Activists are outraged at an FBI report on the rise of black ‘extremists’

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FBI headquarters
In
this Nov. 2, 2016, file photo, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover
headquarter building in Washington.

AP

  • An FBI report on black “extremists” is creating
    concerns about whether the bureau is spying on activist groups
    without sufficient evidence.
  • Black leaders and activists are outraged at the report,
    saying that it equates black political activism with domestic
    terrorism.
  • Some activists said the report reminded them of
    COINTELPRO, a covert and illegal operation in the 1950s and 60s
    designed to expose and “neutralize” the activities of black
    nationalists.
     

WASHINGTON (AP) — An FBI report on the rise of black “extremists”
is stirring fears of a return to practices used during the civil
rights movement, when the bureau spied on activist groups without
evidence they had broken any laws.

The FBI said it doesn’t target specific groups, and the report is
one of many its intelligence analysts produce to make law
enforcement aware of what they see as emerging trends. A similar
bulletin on white supremacists, for example, came out about the
same time.

The 12-page report, issued in August, says “black identity
extremists” are increasingly targeting law enforcement after
police killings of black men, especially since the shooting of
Michael Brown roiled Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The report
describes cases in which “extremists” had “acted in retaliation
for perceived past police brutality incidents.” It warned that
such violence was likely to continue.

Black leaders and activists were outraged after Foreign Policy
revealed the existence of the report last month. The
Congressional Black Caucus, in a letter to FBI Director
Christopher Wray, said the report “conflates black political
activists with dangerous domestic terrorist organizations” and
would further erode the frayed relationship between police and
minority communities.

“I have never met a black extremist. I don’t know what the FBI is
talking about,” said Chris Phillips, a filmmaker in Ferguson.

Before the Trump administration, the report might not have caused
such alarm. The FBI noted it issued a similar bulletin warning of
retaliatory violence by “black separatist extremists” in March
2016, when the country had a black president, Barack Obama, and
black attorney general, Loretta Lynch.

But black voters overwhelmingly opposed Donald Trump. And they
are suspicious of his administration, which has been criticized
as insensitive on racial issues, including when Trump was slow to
condemn white nationalist protesters following a deadly rally in
Charlottesville, Virginia.


Jeff Sessions
Jeff
Sessions.

Spencer Platt/Getty
Images


Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama senator whose
career has been dogged by questions about race and his commitment
to civil rights, did not ease lawmakers’ concerns when he was
unable to answer questions about the report or its origins during
a congressional hearing this past week.

Sessions said he was aware of “groups that do have an
extraordinary commitment to their racial identity, and some have
transformed themselves even into violent activists.” He struggled
to answer the same question about white extremists.

It wouldn’t be unusual for an attorney general not to have seen
such an FBI assessment, which the FBI creates on its own to
circulate internally among law enforcement agencies. But the
exchange with Rep. Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, presented
an uncomfortable moment.

“What worries me about this terribly is that this is that it is a
flashback to the past,” Bass said after the hearing. She said she
was especially concerned after receiving complaints from members
of Black Lives Matter, who said they were being monitored and
harassed by police in her district.

The group rallies after racially charged encounters with police,
but it is not mentioned in the FBI’s intelligence assessment.
Even so, Bass said she worried the report will send a message to
police that it’s OK to crack down on groups critical of law
enforcement.

The FBI does not comment on its intelligence bulletins, which
usually are not public. In a statement, the FBI said it cannot
and will not open an investigation based solely on a person’s
race or exercise of free speech rights.

“Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on
individuals who commit violence and other criminal acts,” the FBI
said. “Furthermore, the FBI does not and will not police
ideology. When an individual takes violent action based on belief
or ideology and breaks the law, the FBI will enforce the rule of
law.”

The assessments are designed to help law enforcement agencies
stay ahead of emerging problems and should not be seen as a sign
of a broader enforcement strategy, said Jeffrey Ringel, a former
FBI agent and Joint Terrorism Task force member who now works for
the Soufan Group, a private security firm. Agencies can decide
for themselves whether the assessment reflects a real problem, he
said.


black lives matter protest
Just
one step along the way to a more egalitarian
society.

AP Photo/Ted S.
Warren


Still, some veterans of the black and Latino civil rights
movement said the FBI assessment reminded them of the bureau’s
now-defunct COINTELPRO, a covert and often illegal operation
under Director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950s and 1960s. Agents
were assigned to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise
neutralize the activities of black nationalists,” Hoover said in
a once-classified memo to field agents.

David Correia, an American Studies professor at the University of
New Mexico, said the new memo carries a similar message.

“It’s part of their playbook,” he said. “They try to characterize
legitimate concerns about something like police violence as
somehow a danger so they can disrupt protests.” The FBI used a
similar tactic to try to cause confusion among New Mexico
Hispanic land grant activists in the 1960s, he said.

The cases listed in the new bulletin include that of a sniper who
said he was upset about police treatment of minorities before
killing five officers during a protest in Dallas, and a man who
wrote of the need to inflict violence on “bad cops” before
killing three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In each of the cases,
the FBI alleges the suspects were connected to radical ideologies
linked to black nationalism.

Phillips, who is set to release a film about the shooting of
Brown and its aftermath, said if the FBI were really worried
about unrest, it should turn its focus to the concerns of the
people “who are protesting in the streets” instead of targeting
people who face discrimination daily.

Contreras reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.



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