Is FBI’s New Focus on “Black Identity Extremists” the New COINTELPRO?
By Rep. Cedric L. Richmond
Chair, Congressional Black Caucus
If you’ve been to a Black Lives Matter rally or tweeted the related hashtag recently, then the FBI might consider you a “Black Identity Extremist,” at least according to a report published by one of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.
In October, an internal FBI report titled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers,” was leaked to the public—raising concerns of activists, civil rights groups, and policy makers, including myself and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The report concludes, based on a limited total number of incidents, that:
“…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. The FBI assess[es] it is very likely this increase began following the 9 August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent Grand Jury November 2014 declination to indict the police officers involved.”
These unsubstantiated conclusions are troubling, especially in the context of the FBI’s history of targeting African American activists and leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But what is more troubling is the FBI’s creation of the term “Black Identity Extremist” and the definition of it.
According to the report, Black Identity Extremists are individuals who, “in response to perceived racism and injustice,” commit violent acts in the name of those beliefs, and, in some cases, desire a “separate Black homeland…social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.”
The report continues: “The mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics ‘may not’ (emphasis mine) constitute extremism, and may be constitutionally protected.”
I think the words “may not” leave people who organize under the Black Lives Matter movement and other well-meaning African American activist groups vulnerable to the type of monitoring and manipulation that the FBI engaged in as part of COINTELPRO, a counter intelligence program that unfairly and, in some cases, unlawfully destroyed movements, careers, relationships, and lives.
I’m also concerned about the FBI’s definition of “extremism.” The question becomes: What does the FBI consider extreme? The report never provides an answer to that question and further complicates the issue on page 4 in talking about the case of Micah Johnson, the African American man who shot 11 police officers in downtown Dallas, Texas, on July 7, 2016:
“Johnson searched and liked social media pages of BIE and Black separatist groups, and had been ousted from a local BIE group for being too radical, according to an open source news article.”
I agree that Johnson was an extremist, but here are some questions I have: What group kicked him out? Was it Black Lives Matter, a non-extremist group? Does the FBI consider this group representative of extremism? If so, then its definition of Black Identity Extremists is extreme and ineffective. Also, what does the FBI mean by “perceived racism and injustice” and “perceived past police brutality incidents?” Does the FBI believe racism, injustice, and police brutality don’t exist?
Here are some other questions I have: Why is one of the most powerful federal law enforcement organizations in the nation relying on news articles to figure out whether Johnson was kicked out of a local Black Identity Extremist group? Also, if this is a problem that’s on the rise as the FBI indicates, why isn’t clear and convincing incident data illustrating this included in the report? Finally, is the FBI devoting as much time on this issue as it is on White extremism? If they are, then they are not spending their time wisely when it comes to domestic extremists.
According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Defamation League, when it comes to extremist movements in the United States:
“…White supremacists are by far the most violent, committing about 83 percent of the extremist-related murders in the United States in the past 10 years and being involved in about 52 percent of the shootouts between extremists and police. White supremacists also regularly engage in a variety of terrorist plots, acts and conspiracies.”
White supremacist violence is even more concerning in the context of the 2016 election, the current political climate, and President Trump’s decision after white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va., to morally equate white supremacists with anti-racist protestors. In regard to the 2016 presidential election specifically, the Southern Poverty Law Center found:
“…in the 34 days after the election, there were 1,094 incidents involving bias and almost 80 percent of them were anti-immigrant (315), anti-Black (221), anti-Muslim (112), swastika (108), White nationalist (47), anti-Semitic (33) or involved the KKK (7). Approximately 37 percent of the 1,094 incidents, directly referenced either then President-elect Donald Trump, his campaign slogans, or his infamous remarks about sexual assault.”
A few weeks after the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremists” report was leaked, the Congressional Black Caucus met with Facebook about ads that Russian operatives purchased through the social media platform to target the Black Lives Matter movement. During the meeting, the caucus explained to Facebook that their social media platform plays a role in how African Americans are perceived across the country and around the world. In this case, the perception Facebook played a role in creating was negative and could have had life and death consequences.
The FBI’s “Black Identity Extremist” report is an example of how perception becomes reality and affects people’s lives on the ground. We don’t need Facebook and other social media platforms playing a role in creating negative perceptions of African Americans and we don’t need the FBI and other law enforcement organizations buying into these perceptions. In response to a letter from the Congressional Black Caucus, FBI Director Christopher Wray agreed to meet. We hope he walks away from the meeting with this understanding. We also hope he’s able to answer our questions.
Congressman Cedric L. Richmond (D-LA-02) is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He represents the 2nd District of Louisiana, which includes parts of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. You can follow him on Twitter at @RepRichmond and you can follow the CBC on Twitter at @OfficialCBC.