The history of the FBI is the history of surveillance and intimidation of black Americans that frequently goes beyond legitimate law enforcement into paranoia, racism, and political expediency.
This was true almost 50 years ago, when J. Edgar Hoover sent his loyal line officers into black communities to try to gin up evidencedesigned to convince one president after another that the civil rights movement was some sort of communist plot. It was true in the 1970s when the feds hounded those whom they perceived to be black separatists. And it is true today now that we know the FBI is promoting the hoary idea that something called “black identity extremists” poise a dangerous domestic terror threat, particularly to police officers.
Foreign Policy broke the news this weekend of an internal report, leaked to reporters of the respected journal, in which the FBI “assesses it is very likely that Black Identity Extremists (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will likely serve as justifications for such violence.” There has been a “resurgence,” the FBI wants us to believe, “in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement.”
Except there is no “BIE movement,” but in the fertile mind of those within the Trump administration who want you to believe there is some sinister black force out there bent on attacking police officers. No journalists or academics have discovered and chronicled such a movement or its leaders. No such leaders have come forward to say they are part of such a movement. No one has killed a cop in the name of such a movement. The only citations to the movement, the Foreign Policy piece tells us, come from internal law enforcement writings made over the past two months.
The same two months that followed the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The same two months in which it has become clear the extent to which the Trump administration gives aid and comfort to white supremacists. The feds have invented a title — BIE — and linked it to a handful of episodes of violence against the police and now claim they’ve discovered a domestic terrorism movement. A cynic might say that the Trump administration, for its own political purposes, has manufactured the whole thing to make white Americans fearful of some new race war.
In this sense, the report is the FBI’s version of the cynical “war on cops” argument that President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and police union officials have been pitching as policy to justify ending even the modest judical reforms implemented by the Obama administration. But there is no viable “war on cops,” either, except in the minds of a few lone killers, like the gunman who slew six police officers in Dallas in July 2016. The truth is that fatal shootings of police officers by black or white suspects is down 20 percent this year from last.
The tactic here is almost diabolical. To deflect legitimate criticism of police tactics, to undermine a legitimate protest movement that has emerged in the past three years to protest police brutality, the FBI has tarred the dissenters as domestic terrorists; an organized group with a criminal ideology that are a threat to police officers. Martin Luther King was not a Communist no matter how hard the duplicitous Hoover wished it to be. And the Black Lives Matter movement is not a domestic terrorist movement no matter how hard Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions wish it so.
What exactly is the ideology of this non-existent “Black Identity Extremist” movement? And who exactly are the members of it? Do you become a member of the BIE if you believe that police brutality continues is a significant problem hindering criminal justice? Do you become a member of the BIE if you believe that the police too often avoid accountability for the use of excessive force on unarmed black civilians? Does the FBI consider every member of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which is real, a member of the BIE, which is not?
There is no room in law enforcement for alternative facts. There is no room in law enforcement for chasing ghosts. The FBI has a problem of extremism in this country and in the ranks of law enforcement. And it has nothing to do with black “terrorists” targeting police officers. The feds have worried for years about white supremacists infiltrating police departments and yet they appear to have been unable to do much about it. And the Trump administration knows it has a problem of white supremacist violence even as its tribunes coddle white supremacists.
The final word here belongs to James Comey, the FBI Director Trump fired in May. In February 2015, in a speech at Georgetown University, Comey spoke about the FBI’s ugly, racist legacy. He said:
The Irish had tough times, but little compares to the experience on our soil of black Americans. That experience should be part of every American’s consciousness, and law enforcement’s role in that experience — including in recent times — must be remembered. It is our cultural inheritance.
There is a reason that I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King. It is a single page. The entire application is five sentences long, it is without fact or substance, and is predicated on the naked assertion that there is “communist influence in the racial situation.” The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.
This BIE nonsense is a reminder that the FBI has not learned from its past mistakes. Yet another generation of black Americans is destined to be the targets of unwarranted surveillance and harassment. And those of us who had hoped that the FBI had finally achieved a measure of reform will sadly watch it further divide an already fractured nation.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.