News & Politics

The FBI Thinks It Has the Right to Surveil People Who Exercise Their First Amendment Rights

They have a grudge against Black Lives Matter groups, especially those led by women.

Photo Credit: Tom Hilton / Flickr

The government's surveillance and ongoing case against of Black activist Christopher Daniels, which may become the first prosecution of a person tracked under the new FBI classification of "Black Identity Extremist," could open the door to a wider dragnet for Black activists engaged in police reform and anti-racist organizing across the nation.

Daniels, better known in the area as Rakem Balogun, has been in federal custody since December 12, 2017, when heavily armed FBI agents stormed his one-bedroom apartment in Dallas, rousing Daniels and his 15-year-old sfon from their beds and rushing them outside, where they were separated while Daniels was detained wearing only his underwear.

The agents recovered two firearms, including an assault rifle, from his apartment during the raid. The government indicted Daniels for unlawful possession of the firearms, arguing that Daniels's misdemeanor conviction in 2007 for domestic assault in Tennessee prohibited his possession.

But as Foreign Policy has reported in a detailed investigation into Daniels's case, the raid had been the result of more than two years of FBI surveillance -- initiated on nothing more than Daniels's First Amendment-protected protest activities in Texas and his anti-law-enforcement rhetoric.

The details of the case strongly suggest Daniels was tracked under a new FBI classification for domestic terror threats: "Black Identity Extremists." This new FBI-designated category includes individuals who commit crimes or engage in violence "in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society," according to an FBI intelligence assessment focused on the classification.

Lisa Slimak, a spokesperson for the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Texas, declined to comment on Daniels's prosecution since the case remains pending. Janella Newsome, a spokesperson for the Dallas FBI, also declined to comment.

Daniels's brother, who goes by Yafeuh Balogun, believes that the political climate of the last couple of years may have paved the way for even more intensive surveillance of his brother.

"The FBI monitored him for the past 25 months, and so this was a little bit before the [July 7, 2016] shooting in downtown Dallas, and I think it was heightened after the shooting," Balogun told Truthout. "I think in that political climate ... the powers that be in the city of Dallas needed to try and make some connections, and I think Rakem was probably the scapegoat used for that."

FBI Special Agent Aaron Keighley told the court during Daniels's December 15 detention hearing that Daniels had come under his scrutiny after a video of his appearance at a Texas State Capitol rally to protest police brutality and promote armed self-defense for Black communities was broadcast on the right-wing conspiracy site InfoWars, in March of 2015.

Daniels is a cofounder of Guerilla Mainframe, a group that supports self-defense weapons training, which came together with the open-carry group Huey P. Newton Gun Club at the Austin rally.

During the December hearing, Keighley also made note of Daniels's Facebook posts in which he expressed support for Micah X Johnson, who fatally shot five police officers in Dallas on July 7, 2016, and Tremaine Wilbourn, who is accused of killing a Memphis, Tennessee, police officer.

The FBI investigated and monitored Daniels beginning in March 2015, keeping a close watch on him even as he traveled to Detroit, until his arrest in December. Those close to Daniels said the FBI also monitored Black activists who associated with him -- and contacted at least one of his associates in South Carolina. Daniels's brother Balogun said that during the past year, two FBI agents have visited his workplaces.

"When we look at the 'Black Identity Extremist' classification, it has a racial component at its very core, so that's why we believe that Rakem is a political prisoner. We want a rescinding of the 'Black Identity Extremist' classification," Balogun told Truthout.

Expanded Surveillance of First Amendment Activities

The "Black Identity Extremist" classification seems to be part of a trend of expanding surveillance agency powers. The FBI gained sweeping new powers in 2008 with changes to the Attorney General Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations. The FBI's Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, which implements the guidelines, introduced a new type of investigation called an "assessment," which does not require any factual indication of wrongdoing or a threat to national security. The agency can conduct assessments on "Black Identity Extremists" or other broad categories of people using such classifications to get around profiling claims.

