- Alex Vitaleprofessor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College.
“Defund the FBI” is the growing call by Republicans after the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. We get response from Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing,” who lays out reasons to defund the FBI that have nothing to do with Trump. Vitale reviews the history of the FBI, which he says has “always been a tool of repression of left-wing movements,” and calls the FBI investigation into Trump a “shortsighted” attempt to shut down some of the most extreme parts of the right wing. He uplifts efforts to “reduce the power and scope of the FBI in ways that limit their ability to demonize and criminalize those on the left.”
AMY GOODMAN: The Justice Department has asked a federal judge not to unseal a sworn affidavit used by the FBI to recover 11 sets of secret government documents from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida last week. The affidavit is the basis of an application that convinced a judge to sign off on the FBI’s search warrant. In a federal court filing, prosecutors said the affidavit’s release would compromise the continuing investigation and could chill the future cooperation of witnesses. The warrant, which was unsealed Friday, revealed Trump is being investigated for three federal crimes: violating the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of government records.
Fallout from the FBI raid is continuing to grow as Republican lawmakers denounce the FBI, with Florida Senator Rick Scott comparing the agency to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. Fox News host Jesse Watters has called for the firing of FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was appointed by Donald Trump.
JESSE WATTERS: Well, Chris Wray has to be fired by the next Republican president, gotta be fired on day one. Don’t even wait. Just fire him right off the jump.
AMY GOODMAN: A growing number of Republicans are calling for the FBI to be defunded. Far-right Republican Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted on Monday, “Impeach Merrick Garland and Defund the corrupt FBI! End political persecution and hold those accountable that abuse their positions of power to persecute their political enemies, while ruining our country. This shouldn’t happen in America. Republicans must force it to stop!” Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted. Others calling for the FBI to be defunded include Anthony Sabatini, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida.
REP. ANTHONY SABATINI: I think every single candidate and elected official in the GOP right now needs to go on record pledging to defund these lawless agencies.
AMY GOODMAN: The Republican attacks on the FBI mark a radical shift for the party, which has long embraced the FBI. Last year, Democratic Congressmember Bobby Rush of Illinois introduced legislation to force the FBI to disclose more details of its secret COINTELPRO program in the 1960s to surveil and disrupt groups, including the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. and other individuals. The legislation had 24 co-sponsors — none of them Republican.
To talk more about the FBI, we’re joined by Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College here in New York. He’s the author of The End of Policing. His new piece for Truthout is headlined “There Are Good Reasons to Defund the FBI. They Have Nothing to Do With Trump.”
Well, Professor Vitale, let’s start there. It might shock many to hear — and we just chose a few clips, but they are growing around the country — “defund the FBI” from Republicans all over the United States. Can you talk about this?
ALEX VITALE: Well, it is a kind of amusing ideological confusion on their part. They’ve rested so much of their platform on a kind of “back the blue” authoritarianism, and to now see that turned around on the FBI is, on the one hand, amusing, but, on the other hand, I think it’s instructive. It tells us a lot about actually what they think the role of law enforcement is. It’s not the neutral, professional enforcement of the law that they often claim; it’s actually a political tool. The difference here is that they think that it’s a political tool that should be used on their behalf, and they’re really upset to see law enforcement being used against so-called, you know, god-fearing, patriarchal white nationalists as opposed to using those forces against immigrant communities, communities of color, sex workers and, of course, the political left. And so, it’s a kind of a repeat of January 6th, where we saw, you know, “back the blue” flags being used to beat local police.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a coming together of progressives who have called for defunding the police and these calls of really the far right here?
ALEX VITALE: No, not at all. This is not about trying to build an alliance across the ideological divide. When people talk about defunding the police on the left, they mean something radically different. I think what the right intends here is not to reduce the power of the FBI, but merely to change the leadership so that it is more politically compliant with the far-right agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the history of Donald Trump himself using the FBI as a political tool?
ALEX VITALE: Absolutely. I mean, it is certainly true that the FBI is a political tool. The question is, you know: Whose interest does it really serve? Under Trump and many past presidents, we’ve seen the FBI used as a tool to gin up fear on crime, to demonize political enemies through things like the war on drugs, even the war on terror. And most recently, with the Trump administration, right as he went into election mode, he tried to capitalize on fear of crime by creating Operation Relentless Pursuit, that targeted exclusively Democratic cities for intensive flooding of federal agents, more money for local police, more intensive federal prosecutions of basically street crime, in a way that was designed to try to say, “Look, the problems of urban America are not disinvestment, deindustrialization, racial segregation of housing. No, the problems of urban American, of Democratic cities, is too much crime, and the solution to that is more policing.” And that was a political project. And residents in most of these cities that were targeted immediately organized against this initiative and said what they need is investments in housing, stable employment, high-quality healthcare, not more federal policing.
AMY GOODMAN: So, go through the whole history of the FBI, how it was established. And then talk about what you’re calling for and how that differs from what, well, people like Marjorie Taylor Greene are calling for.
ALEX VITALE: In two minutes, the history of the FBI. So, it started as the —
AMY GOODMAN: You can have three.
