US legislators worried by FBI term ‘Black Identity Extremist’

Created by FBI in 2017, critics say designation broadly targets black activists and first prosecution may have begun.

A person carrying a Black Lives Matter sign participates in a protest called March for Racial Justice while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City
US legislators say they fear targeted surveillance of civil rights activists [Reuters]

US legislators met to discuss the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremist” (BIE) designation as a discriminatory measure that could be used by law enforcement to halt African American activism across the country.

Representative Karen Bass of the Congressional Black Caucus said at the hearing on Tuesday the term could be applied to “all protesters” demonstrating for an end to police violence against black people.

An August FBI intelligence assessment – a document that provides up-to-date information on groups and individuals who pose a perceived threat – used the BIE designation to refer to armed members of the African American community who express anti-government sentiment.

The FBI document said these people had “historically justified and perpetrated violence against law enforcement, which they perceived as representative of the institutionalised oppression of African Americans”.

The FBI, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security have historically defined “domestic terror” organisations that pose a threat to national security to groups such as eco-terrorists, white supremacists, anarchists, anti-abortion rights activists, and black nationalists.

Errol Southers, a former FBI agent who specialised in counterterrorism, was concerned by the intelligence assessment broadly including BIEs – and its widely applicable definition – in that group.

“White supremacy applies to specific groups… BIE is applied more broadly,” Southers said.

He highlighted problems with the FBI’s definition, noting “black nationalists did not kill any police officer in 2017. Meanwhile, white supremacists and anti-government extremists fatally attacked a police officer and two corrections officers”.

The FBI has not made any public comment on the intelligence assessment. Bass said she had met FBI Director Christopher Wray and he provided “no answers”.

First BIE

There are fears the FBI has started using the BIE designation in its policing of black activists. 

“The first BIE prosecution has already begun,” Nana Gyamfi, a lawyer and civil rights advocate, said at the hearing, referring to the case of Christopher Daniels.

Daniels – who goes by Rakem Balogun, leader of the Guerrilla Mainframe (GMF), an armed community outreach programme ranging from gun usage to organic farming – may be the first BIE.

Daniels has been detained since December on charges of illegal possession of a firearm. GMF maintains he was arrested not for illegally having a weapon, but for his political views.

A court transcript obtained by Al Jazeera, first reported in January, showed the case against Daniels was based on anti-police political views he expressed on social media.

Special Agent Aaron Keighley testified the FBI had been surveilling Daniels since 2015 when the GMF participated in a rally against police violence.

The group’s chanting of slogans such as “the only good pig is a pig that’s dead” drew Keighley’s attention as being a threat to law enforcement officers, court documents showed. “Pig” is a derogatory term for police.

On January 24, Daniel’s defence attorney filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, which “alleges that Mr Daniels unlawfully possessed two firearms after a 2007 [misdemeanour] conviction for ‘domestic assault’ in Tennessee”.

The defence argued Tennessee’s definition of domestic assault does not “categorically” constitute a misdemeanour domestic assault because it doesn’t “necessarily include the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon”.

The prosecution argued against the dismissal, saying Tennessee’s statute meets legal requirements for indicting Daniels.

But to Gyamfi, the FBI’s surveillance of Daniels for his political rhetoric shows the “true and intent of the BIE classification”.

Source: Al Jazeera