Watching the Black Body

Photo credit: Ian Sale. CC-BY-NC-ND.

In December 2017, FBI agents forced Rakem Balogun and his fifteen-year-old son out of their Dallas home. They arrested Balogun on charges of illegal firearms possession and seized a book called Negroes with Guns. After being denied bail and spending five months in prison, Balogun was released with all charges dropped.

A reemergence of civil rights–era surveillance strategies is endangering Black activists as tech companies profit.

To his shock, Balogun later discovered that the FBI had been monitoring him for years. He also discovered that he had been arrested that day for one specific reason: he had posted a Facebook update that criticized police.

Balogun is considered by some to be the first individual prosecuted under a secretive government program that tracks so-called “Black Identity Extremists” (BIEs).

A Black Extremist is what the FBI called my mother, fifty years ago.

History Repeats Itself

There were definitely extreme things about my mother. The pain of living with sickle cell anemia was extreme. The number of books she thought she could fit into a room, piling them high in the living room of our brownstone home: that was extreme.

I remember sitting on her shoulders during my first protest, in the early 1980s, against the deportation of Haitian people arriving by boat. Sitting up there, on top of my very small world, listening to extreme story after extreme story of Black bodies washed out to sea for attempting only to seek a better life, I began to understand clearly: being Black in America, and anywhere in the world, was an extreme experience.

But was it extreme to want safety, freedom, and justice for herself, her family, her people?

Despite the pain and complications of sickle cell anemia, and until the disease took her life in 2005, my mother worked every day as an educator, doing her part to achieve human rights for all oppressed people and specifically for Black people in the United States. Whether at a protest, on the floor of Liberation Bookstore in Harlem, in the darkened home of Japanese activist Yuri Kochiyama, or at a polling site on election day, my mother always took time to tell me and my sister stories about her days stuffing envelopes for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, then as the citywide coordinator for the Free Breakfast for Children Program, operating in churches throughout New York City at the time. According to my mom, finding her voice in the Black liberation movement was powerful.

Yet, because of her voice, up until the moment of her death, my mother’s Black body was also under constant surveillance by the FBI and other government agencies.

We felt the FBI’s surveillance of my mother directly in the late 1970s. In order to harass her, the FBI sent my mother’s file both to Health Services, where she worked as the assistant director for mental health programs in New York jails, and to the corrections officers at the jails where she worked. To their credit, Health Services rebuffed the FBI’s intervention. The Office of Corrections, however, banned my mother from the jails, forcing her to supervise her programs from offsite. I remember when, years later, my mother gained access to her FBI file via a Freedom of Information Act request. It was thick, with reams of redacted pages that spoke of police and FBI targeting as far back as the mid-1960s.

Two weeks before my mother died, FBI agents visited our home, demanding that she come in for questioning about a case from the 1970s. My mother could barely walk, was suffering from some dementia, and was dying. She refused.

My mother was the target of surveillance because of her commitment to social justice and human rights. Because of this, I grew up with government surveillance as the water in which I swam, the air that I breathed.

I came to learn that the FBI has a long history of monitoring civil rights and Black liberation leaders like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They monitored Black Muslim leaders like Malcolm X. They monitored Black immigrant leaders like Marcus Garvey.

I came to learn about the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, the covert government program started in 1956 to monitor and disrupt the activities of the Communist Party in the United States. Its activities were often illegal, and expanded in the 1960s to target Black activists in the civil rights and Black Power movements, calling these activists—you guessed it—Black Extremists.

In 1975, a Senate Committee, popularly known as the Church Committee, was formed to investigate the FBI’s intelligence programs, a response to pressure from a group that released papers exposing the existence of COINTELPRO. In a 2014 piece for The Nation, Betty Medsger outlines the Committee’s conclusion not only that African Americans were being watched by the government more than any other group was, but that the FBI didn’t require any evidence of “extremism” in order to justify the surveillance. For our communities, it didn’t matter if you had never uttered a subversive word, let alone taken part in any violence. As Medsger writes, “being Black was enough.” This warrantless spying on Black activists resulted in dozens of Black deaths by police shooting, and other Black lives swallowed whole for decades by the wrongful incarceration of political prisoners. Men like Kamau Sadiki and women like Safiya Bukhari, whom I grew up calling uncle and aunt, were among them.

Ultimately, the Church Committee’s final report concluded that COINTELPRO was a dangerous program. As Robyn C. Spencer explains in Black Perspectives, the report states that the FBI used tactics which increased the “risk of death” while often disregarding “the personal rights and dignity of its victims.” The Committee determined that the FBI used “vaguely defined ‘pure intelligence’ and ‘preventive intelligence’” justifications for its surveillance of citizens who hadn’t committed any crimes—for reasons which had little or nothing to do with the enforcement of law.

