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COINTELPRO 2? FBI Targets “Black Identity Extremists” Despite Surge in White Supremacist Violence

StoryOctober 16, 2017
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A leaked FBI counterterrorism memo claims that so-called black identity extremists pose a threat to law enforcement. That’s according to Foreign Policy magazine, which obtained the document written by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit. The memo was dated August 3, 2017—only days before the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis killed one anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, and injured dozens more. But the report is not concerned with the violent threat of white supremacists. Instead, the memo reads: “The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist 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.” Civil liberties groups have slammed the FBI report, warning the “black identity extremists” designation threatens the rights of protesters with Black Lives Matter and other groups. Many have also compared the memo to the FBI’s covert COINTELPRO program of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, which targeted the civil rights movement. We speak with Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice as well as a Black Lives Matter Bay Area activist.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show by looking at a leaked FBI counterterrorism memo which claims so-called black identity extremists pose a threat to law enforcement. That’s according to Foreign Policy magazine, which obtained the document written by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit. The memo was dated August 3rd, 2017, only days before the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis killed an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, injured dozens more. But the report is not concerned with the violent threat of white supremacists. Instead, the memo reads: “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,” end-quote.

Civil liberties groups have slammed the FBI report, warning the “black identity extremists” designation threatens the rights of protesters with Black Lives Matter and other groups. Many have also compared the memo to the FBI’s covert COINTELPRO program of the ’50s through ’70s, which targeted the civil rights movement.

For more, we’re going to San Francisco, California, where we’re joined by Malkia Cyril. She’s the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice as well as a Black Lives Matter Bay Area activist.

Malkia, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about this report and what your assessment is of this term they have used, “black identity extremists”?

MALKIA CYRIL: Well, thanks for having me. You know, it’s a great question. What is a black identity extremist? I think we’re all trying to figure that out. Nobody knows, in part because it doesn’t exist. It’s a term fabricated by the FBI, constructed. And it has a history. I mean, for a very long time, for many decades in this country, probably centuries, the FBI has criminalized black dissent. We saw it through the COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program, as you mentioned, in the 1950s, '60s and ’70s. We're seeing it again today. This term, this idea of black extremism are coming up by the FBI, being used as a way to criminalize democratically protected speech and activity. It’s wrong, it’s erroneous, and it should be withdrawn.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is your understanding of where it stands now?

MALKIA CYRIL: You know, right now, we don’t know. I mean, that’s part of the problem. You know, we need some information from the FBI. It’s clear that the FBI should provide an unredacted description. What do they mean by a “black identity extremist”? Right now that description is pretty vague. It refers to some anti-white ideologies. It compares—you know, it talks about ideologies of black separatism. But it doesn’t have anything concrete. I mean, I think that’s part of the problem, that this is a categorization that has been constructed. The definition has no—makes no sense. And we need some more information from the FBI, so that we can actually respond effectively to this categorization.

AMY GOODMAN: It doesn’t refer to Black Lives Matter specifically.

MALKIA CYRIL: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that, Malkia?

MALKIA CYRIL: Well, I mean, you know, it doesn’t refer to any specific organization, because the FBI, through its own guidelines, can’t really do that, number one. Number two, its guidelines say it can’t start investigations or investigate anyone solely on the basis of race. So what it’s done is it’s constructed, out of, you know, looking at six different cases over three years that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, of people who have committed violence against police officers. They have constructed a relationship between these cases that doesn’t exist, and then assigned some political ideology to those cases that doesn’t exist. So, anti-white feelings or sentiment doesn’t lead to police violence. Being angry as a black person in America about the—excuse me, doesn’t lead to violence against police. Being angry about police violence in America, police violence that is targeting largely people of color, also does not lead to violence against the police.