Although the FBI continues its long history of disproportionately focusing its surveillance on marginalized communities, and particularly communities of color, it appears that it has also been expanding its surveillance of First Amendment activities in relation to other groups, including racist and white supremacist groups.

According to documents obtained by this reporter, the same FBI agent who monitored Daniels has also communicated with police officials from area universities about the First Amendment activities of white supremacists posting racist propaganda on campus grounds.

In an email from May, Agent Keighley assisted University of North Texas Detective Bryan Holdegraver in identifying a number of subjects who posted white supremacist propaganda at the University of Texas at Tyler, saying, "I've attached their DL [driver's license] printouts just so your department will have an idea of who they are in the event they show up on your campus."

In a separate email in August, another Dallas Division FBI agent, Vincent Taglieri, references a domestic terrorism investigator, potentially Keighley, as using the term "White Supremacy Extremist" to identify racist flyers posted at area university campuses associated with American Vanguard or its splinter group, Patriot Front. He goes on to write that the subjects who posted the flyers at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) campus were identified and put into "the 801I file [Intelligence File]."

When contacted by Truthout to verify the details of the emails and to confirm whether the term "White Supremacy Extremist" is a formal new classification in the vein of "Black Identity Extremist," agents Keighley and Taglieri did not respond.

According to Mike German, a retired FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, the file being referred to in Keighley's email to Holdegraver represents a file for "unpredicated investigations," or investigations initiated without any factual basis for criminal wrongdoing.

However, while the particular tactics of surveilling white supremacists that the FBI is currently deploying may represent an expansion of surveillance powers, German emphasized in an interview with Truthout that the reference to the terminology "White Supremacy Extremist" can't be equated with the agency's classification of "Black Identity Extremists." The latter, German said, "is a made-up category" without basis. During his time at the ACLU, German tracked the long history of the FBI's hyping of the supposed "Black separatist" threat, examining how the agency spuriously tied 1970s militant groups to attacks after 2010.

According to a tally kept by the Southern Poverty Law Center, attacks by right-wing white extremists have been increasingly common in the two decades since Timothy McVeigh's terrorist attack in Oklahoma. Moreover, a Government Accountability Office report notes that, "of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent)."

"There appears to be a focus by law enforcement on the person under protected activity and then a hand-wringing over that, rather than an understanding that they need to focus on criminality, not the First Amendment-protected activity," German said.

Last year, lawmakers with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) confronted FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the demonization of Black activists as "Black Identity Extremists," calling the classification a repeat of the agency's tactics of spying on Black activists during the civil rights movement to chill dissent. In October, the CBC sent Wray a letter likening the new classification to COINTELPRO, an FBI surveillance program that infiltrated and disrupted civil rights and antiwar groups during the 1960s.

According to The New York Times, the FBI currently "has about 1,000 domestic terrorism cases open involving white supremacists, black separatists, militias, sovereign citizens, environmentalists, abortion and animal liberation activists and Puerto Rican nationalists."

Daniels's brother, Yafeuh Balogun, told Truthout the idea that the FBI is going after white supremacists based solely on First Amendment activity does not sit well with him. Rather, he said, the agency should only investigate people based on evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

"The fact that the FBI is monitoring Americans at this particular time, at the level that they are without warrants and things of this nature, that's the scary part," Balogun said. "We don't think the government themselves should be monitoring people this closely. We believe in the freedoms that the Constitution gives to us."

Balogun, does however, believe the agency should be investigating more violent white supremacists than they might currently be monitoring -- just not based on First Amendment activity alone. "When you look at the facts of the issue in terms of gun violence in this country, most of the crimes against officers, at least from the reports I've read, have come from white supremacists. It does not come from Black Lives Matter. It does not come from African American protesters. It comes from these fringe groups, sovereign citizens and groups like this."

