As white supremacists commit acts of domestic terrorism and murder, the federal government is coming for Black Lives Matter. Specifically, the FBI has conducted surveillance of the Black-led antiracism movement, and the extent of the bureau’s monitoring and spying against Black activists was far more extensive than was previously realized.
The Intercept reported that, based on recently released documents from November 2014 — during the Obama administration and the tenure of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — the FBI has been tracking the First Amendment-related activities of Black Lives Matter activists, using intelligence gathering that not only includes social media and other open source information, but also the use of informants and physical surveillance against members of the protest movement.
In 2016, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color Of Change filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security seeking information on the monitoring of Black protest activity involving criminal justice, police brutality, racial inequality and BLM. The FOIA request, which came on the 50th anniversary of the Act, was designed to expose widespread and systemic government surveillance in communities of color.
The documents reveal the authorities staked out the residences of Black activists and gathered information on their vehicle registrations. In one case, according to the redacted reports, FBI agents tracked the travels of an activist who was flying from New York to Ferguson, Missouri, for a Thanksgiving Day protest at a facility owned by the corporation Monsanto. The FBI report does not make any mention of a propensity for violence by activists or even a possibility for it — which should be a prerequisite for such surveillance in the first place — but rather references bail funds and items used in protest demonstrations known as “direct action devices.” The FBI denied they are targeting anyone on free speech grounds, although The Intercept reported it is clear the agency is doing just that — tracking First Amendment-protected activity and maintaining a database.
“Political dissent and protest are not crimes; neither are they terrorist activities to be monitored or put down by counterterrorism units. Nonetheless, the U.S. government has a long, well-documented history of using surveillance, monitoring, and the threat of coercive state force to intimidate and silence Black-led movements for social justice and empowerment,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color Of Change, in a statement after the FOIA request. “The revelations of FBI, DHS, and local law enforcement surveillance of the movement for Black lives leads us to fear that the current surveillance of the movement is more coordinated, extensive, and systematic than has been revealed thus far and that it is intended to silence the demands of Black activists and related movements.”
“Unlawful surveillance thrives in secrecy, where it threatens the activism, free speech, and political inquiry necessary to hold government accountable for its misconduct. In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has sought to expose and resist crisis-level police misconduct in Ferguson, Chicago, Oakland and elsewhere around the country,” added Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Farah noted that as a result, the BLM movement has faced aggressive surveillance from federal and local agencies, who use counterterrorism-related resources and tactics.
The surveillance of Black political protest is by no means a new phenomenon, as evidenced by the government use of Black undercover officers and infiltrators to go after Black activists with possible Soviet sympathies following the Russian revolution of 1917. J. Edgar Hoover targeted Black leadership as far back as Marcus Garvey, and through the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, the purpose of which was to monitor, infiltrate and destroy civil rights organizations, and “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”
For the FBI — an overwhelmingly white agency with a long history of criminalizing Black organizing— the monitoring and infiltration of the community continue not only with surveillance of BLM, but with their coining of the term Black Identity Extremists (BIEs) and a report warning of a threat from said group targeting police officers with acts of violence.
In October 2017, the Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter to the FBI expressing its concern that the BIE report would lead to the targeting of politically-engaged people and groups in Black communities. On March 20, 2018, the CBC held a briefing on the FBI report, reflecting on how the bureau has taken a few isolated incidents to create the impression an organized Black movement poses a threat to law enforcement.
“Evidence and testimony at today’s hearing raised further questions about the origins about this report,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.). “The need for a total retraction of this report is absolutely imperative so that the follow up message sent to the 16,000 [FBI employees working in the] local offices that received the initial report is one of lawful protection and service, not one of bigoted investigation and surveillance. I’m thankful for my colleagues in the CBC who continue to shine light on this important issue.”
“The assessment is of such poor analytic quality that it raises serious questions about the FBI’s purpose in producing it,” said Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program and a former FBI special agent, to the assembled lawmakers. “What is most troubling about the BIE assessment is its potential to incite irrational police fear of black political activists. Irrational fear, unfortunately, too often in the past translated into unnecessary police violence against unarmed and unthreatening black men and women.”
Dr. Errol G. Southers, professor of the practice of governance at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, said the FBI assessment on the threat of BIEs lacks merits and fails to provide evidence that Black activists are targeting law enforcement on racial grounds. Southers, a former FBI SWAT and undercover special agent, also noted the report ignores statistics on police officers killed by extremists. “An Anti-Defamation League analysis of ‘shots fired events’ between law enforcement and homegrown extremists between 2009 and 2016 reveals there were 77 shots fired incidents attributed to numerous extremist groups,” he said at the CBC hearing. “‘Black nationalist’ attackers accounted for 2 percent of those incidents, while the extreme right-wing (including white supremacists and anti-government extremists) accounted for 83 percent.”
The federal government’s surveillance of the Black community continues unabated.