So, the bottom line here is that we have a rampant situation where white nationalism is on the rise. And yet the FBI has chosen to use its resources to construct and fabricate a threat that does not exist, instead of addressing a threat that does exist. So, whether it refers directly to Black Lives Matter as an organization or not, it’s clear this is an attempt to criminalize black dissent, which will have an outsized negative impact on those who are working in organizations like Black Lives Matter.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about another issue, about these allegations a Russian company spent more than $100,000 buying thousands of ads that sought to politicize the U.S. electorate ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Some of the allegations relate to Russian Facebook ads specifically referencing Black Lives Matter, targeting audiences in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

MALKIA CYRIL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Google also says, quote, “suspected Russian agents,” unquote, paid for tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of political advertisements last year also aimed at swaying the 2016 presidential election. Your thoughts?

MALKIA CYRIL: First of all, we have to be really clear. This is not simply about what Russia has done. This is about how Russia and the right wing of the United States has collaborated to undermine democracy. So I want to be very clear. When we talk about, you know, Russia buying these ads or using these Facebook pages, so on and so forth, what we’re really talking about is a collusion, a collaboration between a global right wing. That’s really important. We need to be really clear about that, number one.

Number two, whether the ads or the Facebook pages seem to be pro- or anti-Black Lives Matter, the fact is that these pages and these ads were anti-black. That’s what’s clear. They were using anti-black tropes of black militancy to sway an election and undermine democracy. This is not new. The CIA has done this for decades. This is a tactic that has been used by the United States internationally for decades. We should not be surprised that it is being used now. And we need to think very carefully about what is going to happen over the next several years to undermine the next presidential election. And we need to get ready.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a CNN report, a social media campaign calling itself “Blacktivist” and linked to the Russian government used both Facebook and Twitter in an apparent attempt to amplify racial tensions during the election. Again, they attribute it to two sources with knowledge of the matter talking to CNN. The Twitter account has been handed over to Congress. The Facebook account is expected to be handed over in the coming days, was the report. Your response to Blacktivist? Have you looked into this?

MALKIA CYRIL: You know, I’ve heard about it. I’ve actually seen the page in the past. You know, I spend a lot of time working on social media issues and looking at, you know, possibly fake pages that talk about black issues, trying to weed them out from pages that are related to real, on-the-ground organizations. And what we’ve seen is, interestingly, while this has come to light, you know, the Blacktivist page has come to light as being associated with this disinformation campaign, it’s clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of fake pages on Facebook, dozens of fake accounts on Twitter, that claim to be related to some black movement, but in fact are not.

What we need to be is very careful making sure that the pages we follow, the accounts we follow, are actually connected to real organizations that are doing real work on the ground. And it’s hard to do. It means that Facebook and Twitter have to take real responsibility for this kind of disinformation on their site, really do something to protect the black activists who are working on their site, and differentiate between the fake pages and the real pages, because it has real consequences for black activism.

AMY GOODMAN: Malkia Cyril, for young people who may not be familiar with COINTELPRO—you certainly are—can you talk about your own family experience? We have just about a minute. But, you know, December 4th, 1969, Mark Clark and Fred Hampton—Fred Hampton, the head of the Black Panthers in Chicago, Illinois—are gunned down by police as they’re sleeping in bed. What the Counter Intelligence Program did and the effect, for example, on your family?

MALKIA CYRIL: My mother was a member of the Black Panther Party in New York. She ran the breakfast program in New York. And my mother was visited by the FBI just weeks before she died in 2005. So this is not something—this harassment, the kind of FBI harassment of black activists, didn’t end in 1969. It didn’t end when COINTELPRO was, you know, exposed in 1971. It is continuing today. There are hundreds of political prisoners in our prison system—black political prisoners, Puerto Rican political prisoners, Native American political prisoners—because of the Counter Intelligence Program. And we need to make sure that never, ever happens in America again.

AMY GOODMAN: Malkia Cyril, thanks so much for taking this time with us, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, also a Black Lives Matter activist.

MALKIA CYRIL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for our broadcast today. Happy birthday to Miguel Nogueira! Happy belated birthday, Miguel.

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