Given this history, my mother’s history, my history, I was not surprised when Foreign Policy broke the story that an August 2017 FBI intelligence assessment had identified a new designation: the “Black Identity Extremist.”

I was not surprised, but I was scared.

So, What Is a “Black Identity Extremist”?

“Black Identity Extremist” is a constructed category, invented by the FBI and documented in an August 2017 assessment entitled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers.”

The FBI fabricated the BIE designation to create suspicion of Black people who respond publicly to police extrajudicial killings, but it doesn’t stop there. The document also focuses heavily on the convergence of what it calls “Moorish [Muslim] sovereign citizen ideology” and Black radicalization as reasons for heightened law enforcement targeting. As support, the assessment specifically cites the completely unrelated cases of Micah Johnson, a man who shot and killed multiple Dallas police officers during a protest in 2016; Zale H. Thompson, who attacked police in Queens, N.Y., with a hatchet in 2014; Gavin Eugene Long, who murdered multiple police officers in Baton Rouge, La.; and a few other unnamed subjects. In each of these cited incidents the perpetrators acted alone and without any connection to each other beyond the fact that they were all Black men. Not only are these cases unrelated to each other, but they are all unrelated to the larger organized movement for Black lives in general and the Black Lives Matter Global Network in particular. The FBI’s goal is clear: to fictitiously link democratically protected activities aimed at ending police violence and misconduct with what it calls “premeditated, retaliatory, lethal violence” against police officers. This is not only unethical and unaccountable; it places Black lives in real danger.

Even the FBI’s own definition in the assessment is vague and likely unconstitutional: “The FBI defines black identity extremists as individuals who seek, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence, in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society, [to establish] a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.” This definition—encompassing any act of force conducted, even partially, in response to injustice in society—has no limit. It gives the FBI and prosecutors broad discretion to treat any violence by people who happen to be Black as part of a terrorist conspiracy. It is also absolutely baseless.

The fact is, as the Washington Post reported in 2015, police officers are no more likely to be killed by Black offenders than by white offenders. More than half of all officers killed in the line of duty die as a result of accidents in the commission of their job rather than attacks of any kind. The total number of officers killed in the ambush-style attacks that are central to the BIE narrative remains quite small, and overall recent officer deaths remain below the national average compared with the last decade.

The bottom line is: “Black Identity Extremists” do not exist. The FBI’s assessment is rooted in a history of anti-Black racism within and beyond the FBI, with the ugly addition of Islamophobia. What’s worse is that the designation, by linking constitutionally protected political protest with violence by a few people who happen to be Black, serves to discourage vital dissent. Given the FBI’s sordid history, this assessment could also be used to rationalize the harassment of Black protesters and an even more militant police response against them.

Despite the grave concerns of advocates, the FBI assessment and designation are already being used to justify both the erosion of racial justice–based consent decrees and the introduction of more than thirty-two Blue Lives Matter bills across fourteen states in 2017. The FBI’s assessment also feeds this unfounded narrative into the training of local law enforcement. A 2018 course offered by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, for instance, includes “Black Identity Extremists” in its overview of “domestic terror groups and criminally subversive subcultures which are encountered by law enforcement professionals on a daily basis.”

The High-Tech Policing of Black Dissent

The BIE program doesn’t just remind me of COINTELPRO; it represents its reemergence, this time in full view. Today, though, aided by the tech industry, this modern COINTELPRO has been digitized and upgraded for the twenty-first century.

Just as Black Lives Matter and a broader movement for Black lives organize to confront persistently brutal and unaccountable policing, programs like BIE are legalizing the extrajudicial surveillance of Black communities. Police access to social-media data is helping to fuel this surveillance. Big tech and data companies aren’t just standing by and watching the show; they are selling tickets. And through targeted advertising and the direct sale of surveillance technologies, these companies are making a killing.

Too many people still believe that civil and human rights violations of these proportions can’t happen in America. They either don’t know that they’ve been happening for centuries or wrongly believe that those days are long over. But right now, American cities with large Black populations, like Baltimore, are becoming labs for police technologies such as drones, cell phone simulators, and license plate readers. These tools, often acquired from FBI grant programs, are being used to target Black activists.

This isn’t new. Tech companies and digital platforms have historically played a unique role in undermining the democratic rights of Black communities. In the twentieth century, the FBI colluded with Ma Bell to co-opt telephone lines and tap the conversations of civil rights leaders, among others.

Given this history, today’s high-tech surveillance of Black bodies doesn’t feel new or dystopian to me. Quite the opposite. As author Simone Browne articulates beautifully in her book Dark Matters, agencies built to monitor Black communities and harbor white nationalists will use any available technology to carry out the mandate of white supremacy. These twenty-first-century practices are simply an extension of history and a manifestation of current relations of power. For Black bodies in America, persistent and pervasive surveillance is simply a daily fact of life.

