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The FBI Targets a New Generation of Black Activists

The agency would put its investigative authorities to better use by holding police officers accountable for acts of brutality.

June 26, 2020
fist raised by Washington Memorial
Jim Watson/Getty

This origin­ally appeared in the Guard­ian.

Through­out its history, the Federal Bureau of Invest­ig­a­tion has viewed Black activ­ism as a poten­tial national secur­ity threat. It has used its ample invest­ig­at­ive powers not to suppress viol­ence, but to inhibit the speech and asso­ci­ation rights of Black activ­ists. And its reac­tion to the protests follow­ing the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd shows little has changed.

In Octo­ber 1919, a young J Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau of Invest­ig­a­tion’s general intel­li­gence divi­sion, targeted “Black Moses” Marcus Garvey for invest­ig­a­tion and harass­ment because of his alleged asso­ci­ation with “radical elements” that were “agit­at­ing the Negro move­ment”. Hoover admit­ted Garvey had viol­ated no federal laws. But the bureau, the precursor organ­iz­a­tion to the FBI, infilt­rated Garvey’s Univer­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­ation with inform­ant provocateurs and under­cover agents who searched for years for any charge that could justify his deport­a­tion.

The justice depart­ment ulti­mately won a convic­tion against Garvey on a dubi­ous mail fraud charge in 1923. Mean­while, white vigil­antes, police and soldiers targeted Black communit­ies with viol­ence during this period, which included the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and scores of lynch­ings, did not receive the same focused atten­tion from Hoover’s agents.

The FBI used similar tactics to disrupt, discredit and neut­ral­ize lead­ers of the civil rights and anti-war move­ments of the 1960s. The FBI’s Coin­telpro program target­ing civil rights lead­ers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmi­chael was specific­ally designed to “[p]revent the rise of a ‘mes­si­ah’ who could unify and elec­trify the milit­ant black nation­al­ist move­ment” rather than to prevent any viol­ent acts they might perpet­rate. The meth­ods included inform­ant-driven disin­form­a­tion campaigns designed to spark conflict within the move­ment, discour­age donors and support­ers, and even break up marriages. Overt invest­ig­at­ive activ­ity was also used, as one stated goal of the Coin­telpro program was to inspire fear among activ­ists by convin­cing them that an FBI agent lurked behind every mail­box.

Expos­ure of the Coin­telpro abuses led to an era of reform start­ing in 1976 includ­ing guidelines issued by the attor­ney general, Edward Levi, to limit FBI invest­ig­a­tions of polit­ical activ­ity by requir­ing a reas­on­able indic­a­tion of crim­inal activ­ity before intrus­ive invest­ig­a­tions could be launched.

Unfor­tu­nately, the guidelines were weakened over time, most severely in Decem­ber 2008, by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion attor­ney general, Michael Muka­sey. Muka­sey’s guidelines author­ized a new type of invest­ig­a­tion called an “assess­ment”, which required no factual basis for suspect­ing indi­vidu­al­ized wrong­do­ing before agents could employ intrus­ive invest­ig­at­ive tech­niques such as overt and covert inter­views, phys­ical surveil­lance, govern­ment and commer­cial data­base searches, and recruit­ing and task­ing inform­ants. The FBI inter­preted these guidelines to allow its agents to use census data to map Amer­ican communit­ies by race and ethni­city, and to identify and monitor ethnic “facil­it­ies” and “beha­vi­ors”. A 2009 memo from the Atlanta FBI cited fears of a “Black Separ­at­ist” terror­ism threat to justify open­ing an assess­ment that docu­mented the growth of the Black popu­la­tion in Geor­gia.

So it wasn’t surpris­ing that when a new gener­a­tion of polit­ical activ­ists star­ted the Black Lives Matter (BLM) move­ment to protest police viol­ence after the fatal 2014 shoot­ing of unarmed teen­ager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the FBI began track­ing them all across the coun­try, using its “assess­ment” author­ity to conduct months-long invest­ig­a­tions. BLM activ­ists repor­ted that FBI agents had contac­ted them at home to warn them against attend­ing the 2016 Repub­lican national conven­tion.

By 2017, the FBI had inven­ted a new domestic terror­ism program category it called the “Black Iden­tity Extrem­ism move­ment”. An FBI intel­li­gence report cited six unre­lated incid­ents over a three year period in which Black subjects not asso­ci­ated with one another attacked police officers, to allege that a terror­ist move­ment driven by “percep­tions of police brutal­ity against African Amer­ic­ans” exis­ted. The report stated that “the perceived unchal­lenged ille­git­im­ate actions of law enforce­ment will inspire premed­it­ated attacks against law enforce­ment” by so-called “Black iden­tity extrem­ists”, suggest­ing that the FBI’s concerns lay not in illegal police viol­ence, but the hypo­thet­ical retali­ation it might provoke.

In 2018 and 2019, the FBI conduc­ted nation­wide assess­ments of “Black iden­tity extrem­ists” under an intel­li­gence collec­tion oper­a­tion it called “Iron Fist”, prior­it­iz­ing these cases over invest­ig­a­tions of far more preval­ent viol­ence from white suprem­acists and far right milit­ants over that period, includ­ing mass shoot­ings at a Pitt­s­burgh synagogue and an El Paso shop­ping mall.

The FBI also acknow­ledged using its most advanced surveil­lance aircraft to monitor BLM protests in Baltimore after the police killing of Fred­die Gray in 2018, and again this month at the BLM protests in Wash­ing­ton DC. And, as the Inter­cept repor­ted last week, at least four organ­izers of a Black Lives Matter rally in Cookeville, Tennessee, received unsched­uled visits at their homes and work­places by FBI agents assigned to the local joint terror­ism taskforce. The agents ques­tioned them about their social media posts, their plans for the protest, and whether they had connec­tions to antifa – anti-fascist activ­ists who Donald Trump has blamed for incit­ing viol­ence at BLM protests. The FBI has repor­ted it found no evid­ence of antifa involve­ment at the protests.

Certainly there is a poten­tial for viol­ence at any protest, and the FBI has made more than 80 federal arrests of loot­ers and arson­ists in recent weeks. But, so far, the most appar­ent protest viol­ence that falls within the FBI’s juris­dic­tion is not coming from BLM activ­ists or antifa, but from police. North Caro­lina lawyer T Greg Doucette and math­em­atician Jason Miller have compiled a data­set of more than 500 incid­ents of police viol­ence against protest­ers that have been captured on video by activ­ists and journ­al­ists since George Floy­d’s death. Several of the officers respons­ible for this viol­ence have been fired, and a hand­ful have been charged with state viol­a­tions, but no federal civil rights charges appear to have been brought yet against law enfor­cers who have been caught on tape attack­ing peace­ful protest­ers and report­ers.

This isn’t surpris­ing, as the justice depart­ment rarely brings civil rights charges against police officers for acts of brutal­ity. If the FBI really believes unac­count­able police viol­ence against African Amer­ic­ans might provoke retali­ation by “Black Iden­tity Extrem­ists”, it would put its invest­ig­at­ive author­it­ies to better use by hold­ing those officers account­able, rather than monit­or­ing a new gener­a­tion of Black activ­ists.