The FBI has prepared a nationwide warning for white Americans to be afraid of black people, an ominous siren call coinciding with President Donald Trump’s penchant for stoking racial divisions in the country.
A leaked FBI intelligence assessment obtained and released last week by Foreign Policy targeted what it calls “Black Identity Extremists,” describing them as “very likely” to perpetrate violence against law enforcement officials in retribution to the recent incidents of police shootings of unarmed black people.
The FBI document became public as concerns escalated regarding Trump’s embrace of far-right extremists and white nationalists, and as the president continues to spread racial dissension with mean-spirited tweets attacking NFL players and supportive media personalities. Clearly, the administration views criminalizing communities of color as a way to shield police from scrutiny and score points with a base of white voters.
Students of U.S. history have seen this before. These revelations of the FBI targeting of black people aren’t new and fits into a well-known pattern of the federal government officials, notably in law enforcement, responding to black political, social, and economic progress with harsh measures.
To be clear: while the FBI is supposed to operate with strict independence from the president, federal policing and surveillance of black activists have long histories of support from previous administrations. There’s no reason to suspect any difference from the Trump White House; indeed, there’s every reason to believe otherwise.
The 12-page document, written by the bureau’s counter-terrorism unit, states in its executive summary:
The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence…The FBI assesses it is very likely incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans since [the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved] have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement.
In its report, the FBI noted it has focused attention “on individuals with BIE ideological motivations who have committed targeted, premeditated attacks against law enforcement officers since 2014,” citing six such cases and speculating that those isolated incidents may be part of a swelling trend that would lead others to do likewise.
Compare the FBI figures to a Washington Post database of police shootings that found 173 black people were fatally shot by police in 2017 alone. Put another way, the FBI can’t imagine any pattern to the spate of police shootings, often caught on camera, of black Americans, yet it found a half-dozen instances of crimes committed by a black person since 2014 and linked them into a scary anti-American, anti-police, and anti-Trump crime wave.
The uber-message: Be afraid, white America, black people are coming to get you.
As outrageously racist and misguided as the FBI report and its underlying symbolism are, I find it neither shocking nor unexpected. In fact, the broad-brush depiction of black Americans is the predictable reaction of an administration that seems hell-bent on attacking Americans who aren’t white, affluent or conservative. Portraying black people who are upset with killer cops as violent and other-worldly fits neatly within the racist narrative employed by the White House to advance its political goals, regardless of whether it actually directed the bureau to do so.
Fact of the matter, there’s no such thing as “Black Identity Extremists.” Well, not in a serious sense, as the actual term is a novel FBI construction that conflates the small and largely fringe groups of black separatists into the sweeping identity-politics rubric of black resistance to current events. As the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart accurately noted, “the new ‘black identity’ designation is so broad it could sweep up anyone protesting police-involved shootings of unarmed African Americans.”
What’s more, Michael German, a former FBI agent and current Brennan Center fellow, told Foreign Policy there’s no connection between black separatists and contemporary political black activism, such as that exhibited by Black Lives Matter. “Basically, it’s black people who scare them,” German said in an interview with Foreign Policy.
Though only publicly acknowledged last week, the FBI’s report is dated August 3, roughly a week before a motley regiment of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members held a violent protest march in Charlottesville, Virginia. That rally culminated in a car running into a crowd, killing a young woman. Of course, no mention is made in the new FBI document about the threat posed by white nationalist extremists, who have a documented, brazenly outspoken history of violence against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.
Irony aside, the truly disturbing feature of the FBI’s refreshed suppression of black protesters is that it’s a redux of the U.S. government’s discredited history of doing just this sort of sordid surveillance. Employing the code name COINTELPRO, the FBI sought to discredit civil rights activists between 1956 and 1971 by aggressively monitoring leaders, planting false criminal evidence, and leaking fake news to supplicant media outlets.
This secret campaign occurred under and with the knowing consent of three U.S. presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. The federal operation targeted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panther Party, and the multiracial Students for a Democratic Society. In one egregious case, described in the documentary Eyes on the Prize, COINTELPRO was responsible for the 1969 murder of Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago.
The net effect of the FBI’s dishonorable campaign, according to Branko Marcetic’s reporting for Jacobin, was that by the time the bureau shut down COINTELPRO “it had successfully torn apart many of these left-wing groups and movements. In the process, the Bureau destroyed the reputations, and in some cases lives, of many.”
Overreach by law enforcement is scarier than the dangers it purports to combat. “When we talk about enemies of the state and terrorists, with that comes an automatic stripping of those people’s rights to speak and protest,” Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union told The Guardian. “It marginalizes what are legitimate voices within the political debate that are calling for racial and economic justice.”
To be sure, America is never made stronger by phony racial threats and scare tactics to achieve short-term political favors from frightened white Americans. Quite the contrary. If only the FBI and the Trump administration absorbed the lessons of our not so distant history and refused to recycle its abuses, they just might understand how they’re tearing the nation apart.