ALEX VITALE: Started as the Bureau of Investigations in the early 20th century, and it was really understood very clearly that this was going to be a political tool for going after communists, anarchists, striking workers, etc. In the 1920s, J. Edgar Hoover takes it over, and in the early 1930s, it becomes renamed as the FBI. And it becomes a massive system of political policing. Files are kept on millions of Americans — religious leaders, political leaders, celebrities, and, of course, labor leaders, leftist organizers, peace activists. And the FBI is the primary tool at the federal level that’s used to suppress left movements, from the Palmer raids, that attacked opposition to World War I, to attacks on striking workers, the labor movement.
By the 1960s, the mission begins to shift as communists and socialist movements have been successfully suppressed in many ways. The new threat, in Hoover’s eyes, becomes the Black liberation movements of the 1960s, beginning really with the Birmingham bus boycotts and continuing on to the Freedom Rides and the lunch counter sit-ins. Long before even the more, let’s say, militant Black Power movement, the FBI is already laser-focused on surveilling and undermining Black liberation movements, dirty tricks like open surveillance of people to intimidate participants, hiring informants, writing fake letters to try to implicate people in marital infidelities, wiretapping phones, false accusations of being police collaborators to try to sow dissension within the movement.
By the 1980s, this focus shifts increasingly to the environmental movement, targeting Earth First and other organizations.
And, of course, after 9/11, the focus is on the so-called war on terror. And in order to justify every increasing anti-terror, counterterrorism budgets, they concoct all kinds of ridiculous plots, and then they find often intellectually incapable people to pin these plots on. They lure them in with false promises, for people who had no ability to complete these plots. The so-called Herald Square bombing plot in New York City is an example, where the FBI celebrated that they prevented this terrorist attack by a young man who had no idea what he was involved in, was completely incapable of carrying it out, and asked at the last minute if he could call his parents to ask permission to engage in this behavior.
So, the FBI has always been a tool of repression of left-wing movements.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did this change? If you can talk more specifically about President Trump’s Operation Relentless Pursuit and the cities he targeted?
ALEX VITALE: Sure. So, Operation Relentless Pursuit was a kind of effort to go after Trump’s sort of political bogeyman — right? — to say that the problems of America were the result of drug cartels and gangbangers, and that the way to restore cities was through superintensive law enforcement, the use of RICO statutes, the so-called conspiracy laws that allow them to round up huge numbers of young people — because someone that they once smoked weed in the park with got arrested for shooting someone, now they’re all in a criminal conspiracy and can all be charged with the underlying homicide or shooting or whatever. And so, this just flooded these cities with Drug Enforcement Agency — DEA agents, ATF, FBI, who just went out on arrest raids, jump-outs and all the rest.
And one of the things that’s shocking about this is that all seven of the Democratic mayors in the targeted cities basically embraced this — Baltimore somewhat less so. They welcomed the infusion of money for local policing. They welcomed the infusion of federal law enforcement. And this really shows kind of a deeper bipartisan crisis about the role of law enforcement in trying to revitalize American cities.
AMY GOODMAN: I shouldn’t have said “how did it change,” because that was a continuation. But how do you see what the FBI has done now, in searching the home of President Trump, and those who had always supported the agency now comparing them to the Gestapo, and certainly right up to President Trump attacking them?
ALEX VITALE: Yeah, well, we’ve always had some FBI enforcement of the extreme right — the KKK and some of the other extreme-right-wing groups over the last 20 years. But it has always been anemic and short-lived and basically in the service of a very kind of conservative centrism that wants to sort of wipe out any kind of populism, you know, the kind of New York Times liberal anti-populism that prefers a kind of technocratic neoliberal approach to problems.
And so, what we’re seeing here is some flexing of centrist muscle to try to shut down the most extreme parts of the right wing, in a way, though, that I think is going to backfire and that does nothing to actually address the widespread popularity of these extremist views. I mean, when Marjorie Taylor Greene says we should defund the FBI, she immediately gets hundreds of thousands of likes on her Twitter feed. So, these are — what we thought were fringe ideas have become way too mainstream. And the idea that we’re going to fix this problem with some indictments of Giuliani and Trump, I think, is very shortsighted.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you calling for?
ALEX VITALE: Well, I think we need to, you know, use this rhetorical opening to raise up some existing efforts to try to actually rein in the power of the FBI. You’ve got groups like Defending Rights & Dissent, that’s trying to rework the FBI First Amendment Protection Act that John Conyers introduced in the 1980s to restrict the FBI’s political policing powers. I think we need to look at the BREATHE Act, introduced by Ayanna Pressley and others, that would reduce funding for federal law enforcement and shift those resources into positive on-the-ground public safety programs. We need to look at efforts to end the war on drugs by groups like the Drug Policy Alliance. We need to get the FBI and federal law enforcement out of using RICO statutes to go after young people in urban areas. The Decriminalizing Neighborhoods Network is developing campaigns to rethink the use of the RICO Act. So, there really are efforts underway across the country to reduce the power and scope of the FBI in ways that limit their ability to demonize and criminalize those on the left and those who have been left out of the neoliberal consensus.
AMY GOODMAN: Alex Vitale, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College here in New York, author of The End of Policing. We’ll link to your piece in Truthout, “There Are Good Reasons to Defund the FBI. They Have Nothing to Do With Trump.”
Next up, the CIA and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo have been sued for spying on U.S. lawyers and journalists who met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange while he was living in political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. We’ll speak with the lead lawyer in the case. Stay with us.