Roseanne Barr’s abhorrent tweet, comparing Obama presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape, once again put race front and center in the national discourse, where it should remain. The scourge of racism takes many shapes, and has been integral to American history long before the nation’s founding. Racism’s most odious form, though, is when it appears as official policy, as is the case with the “Black Identity Extremist” (“BIE”) classification recently adopted by the FBI.
The “Black Identity Extremist” label was revealed last year when an FBI report was leaked to the press, provoking a firestorm of criticism from civil-liberties and racial-justice groups, alleging the FBI was reverting to behavior akin to COINTELPRO, its counterintelligence program from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when it criminally targeted, surveilled, infiltrated and disrupted protest organizations like the Black Panther Party, leading to the imprisonment and death of many.
This recent leaked FBI report, titled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers,” was dated Aug. 3, 2017 – ominously, just three days before the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one anti-racist activist, Heather Heyer, was killed, and scores more were injured.
In addition to the FBI memo, documents obtained by several groups under the Freedom of Information Act revealed the existence of an internal document at the Department of Homeland Security, that staff there referred to as the “Race Paper.” The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Media Justice and 40 other organizations have written to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, calling for the release of the unredacted version of this paper. A copy was released by DHS, but in a completely redacted form.
“We believe that the ‘Race Paper’ may improperly suggest that constitutionally-protected Black political speech should be considered an indicator of criminal conduct or a national security threat,” the letter’s co-signers wrote, expressing their concern over “serious implications on the constitutional rights and safety of Black and Brown people in the United States, and, in particular, protesters and activists of color.”
At least one African-American activist has been jailed as a “Black Identity Extremist.” Rakem Balogun, a Dallas-based activist, believes he was the first person arrested as a “BIE.” He described his arrest on the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “On December 12th , around 6 a.m. in the morning, me and my son were at home resting, when FBI agents rammed our door and immediately rushed us outside in our underwear, under gunpoint.” He spent five months in jail on trumped-up charges of illegal firearms possession that were later dropped. “The FBI was pretty much surveilling me for over two and a half years as a domestic terrorist,” he explained. “The judge denied me bond based off of me using my First Amendment right to criticize police officers on Facebook.”
Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a Black Lives Matter Bay Area activist, is no stranger to the FBI’s aggressive surveillance of people of color. “My mother was a member of the Black Panther Party in New York,” Cyril said on “Democracy Now!” “She ran the breakfast program in New York. And my mother was visited by the FBI just weeks before she died in 2005. So this FBI harassment of black activists didn’t end in 1969. It didn’t end when COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971. It is continuing today. Under current political conditions, black activists are being targeted, Muslims are being targeted, immigrants are being targeted, while white supremacists are running free.”
The Intercept obtained FBI documents confirming that the FBI surveilled and infiltrated activist groups that were organizing after the 2014 police killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Much of the surveillance relied on “open source,” or publicly accessible, information, such as social media posts that included activists’ travel plans.
Where is the FBI when it comes to recent white mass shooters who posted highly disturbing content to social media before their killing sprees? Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who murdered eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Texas, posted on Facebook a picture of a T-shirt reading “born to kill.” Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, was reported to the FBI and police more than 40 times, in part because of his disturbing social media posts, yet he was never arrested.
Racism is unacceptable, anywhere, anytime, whether it is a tweet from a TV star or the president, or white NFL owners punishing black athletes for kneeling in protest of police brutality, or the arrest of African-American patrons, as recently happened at a Philadelphia Starbucks. And we must be especially intolerant of racism when it appears as official government policy, enshrined in secret documents in black and white.