The Federal Government's Secret War on Black Activists

News & Politics

Eight months ago, the images of a white mob in Charlottesville rallying around Confederate statues landed on our front pages and in our news feeds. Even the most cynical readers were shocked by the incident. Despite the terror and racism that fueled that moment—one that ended in a murder—it is Black protesters, not white supremacists, who are the targets of a campaign of surveillance and intimidation that’s gaining strength in the federal government.

While civil rights activists don’t yet know the full scope of this campaign, some disturbing details have come to light including the existence of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document referred to as the “Race Paper” by DHS and other agency officials, which raises alarming questions about the federal government’s approach to Black activism.

In March, my organization, Color of Change, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to force DHS and the FBI to release documents like the still hidden “Race Paper” in order to expose the government’s under-the-radar war on Black activists. We launched this effort in July 2016 after hearing a growing number of troubling stories from Black activists following the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, stories about activists being followed around grocery stores, identified and arrested before events, along with many other suspicious developments. 

In one incident, a D.C. Metropolitan police officer targeted April Goggans, a Washington, D.C., resident and a Black Lives Matter DC organizer, at a convenience store near her home. A few hours after sending emails detailing her suspicions about being under police surveillance, Goggans went to the corner store. As she walked out of the store to her car, the officer standing outside the door greeted her with a sarcastic “Have a good evening, Ms. Goggans,” and followed her to her car. The officer verbally harassed and bullied her until Goggans got into her car and drove away. This experience had a chilling effect on the activist. Today she sometimes avoids going to events and exercises care answering her door or her phone since she fears racially motivated wiretaps, bullying, or worse.

The FOIA request produced almost 7,000 pages of documents from the FBI and DHS, some of which were fully or partially redacted: In March, our organizations released them to the public for the first time. The documents confirmed Goggans’s fears and our own.

The federal government, often in coordination with local police departments across the country, continues to use its expanded authority, dating from the beginning of the “War on Terror,” to demonize and intimidate Black activists—people who are rightly demanding that our country be more just—through surveillance and harassment.

One FBI email chain showed that the agency maintains 24-hour surveillance of some Black activists: The agent noted that a fresh team had arrived to relieve an FBI surveillance unit parked outside a particular activist’s home. Another set of documents showed how the FBI performed a detailed search of the vehicle records of someone who was either visiting an activist or happened to be parked in front of that activist’s house, essentially criminalizing a person simply for associating with that activist.

This kind of surveillance doesn’t only scare people who have experienced it—the specter of surveillance is designed to keep some people from exercising their free-speech rights in the first place. One recent study by communications scholar Elizabeth Stoycheff has shown that people censor themselves on social networks and refrain from posting comments with dissenting views when they’re aware that an intelligence agency is monitoring online activities. Another study based on a National Telecommunications and Information Administration survey of 41,000 U.S. households found that one in  five people surveyed avoided online activity because of concerns about government surveillance.

These disturbing revelations are contained in the document referred to as the Race Paper. A series of DHS emails in early 2017 makes several references to this troubling document. The DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, an agency that touts its ability to provide “predictive intelligence and analysis to operators and decision-makers” in the U.S. intelligence community, produced the paper. We uncovered these additional documents after the revelation of the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremist” report last October by Foreign Policy, which excoriated Black activism against police brutality as a violent extremist movement and national threat.

It is imperative that the full text of this report be made public. Last month, we filed a motion in Southern District Court of NY asking the judge to order DHS to release the “Race Paper.”

Americans have seen these moves before. It took a generation, but we eventually learned of government-led programs like COINTELPRO and their pervasive efforts to discredit and destroy Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other movements through the decades to the present day. Conservatives voices from Fox News to the White House openly demand that law enforcement pursue policies that discriminate against Black Americans and then protest when they do not. Black people speaking truth to power isn't a threat to the country’s national security; it is a threat to the American system of justice that uses racist lies to justify rampant discrimination.

On the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, it is imperative to remember that even though the civil rights leader knew that the FBI had him under surveillance, he did not fear their activities. Americans honor Dr. King’s legacy by continuing to fight back against the government’s terror tactics and pervasive racism. An entire generation of Black activists must not be intimidated and criminalized. We won't rest until the country has the truth—uncensored.

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