The New COINTELPRO? Meet the Activist the FBI Labeled a “Black Identity Extremist” & Jailed 5 Months

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In Texas, a black activist says he is the first person to be targeted and prosecuted under a secretive U.S. surveillance effort to track so-called black identity extremists. On December 12, activist Rakem Balogun awoke to armed FBI agents storming his Dallas apartment. He was then jailed for nearly six months without the possibility of bail as the FBI investigated him for “domestic terrorism,” in part because of his Facebook posts criticizing police brutality. He was released earlier this month, after U.S. attorneys failed to prosecute him. For more, we speak with Rakem Balogun, who was released earlier this month after being jailed for nearly six months. And we speak with Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a Black Lives Matter Bay Area activist.

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Video squareStoryOct 16, 2017COINTELPRO 2? FBI Targets “Black Identity Extremists” Despite Surge in White Supremacist Violence
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we end today’s show in Texas, where a black activist says he is the first person to be targeted and prosecuted under a secretive U.S. surveillance effort to track so-called black identity extremists. On December 12th, activist Rakem Balogun awoke to armed FBI agents storming his Dallas apartment. He was then jailed for nearly six months without the possibility of bail as the FBI investigated him for “domestic terrorism,” in part because of his Facebook posts criticizing police brutality. He was released earlier this month, after U.S. attorneys failed to prosecute him.

Balogun is a founding member of the groups Guerrilla Mainframe and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. The groups coordinate meals for homeless people, organize youth picnics, run self-defense classes, protest police brutality and advocate for the rights of black gun owners. The Guardian reports investigators began tracking him after he was part of a 2015 protest against police brutality and that the FBI learned about the protest from a video on InfoWars, the far-right website run by Alex Jones.

Balogun’s arrest comes after a leaked August 2017 report from the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit revealed that the FBI claiming, quote, “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.”

AMY GOODMAN: Civil liberties groups have slammed the FBI report, comparing the memo to the FBI’s covert COINTELPRO program of the 1950s, '60s and ’70s, Counterintelligence Program, which targeted the civil rights movement. Many have also noted the FBI memo was dated August 3rd—only a few days before the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis killed an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, and injured dozens more. The FBI does not seem to be surveilling and targeting white people who post violent things to social media, including multiple white men who have recently carried out mass school shootings. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who shot dead eight students and two teachers last week at Santa Fe High School in Texas, had posted on his Facebook page a picture of a T-shirt reading “born to kill.” Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old man who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine's Day had shared numerous posts on social media so disturbing, he was reported to the FBI multiple times, yet they never arrested him.

Well, for more, we go to Texas, where we’re joined by Rakem Balogun, who was released earlier this month after being held for nearly six months. In San Francisco, we’re joined by Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a Black Lives Matter Bay Area activist.

Let’s begin with Rakem. You were arrested December 12th. Describe what happened.

RAKEM BALOGUN: Well, pretty much, on December 12th, around 6 a.m. in the morning, me and my son was at home resting, when FBI agents rammed our door and immediately rushed us outside in our underwear, you know, under gunpoint, to be arrested and for me and my son to be separated and, overall, me be hauled off to jail.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they tell you? On what grounds? What were you charged with?

RAKEM BALOGUN: I was charged with 922(g), which is prohibited possession of a firearm.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And did you have a license for the firearm?

RAKEM BALOGUN: Well, in the state of Texas, we don’t—you don’t need a license or even have to register firearms to have them legally. Long as, you know, you’re not a felon or considered a prohibited person, you’re able to have firearms within your home or your vehicle. And if it’s a long-barrel rifle, you’re able to open-carry that without any licenses or anything of that nature.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you held for almost a year, Rakem, a half a year?

RAKEM BALOGUN: Well, the reason why I was held is because the FBI was pretty much surveillancing me for over two-and-a-half years as a domestic terrorist. And from surveillancing me for being a domestic terrorist, you know, they overreached and tried to use a previous charge from 2005 to say that this charge made me prohibited of having a firearm, which the elements of that charge actually didn’t. But the reason I was able to be detained for so long is because, when I initially got locked up, I went to a magistrate hearing with a magistrate judge for a bond, and the judge denied me bond based off of me using my First Amendment right to criticize police officers on Facebook.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how was your case ultimately resolved?

RAKEM BALOGUN: It was dismissed. You know, we filed pretrial motions stating that I am not a prohibited person and forcing the United States government to prove that I’m a prohibited person not to have firearms. And the government failed to prove that. And so, therefore, they had to release me, after holding me over five months of being detained.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Malkia Cyril into this conversation, with the Center for Media Justice. Malkia, your thoughts on how Facebook and Instagram posts of people like the alleged mass shooters in Texas and Florida were able to post guns and other threatening language and symbols on their Facebook page, yet someone like Rakem is surveilled and held in jail for half a year and then not charged?

