people want law enforcement to focus on true threats, and true threats of violence, right? But what the FBI is doing is talking about “extremism,” and what is that? People are allowed to have beliefs, and there’s a lot of evidence out there that just having a radical or extreme idea does not show that people will actually engage in violent conduct. But using that label with broad brush strokes, and linking it to black identity, is exactly the kind of overbroad categorization that can lead to racial profiling, and targeting people because of their beliefs.
Finally, you note that the ACLU, along with the Center for Media Justice, have filed a FOIA request, a kind of what-the-heck-is-going-on-here request. What are you hoping to learn, and what’s our way forward?
This FOIA is a tool really for the public. And the Center for Media Justice, which consists of black activists and folks who are really at the forefront of doing that protest work, they are partners with us in this effort. We’re hoping to get documents that will shed light on exactly how this term is being used, how often it’s being used, what other types of investigations or surveillance have been conducted as a result of the creation of this kind of designation.
And in the past, similar FOIA efforts have shown that the FBI has mapped racial and ethnic communities, and given more insight into exactly what the FBI is doing with the dramatic and vast tools at its disposal. So we’re hoping to get that information. If we don’t, we will push for that information, using the tools that the Freedom of Information Act provides.
We’ve been speaking with Nusrat Choudhury from the ACLU Racial Justice Program. You can follow their work online at ACLU.org. Nusrat Choudhury, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
Thank you so much for having me.