While the documents suggest that the FBI is monitoring at least four men responsible for posting white supremacist propaganda at UTD based on nothing more than their flyering activity, the full scope of the FBI's interest in the men is harder to ascertain.

At least one man who was identified in the documents as early as May of 2017, is Coppell native Thomas Rousseau, who heads the neo-Nazi group Patriot Front. The organization emerged from a splintering of alt-right groups after the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville. During the Charlottesville rally, Rousseau, who was formerly a lieutenant of American Vanguard, wore the group's uniform while standing next to James Fields, the murder suspect who allegedly killed Heather Heyer.

Three other Texas men linked to Patriot Front have been charged with attempted homicide after they were involved in an altercation outside a speech by alt-right leader Richard Spencer at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

In November, Rousseau was kicked off the University of Texas at Austin campus after rallying in front of the school with other masked white supremacists bearing torches. Earlier in September, he and others threatened attendees of an anarchist book fair in Houston with homophobic and racist language, while bearing a banner reading "For Race And Nation. Blood and Soil."

Whether the FBI is monitoring potential criminal wrongdoing by Rousseau or others identified in the documents remains unclear.

Impacts on Black Women-Led Groups

The FBI's pursuit of Daniels as potentially a so-called "Black Identity Extremist" has impacted others in his orbit, including Black women activists.

Niecee Cornute is founder of Black Women's Defense League (BWDL) -- "a revolutionary womanist coalition that provides political education, self-defense training, and resources and rescue to abused, underserved [B]lack women and marginalized genders." She was in a relationship with Daniels for about a year, and told Truthout she suspects that the FBI has also monitored her and BWDL because of her ties with Daniels, and the fact that she shares a similar ideology.

Cornute says that she was illegally detained and questioned for hours without access to a lawyer after the July 7 shooting in 2016. From that point, she says, her organization experienced increased surveillance when traveling, and attempts at infiltration and co-optation.

Cornute told Truthout that she believes the FBI used internal conflict and harm occurring within the movement as a means to increase its surveillance. According to Cornute, while she was in a relationship with Daniels, he emotionally and physically abused her. Though she and her organization remain steadfastly critical of all forms of state violence and maintain abolitionist views, she says she resorted to calling the police for assistance after one particularly violent altercation with Daniels, and suffered a miscarriage in the days that followed. After July 7, 2016, she believes she and her organization were increasingly on the FBI's radar.

"It's not really unlike other instances in years before where there was violence and internal issues and [the FBI] used those to exploit other issues, or used them as an opportunity to gain entrance and be able to discredit an entire bracket of a movement based on one individual's actions," Cornute told Truthout, referring to the history of the Black Panthers and COINTELPRO.

Cornute pointed to the intersections between state violence and interpersonal violence.

"It's really important that we fight [the Black Identity Extremist label], and having been on both sides of it, having experienced state violence as well as internal violence in movement spaces, I think that one really kind of begets and opens up the space for the other," she said.

Cornute stated the importance of recognizing both realities: Daniels's gun charges have been politicized, and also, he has real problems with domestic violence.

"At this point, I don't want bad stuff to happen to him," she said. "I don't believe even in domestic violence situations that the best option is sticking the dude in jail. I think that creating safety for the violated parties is of the upmost importance and sometimes that person being in a place where they cannot harm somebody else is useful. But if that's the end of the solution, then that isn't a solution, and I'm interested in building those more sustainable ways of dealing with trauma within movement spaces and within communities in general."

Daniels remains at the federal correctional institution in Seagoville, Texas, having been transferred from the federal detention center in Mansfield. He will have spent a little over three months in jail by the time of his trial, which is set for March 26.

If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission. 

 

 

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Candice Bernd is an editor/staff reporter at Truthout. She is a contributor to Truthout's anthology on police violence, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?, and was recently honored with the Dallas Peace and Justice Center's "Media Peacemaker of the Year" award. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.