In fact, the monitoring of Black bodies is much older than either the current high-tech version or the original COINTELPRO. Browne notes that in eighteenth-century New York, “lantern laws” required that enslaved Black people be illuminated when walking at night unaccompanied by a white person. These laws, along with a system of passes that allowed Black people to come and go, Jim Crow laws that segregated Black bodies, and the lynching that repressed Black dissidence with murderous extrajudicial force, are all forms of monitoring that, as Claudia Garcia-Rojas observed in a 2016 interview with Browne for Truthout, have “made it possible for white people to identify, observe, and control the Black body in space, but also to create and maintain racial boundaries.” These are the ongoing conditions that gave birth to the FBI’s BIE designation.

It has always been dangerous to be Black in America. The compliance of tech companies and—under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump—the BIE designation escalate that danger exponentially.

For example, while many have long fought for racial diversity in Amazon’s United States workforce, few were prepared for the bombshell that Amazon was selling its facial recognition tool, Rekognition, to local police departments, enabling them to identify Black activists. The problem is made worse by the fact that facial recognition tools have been shown to discriminate against Black faces.

When the Center for Media Justice (CMJ), the organization I direct, and dozens of other civil rights groups demanded that Amazon stop selling this surveillance technology to the government, the company defended its practice by saying, “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.” Such appeals assume a baseline of equity in this country that has never existed, ignoring the very real anti-Black biases built into facial recognition software. Amazon’s response also rejects any responsibility for the well-known abuses against Black communities. But these happen daily at the hands of the same police forces who are buying Rekognition. Put simply, whether they acknowledge it or not, Jeff Bezos and his company are choosing profits over Black lives.

The proliferation of ineffective, unaccountable, and discriminatory technologies in the hands of brutal law enforcement agencies with a mandate to criminalize legally protected dissents using the FBI’s BIE designation isn’t simply dangerous to Black lives—it’s deadly.

In 2016, the ACLU of Northern California published a report outlining how Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter provided users’ data to Geofeedia, a social-media surveillance product used by government officials, private security firms, marketing agencies, and, yes, the police to monitor the activities and discussions of activists of color.

These examples show that our twenty-first-century digital environment offers Black communities a constant pendulum swing between promise and peril. On one hand, twenty-first-century technology is opening pathways to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of power via a free and open internet—allowing marginalized communities of color to unite and build widespread movements for change. The growth of the movement for Black lives is just one example. On the other hand, high-tech profiling, policing, and punishment are supersizing racial discrimination and placing Black lives and dissent at even graver risk. Too often, the latter is disguised as the former.

Defending Our Movements by Demanding Tech Company Noncompliance

One way to fight back is clear: organize to demand the noncompliance of tech companies with police mass surveillance. And—despite Amazon’s initial response to criticism of its facial recognition technologies—public pressure on these public-facing technology companies to stop feeding police surveillance has succeeded before.

To fight back against Geofeedia surveillance, CMJ partnered with the ACLU of Northern California and Color of Change to pressure Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stop allowing their platforms and data to be used for the purposes of government surveillance. We succeeded. All three social media platforms have since stopped allowing Geofeedia to mine user data.

Both from within—through demands from their own workforce—and from without—through pressure from their users, the public, and groups like CMJ and the ACLU—we can create an important choice for public-facing companies like Amazon, Twitter, IBM, Microsoft, and Facebook. We can push them to increase their role in empowering Black activists and to stop their participation in the targeting of those same people.

The path forward won’t be easy. As revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which more than eighty million Facebook users had their information sold to a political data firm hired by Donald Trump’s election campaign, the high-tech practices used by law enforcement to target Black activists are already deeply embedded in a largely white and male tech ecosystem. It’s no coincidence that Russian actors also used Facebook to influence the 2016 American elections, and did so by using anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant dog-whistle rhetoric. They know that the prejudices of the general public are easy to inflame. Some in tech will continue to contest for broader law enforcement access to social-media data, but we must isolate them.

The point is, demanding the non-cooperation of tech and data companies is one incredibly powerful tool to resist the growing infrastructure threatening Black dissent.

In a digital age, data is power. Data companies like Facebook are disguised as social media, but their profitability comes from the data they procure and share. A BIE program, like the surveillance of my mother before it, needs data to function. The role of tech and data companies in this contest for power could not be more critical.

