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L.A. Program Targets Muslims Under Guise of National Security

The city’s Countering Violent Extremism program is drawing fire from many quarters

  • Sophia DenUyl
July 18, 2018

Exactly one week after the Supreme Court upheld the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s Muslim Ban, dozens of Los Angeles resid­ents descen­ded upon City Hall to urge lawmakers to reject nearly $500,000 for a Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism (CVE) program that would target Muslims under the guise of national secur­ity.  

Just days before, a coali­tion of civil rights and community groups filed a lawsuit against the city for fail­ing to release docu­ments about its CVE programs in response to a Cali­for­nia Public Records Act request (similar to the federal Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act). After a 16-month battle to obtain inform­a­tion char­ac­ter­ized by myster­i­ous delays and grossly incom­plete produc­tions (the mayor’s office actu­ally conceded that its produc­tion was insuf­fi­cient but refused to detail docu­ments being with­held), far too much about these programs remains unknown. All this dodging and delay­ing begs the ques­tion: What does the city have to hide?

Likely, quite a lot.

From its incep­tion, CVE in LA has been mistrus­ted and opposed by many of the Muslim groups that serve the very communit­ies the programs claim to help. Recently, the Muslim Public Affairs Coun­cil, one of the LA CVE regime’s remain­ing Muslim community part­ners, declined to receive any fund­ing from the program. LA CVE never has been and never will be the “community led” initi­at­ive it purports to be.

LA’s CVE efforts were kicked into high gear in Septem­ber 2014 when the city was picked by the White House for a pilot program. The pilot’s purpose was both to build upon the city’s ongo­ing CVE efforts (which almost exclus­ively targeted Muslims from the get-go) and to estab­lish an inter­ven­tion program called Recog­niz­ing Extrem­ist Network Early Warn­ing (RENEW) — later renamed Provid­ing Altern­at­ives to Hinder Extrem­ism (PATHE). The renam­ing was part of an effort to masquer­ade CVE initi­at­ives by rebrand­ing them. Another program, Safe Spaces, alloc­ated $20,000 to the Muslim Public Affairs Coun­cil to provide work­shops to explore “taboo topics” and coun­sel­ing services primar­ily for LA’s “under­served popu­la­tion of Muslims.” 

In June 2017, the LA mayor’s office was one of 26 grantees awar­ded CVE fund­ing through the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity. The LA effort exem­pli­fies the funda­mental, inev­it­able prob­lems present in all CVE programs — the stig­mat­iz­ing of Muslim Amer­ic­ans as inher­ently suspect, flag­ging indi­vidu­als as poten­tial terror­ists based on debunked theor­ies, the total absence of any demon­strable national secur­ity bene­fit, and risks to civil rights and civil liber­ties. Despite openly acknow­ledging such risks, the city has failed to present any mech­an­isms to deal with them in prac­tice.

The 16-page grant applic­a­tion reveals next to noth­ing about how the city plans to use $425,000 of taxpayer money to prevent viol­ent extrem­ism. We do know that the program revolves around estab­lish­ing a “service refer­ral system” through which an indi­vidual deemed at risk for viol­ent extrem­ism would be iden­ti­fied (by their parents, a teacher, a community organ­iz­a­tion, or law enforce­ment), “screened” (by community organ­iz­a­tions, an online resource plat­form, or the Depart­ment of Mental Health Services), and then referred to services ranging from job-place­ment to mental-health services. They also intend to part­ner with the county’s School Threat Response Team (START) program, through which law-enforce­ment and mental-health profes­sion­als identify, eval­u­ate, and when neces­sary arrest, students iden­ti­fied as a threat.  

The heart of the prob­lem is what the grant applic­a­tion leaves unsaid: How will indi­vidu­als be “iden­ti­fied”? In other words, what are the phys­ical, beha­vi­oral, or other “indic­at­ors” that can brand someone as a poten­tial viol­ent extrem­ist? 

Recently, the mayor claimed that the program would focus on “protect­ive factors” and would not be rooted in the radic­al­iz­a­tion theor­ies that “alarmed community activ­ists and attor­neys.” This seems unlikely based on the grant applic­a­tion (which emphas­izes “prevent­ing radic­al­iz­a­tion”) but espe­cially given the history of LA CVE.  

The city’s preex­ist­ing CVE programs have been widely criti­cized for flag­ging indi­vidu­als as poten­tial viol­ent extrem­ists based on First Amend­ment-protec­ted activ­ity or wildly over­broad criteria. For instance, offi­cial LAPD train­ing docu­ments from 2010 list “being passion­ate about Somalia,” “having abso­lute trust in the mosque,” and “lack­ing resources” as possible risks for terror­ist recruit­ment. LAPD’s PATHE program poses ques­tions that include: “Have you traveled recently?” and “Do you have a reli­gious community affil­i­ation?” and “Do you have anim­os­ity towards any reli­gious, community, or polit­ical group?” Addi­tion­ally, the city’s Safe Spaces program considers factors such as “misguided inter­pret­a­tions of Islam,” “troubles at home,” and “a desire to look cool,” as possible indic­at­ors of a propensity to use viol­ence accord­ing to their train­ing and guidelines. 

These factors are considered despite the fact that the 2015 LA CVE Frame­work (which supposedly “codi­fied” the city’s CVE approach) states that there is a need for “cred­ible research-based baselines for indic­at­ors of viol­ent extrem­ism.” Coupled with the grant applic­a­tion’s silence on the matter, it seems likely that the city will continue using current “risk factors,” placing people on an inter­ven­tion conveyor belt based on reli­gion, ethni­city, race, or polit­ical opin­ions.  

LA’s CVE program also puts a signi­fic­ant burden on indi­vidu­als and groups who are not qual­i­fied (and should not be expec­ted to be qual­i­fied) to identify poten­tial terror­ists within their communit­ies with little to no guid­ance. Although the grant applic­a­tion claims that part of the initi­at­ive will include “capa­city build­ing” of community organ­iz­a­tions, few specif­ics are provided, and it seems likely that “capa­city build­ing” is code for fund­ing.

Mean­while, the LA City Coun­cil has decided that it needs more time to mull this contro­ver­sial issue that could, accord­ing to the mayor’s office, expand CVE program­ming to roughly 10 million people in the LA region. The groups who organ­ized the protest, along with count­less other concerned resid­ents, hope that the City Coun­cil comes to see LA CVE for what it is — another means for strip­ping away the rights and liber­ties of Muslims and other minor­it­ies and cast­ing them as inher­ently suspect.