Spanning from anarchy to uprising, people have found a wide array of words to describe the activity of the racial justice movement in the past two months. Rioting, protesting, insurrection, terrorism, looting, civil unrest—each term carries its own implications, contextualizes violence differently, and, ultimately, is a succinct moralization of the movement. In short, the words people use to describe this moment matter. Those words characterize the movement and inform the collective action, or inaction, of a community.
There is a long, U.S. government history of smearing as “terrorism” movements that are critical of U.S. policies. For over a century, the FBI has systematically surveilled and targeted leftist movements and activists, and others that it has deemed “dangerous.” Most notably, the FBI compiled comprehensive files on Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Assata Shakur during COINTELPRO. It arrested the Rosenbergs and instigated mass panic during both Red Scares. Since the attacks of 9/11, it has developed sprawling surveillance programs monitoring Muslim communities. By its own description, the FBI was founded to deal with an uptick in crime caused by, “many overcrowded tenements filled with the poor and disillusioned and...all the ethnic tensions of an increasingly immigrant nation.” Simply put, the FBI has a legacy of criminalizing Black and brown people, and others fighting for a “radical,” progressive, or just future.
Though this tradition of unjustified targeting has been amplified and more publicized under the supervision of the Trump administration, documents obtained by CCR in Color of Change v. Department of Homeland Security and FBI show the Obama administration’s complicity in the surveillance of Black movement organizers. Even after CCR received documents related to this surveillance (via FOIA request), some materials were still almost totally blacked out. Just a few days after President Trump’s appointment of FBI Director Christopher Wray, in August of 2017, an FBI document containing a new classification of terrorists, Black Identity Extremists (BIEs), was leaked to the public. Unsurprisingly, the FBI faced great criticism for its gross assumption that belief in the systemic discrimination of Black people constitutes “extremist ideology.” Yet, in 2018, when the Bureau released its biennial “Consolidated Strategies Report,” the section on “Racially Motivated (Violent) Extremists,” or RMVEs, was almost no improvement over the BIE document. Though the Bureau differentiated between white and Black RMVEs, the overall definition for “racially motivated violent extremism” was nearly identical to how the FBI defined BIEs a year or so prior. For comparison, here are both definitions:
Black Identity Extremism (2017) - “use force or violence in violation of criminal law in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society; some do so in furtherance of establishing a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations”
Racially Motivated Violent Extremism (2018) - “use force or violence in violation of criminal law in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society, or in an effort to establish a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States”
Meanwhile, the report deemed white racially motivated violent extremism to be “frequently opportunistic in nature” and minimized the threat of white supremacist violence, describing it as uncoordinated, unorganized attacks that seldom involve large groups of people. The FBI, systematically and preemptively, defined Black people as extremists and terrorists while deliberately dismissing white supremacy. This distinction prepared the government to act under the guise of dismissing a national security threat if any uprisings for racial justice occurred.
Quickly following the start of the national uprisings, Attorney General William Barr released an announcement that seamlessly implied that the uprisings are a manifestation of terrorism. A.G. Barr also stated that Antifa, a loosely-defined leftist movement, was related to the anarchist, organized elements of the protests and advocated to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization. Additionally, Barr announced that all federal law enforcement agencies would be coordinating to quell the uprisings. These statements, along with President Trump’s numerous requests for “law and order,” and the FBI history of protest suppression compounded to create the horrifying government actions we are witnessing today. Right now, throughout the nation, law enforcement agencies masquerade as the military, protestors are inexplicably disappeared, police officers forgo their identification, and civilians are unnecessarily questioned—all while the government invasively surveils anyone vaguely connected to the uprisings.
Right now, too many movements are equated with “terrorism” and too many organizers are smeared as “terrorists.” These designations themselves cause activists to be unjustly scrutinized, and enable the government to justify the strategic criminalization of entire groups of people. The practice is abhorrent and unacceptable. And it will not be enough to call for accountability. Instead, it is imperative to question why the FBI continues to operate at full capacity despite its historical and present repression of free speech and expression.
Hudson Clulow is an undergraduate intern at CCR. They have been tracking federal and local responses to the recent uprisings with a focus on surveillance practices, and providing support to the legal team representing Palestinian human rights advocacy groups. This post draws on their observations made during their research in both these areas. In both contexts, the terrorism framing is systematically used to escalate and justify government intervention.