Surveillance for Whom? The Myth of Countering Violent Extremism

In attempting to justify its surveillance, the government often points to national security. But if the FBI, Attorney General Sessions, and the Department of Justice truly cared for the safety of all people in this country, they would use their surveillance systems to target white nationalists. For years, the growing threat of white-supremacist violence has been clear and obvious. A 2017 Joint Intelligence Bulletin warned that white-supremacist groups “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016… more than any other domestic extremist movement” and that they “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.” Yet little has been done to address this larger threat.

A heavily resourced structure already exists that could theoretically address such white-supremacist violence: Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). These programs tap schools and religious and civic institutions, calling for local community and religious leaders to work with law enforcement and other government agencies to identify and report “radicalized extremists” based on a set of generalized criteria. According to a Brennan Center report, the criteria include “expressions of hopelessness, sense of being unjustly treated, general health, and economic status.” The report points out that everyone from school officials to religious leaders is tasked with identifying people based on these measures.

Yet despite being couched in neutral terms, CVE has focused almost exclusively on American Muslim communities to date. Recently, the Trump administration dropped all pretense and proposed changing the program’s name from Countering Violent Extremism to Countering Islamic Extremism. As reported by Reuters in February 2017, this renamed program would “no longer target groups such as white supremacists.”

The disproportionate focus on monitoring Muslim communities through CVE has also helped justify the disproportionate focus on so-called Black extremism. About 32 percent of U.S.-born Muslims are Black, according to the Pew Research Center. In this way, the current repression of Black dissent by the FBI is connected, in part, to the repression of Islamic dissent. As noted above, the BIE designation ties directly to Islam. And, of course, CVE programs were modeled on COINTELPRO, and the BIE designation is modeled on the successful targeting of Muslim communities in direct violation of their civil and human rights. And tech is here, too. CVE works in combination with the reflexive use of discriminatory predictive analytics and GPS monitoring within our criminal justice system. Add to this the growth of the Department of Homeland Security’s Extreme Vetting Initiative, which uses social media and facial recognition to militarize the border and unlawfully detain generations of immigrants. Together, these programs create a political environment in which Black activists can be targeted, considered domestic terrorists, and stripped of basic democratic rights.

We Say Black Lives Matter

The FBI’s BIE designation was never rooted in a concern for officer safety or national security. It wasn’t rooted in any evidence that “Black Identity Extremism” even exists. None of those justifications hold water. Instead, it is rooted in a historic desire to repress Black dissidence and prevent Black social movements from gaining momentum.

And yet the movement for Black lives has, in fact, gained momentum.

I became a member of the Black Lives Matter Global Network after the brutal killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. It was extraordinary to witness the speed and impact with which the movement grew online and in the streets. Spurred on by the bravery of Black communities in Ferguson, Mo., I was proud to be part of that growth: marching in the street, confronting the seemingly endless pattern of Black death by cop. It was an extraordinary feeling to stand with Black people across the country as we shut down police stations in protest of their violence, halted traffic to say the names of murdered Black women, and ultimately forced Democratic candidates to address the concerns of Black voters.

The FBI’s BIE designation is a blatant attempt to undermine this momentum. It seeks to criminalize and chill Black dissent and prevent alliances between Black, Muslim, immigrant, and other communities. While Black activists may be the targets of the BIE designation, we aren’t the only ones impacted by this gaslighting approach. Resistance organizers working to oppose the detention, deportation, and separation of immigrant families; those fighting back against fascism and white supremacy; Muslim communities; and others are being surveilled and threatened alongside us.

In 2018, we have a Supreme Court that has upheld an unconstitutional Muslim ban alongside White House efforts to deny undocumented families due process; we have an Attorney General and a Department of Justice that endorse social-media spying and high-tech surveillance of people for simply saying and ensuring that Black lives matter. It’s no coincidence that as Black activists are being targeted, the House of Representatives has quietly passed a national “Blue Lives Matter” bill, which will soon move to the Senate, protecting already heavily defended police. This even as the victims of police violence find little justice, if any, through the courts due to the thicket of already existing protections and immunities enjoyed by the police.

The movement for Black lives is a movement against borders and for belonging. It demands that tech companies divest from the surveillance and policing of Black communities, and instead invest in our lives and our sustainability.

If my mother were alive, she would remind me that a government that has enslaved Africans and sold their children will just as quickly criminalize immigrant parents and hold their children hostage, and call Muslim, Arab, and South Asian children terrorists to bomb them out of being.

She would remind me that undermining the civil and human rights of Black communities is history’s extreme arc, an arc that can still be bent in the direction of justice by the same bodies being monitored now. The only remedy is the new and growing movement that is us, and we demand not to be watched but to be seen.

Originally published in The End of Trust. Thanks to EFF.

Categories Culture

Malkia Cyril is the founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice and co-founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network, a national network of community-based organizations working to ensure racial and economic justice in a digital age.