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New Documents Reveal FBI Spied on Black Activists, Declared Them 'Threat Actors'

  •  A man protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department Louisiana.

    A man protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department Louisiana. | Photo: Reuters

Published 20 March 2018

Two U.S.-based civil rights groups, Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights, have obtained some heavily redacted FBI documents.

A new report published by the Intercept has revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) not only spied on the Black activists but has actively surveilled the anti-racism activists since 2014.

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The report is based on heavily redacted FBI documents accessed through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filed by two U.S.-based civil rights groups, Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights, in July of 2016. The files contain FBI emails and intelligence reports from 2014 tracing the U.S. agency's steps to monitor social media activities of some Black activists also associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Part of the documents obtained by the two civil rights organizations also includes an internal Department of Homeland Security, DHS, document, which is termed as "Race Paper."

An internal FBI report also shows an agent alerting officials of a protester's travel plans from New York to Ferguson for a Thanksgiving protest at the agro-chemical giant, Monsanto in Nov. 2014. The protester in question is “believed to have been arrested at a previous protest.”  Another report sheds light on the money raised for bail funds and "direct action devices," referring to materials used in protest demonstrations.

Michael German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, told the Intercept, "This is clearly just tracking First Amendment activity and keeping this activity in an intelligence database." 

"Even if you made the argument that it is about a propensity for violence, why isn’t there a discussion of that propensity? Instead, they are discussing bond money, not detailing a criminal predicate or even a possibility of violence." 

A statement issued by the FBI to The Intercept denies it had surveilled anyone because they had exercised their constitutional rights. “The FBI does not engage in surveillance of individuals exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Rebecca Wu, a public affairs officer with the FBI in St. Louis. “However, the FBI is responsible for reviewing intelligence that indicates an individual may be involved in criminal activity or is a threat to national security," she added.

In 2016, Vox News reported that Zero Fox, a cybersecurity firm, identified activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie as "threat actors" during the 2015 Baltimore protests. In August 2015, Vice reported that DHS was monitoring Mckesson's activities on social media. 

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"Government is supposed to protect our rights, not suppress our freedom — and yet for decades, we’ve seen our government engage in a number of illegal surveillance practices that do just that," Color of Change campaign director Brandi Collins said in an official statement to Colorlines. 

In October of 2017, a leaked FBI file which identified "Black Identity Extremists" or BIE as a potential threat to domestic security drew severe criticism from human rights groups and Black activists. 

The 12-page report by the FBI Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit in August, notes of a "BIE ideology" as a violent threat and that "perceptions of unjust treatment of African-Americans and the perceived unchallenged illegitimate actions of law enforcement will inspire premeditated attacks against law enforcement." 

Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security intelligence agent, told the New York Times, that he had no idea about why the FBI had created such a term. 

"Basically, it’s black people who scare them," Johnson said. 

"The FBI’s branding of individuals and groups troubled by racial injustice and police misconduct as dangerous “Black Identity Extremists” echoes and validates the way racist fringe groups on the right, like neo-Nazis or the KKK, see these activists," New York Times reported.

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The recent cases of FBI surveillance are part of a long list, as the U.S. agency has been using the surveillance tactics for decades, including on prominent Black activists from the Black Panthers Party and also the Black writers at the time. 

The FBI had a 1,884-page file on the prominent writer and LGBTQ icon James Baldwin, collected between the 1960s and early 1970s.  

Baldwin first piqued the FBI's interest in 1960 for being “connected with several Communist Party front groups,” among other reasons. But he was also targeted for his links to the Black liberation movement and his sexual orientation. Baldwin's 1963 polemic essay, "The Fire Next Time," became a manifesto of the Civil Rights Movement.

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