MALKIA CYRIL: Well, first of all, let’s be very clear: The history of gun control in this country is totally and completely focused on controlling the possession of weapons of black people, while allowing white people to run free shooting up the nation. So, I think that we have to, first of all, understand that, you know, whether we’re talking about posting online or we’re talking about just living your offline life, there’s discrimination in how black people and white people are treated in terms of their First Amendment rights and in terms of their right to carry. Second of all, on Facebook, we already know that black activists are being censored, are victims of hate speech regularly, are surveilled. There’s undue cooperation between Facebook and law enforcement agencies when it comes to the targeting of black activists. So, the online space, particularly on these platforms, these social media platforms, and especially on Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world, is a contested space, is a discriminatory space and is a space that is virulently anti-black.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to Texas state Representative Sheila Jackson Lee questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November about the leaked FBI counterterrorism memo claiming that so-called black identity extremists pose a threat to law enforcement.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: Are you familiar with the names Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice? My question is, as I hold up the poster dealing with the report under your jurisdiction, “Black Identity Extremists,” it is interesting to me that you are opposing individuals who are opposing lethal force, similar to the attack on Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King on COINTELPRO, but there seems to be no report dealing with the tiki torch parade in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Why is there an attack on black activists versus any reports dealing with the “alt-right” and the white nationalists? Can you answer that question, quickly?

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I’m not aware—

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: Are you planning on investigating that?

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: When was that report completed?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: In August of 2017.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I’m not aware—I have not studied that report.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I ask you, too, because it’s an attack on individuals who are simply trying to petition the government in a redress of grievances.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Malkia Cyril, your comments?

MALKIA CYRIL: I mean, look, white supremacists have committed the largest share of domestic extremist-related killings last year. We know that white supremacy and white supremacists represent the biggest domestic threat to the United States. And yet, Trump cut funding to countering violent extremism to fight white supremacy. We understand very clearly where the priorities lie. And in a digital environment, those priorities—that discrimination and that undue focus on black people and black activists becomes exacerbated. So, that—you know, first of all, I’m just so happy to hear that sister speak so clearly to this issue, but we understand very, very clearly that under these current political conditions, black activists are being targeted, Muslims are being targeted, immigrants are being targeted, while white supremacists are running free.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is happening with your battle against the FBI’s “black identity extremist” program, which I think a lot of people are going to be hearing for the first time right here, Malkia?

MALKIA CYRIL: Well, let’s be clear. You know, I want to remind you all that in the '70s, what it took to even bring the Counterintelligence Program, that was targeting the Black Panther Party and other civil rights activists, to light, you know, several white people had to break into an FBI office, expose that program through illegal means. Right? Today, we have FOIAs. We have—you know, Color of Change, Center for Media Justice, ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights have used the FOIA process to find out more information about this program. Color of Change has been able to uncover something called a race paper, you know, where they're looking into what really is going on.

But at the end of the day, we understand that very little information is available to us. Part of the problem is a deep lack of transparency. We know that the FBI is undergoing its own separate crisis, which makes it even more difficult, under the current political conditions, to get any information. We know that members of Congress, you know, as you just heard, have gone to the FBI, the FBI director, have gone to Jeff Sessions, and demanded information and not received any.

So, right now, we see those in power stalling, not sharing information. I think it will require a lawsuit of pretty significant proportions just to get basic information, the goal of which is to get the FBI to withdraw this designation, to rescind any funds dedicated to attacking black activists using this designation. But it’s going to be an uphill battle and one that we’re prepared to be on.

AMY GOODMAN: Rakem, do you think you are still under surveillance? And what happened—

RAKEM BALOGUN: Yes, I—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

RAKEM BALOGUN: Yes, I do.

AMY GOODMAN: And how are you going to challenge what happened to you, being held and then not tried?

RAKEM BALOGUN: Well, you know, what I definitely want to do is definitely continue to bring up the conversation, if—have the, you know, federal government overreached in its attempt to identify domestic terrorists. And, you know, I also want to bring to the conversation the FBI goal into pretty much retaliating against black activists for—you know, black activists protesting against the excessive use of police, of abuse. And so, you know, as this continues to unfold, because I’ve only been out of their custody for two months, so right now I’m currently just getting back to being back out in regular society and things of that nature. But me and my team, we will continue to hold the government accountable. We will push for law—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rakem Balogun, we want to thank you for being with us, and also Malkia Cyril.

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

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