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REYES: ‘Black Identity Extremist’ classification sustains racist legacy

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In a report marked for official use only recently obtained by Foreign Policy, the FBI assessed that “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement,” classifying those espousing this ideology as “black identity extremists," or BIEs. This document, dated Aug. 3, was internally released less than two months after the President Donald J. Trump's administration “refocused” the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) countering violent extremism (CVE) programs on Middle Eastern extremist groups and away from far-right, white supremacist organizations. Before the FBI report was leaked, the phrase had never been used, but now it is being applied to activists based on them being black, rather than on an overarching ideological connection. What makes the Trump administration’s fixation on categorizing black activists as BIEs all the more outrageous is that in a joint intelligence bulletin released this past spring, officials highlighted the serious threat posed by white supremacist groups which have carried out “more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years and were likely to carry out more attacks over the next year.”

While the Trump administration should rightfully be criticized for their racist and Islamophobic targeting strategies and dismissing the very cogent danger demonstrated by white supremacists, this ploy by the FBI is the latest chapter in a long history of demonizing black and leftist activists to justify increased police surveillance of and presence in black neighborhoods. To bring about a truly just democracy, it is critical that we maintain skepticism of and pressure on law enforcement entities, especially the FBI, to cease the abuse of power that is eroding not only our human and civil rights but our very existences. Being aware of the U.S. government’s history of domestic spying can inform how we mobilize against these civil rights violations and safeguard our activists and communities.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started the Bureau’s infamous counter-intelligence program, known by the portmanteau COINTELPRO, in the 1950s to “discredit and neutralize organizations considered subversive to U.S. political stability.” Various organizations were targets of COINTELPRO operations for their audacity to challenge the U.S. government’s violent, hegemonic imperialism including the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and the Black Panther Party. COINTELPRO tactics were purposely covert and extralegal: officials surveilled political leaders, infiltrated organizations under false pretenses, sent anonymous mailings and ordered local police to relentlessly harass and abuse those targeted. Notably, Hoover focused COINTELPRO’s wiretapping efforts on Martin Luther King, Jr. and was responsible for the raid of the Illinois Black Panther Party that killed leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. More than 50 years later, several Black Panther members remain imprisoned due to manufactured or excessive criminal charges, imploring us to question the merits of a criminal justice system devoid of justice.

A major investigation of COINTELPRO’s egregious infringement of civil liberties launched in 1975. But numerous pages of documents have yet to be released and those that have have been censored. While the activities of COINTELPRO appear to be an aberration, the Bureau surveilled and intimidated communists during and after the Red Scare, labor activists striking for fair wages and an 8-hour workday and the NAACP years prior to COINTELPRO’s formation. With the creation of BIE and the report's specific referencing of the shooting of Michael Brown as a supposed catalyst for escalating violence against law enforcement, the FBI appears intent on solidifying their position against the black people demanding justice and equitable treatment, namely the Movement for Black Lives which the DHS has been monitoring since the Ferguson protests in 2014.

The use of the phrase “Black Identity Extremists” to label those who are fighting against the daily transgressions perpetrated by the government is a deliberate act by the FBI to incite public fear of and contempt for empowered black people and their movement allies. It is strategic, building on centuries of the usage of fervently racist tropes to suppress black radical thought. When those who are working for a better tomorrow are under attack, we all need to stand together to protect each other and combat the oppressors that intend on impeding our collective liberation. The acute threat posed by law enforcement on black people and other marginalized people requires us to be vigilant crusaders for freedom and justice. We must inform ourselves about the history of violence committed by local and federal police forces on black and leftist activists. With this knowledge at hand, we can develop the perspectives and substantive tools necessary to transform our society into one free from the abuses of the police state. That is a world worth fighting for — no matter the risks.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Free as in Libre," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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