Black activists nonviolently exercising their Constitutional rights have been under extensive secret surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security.
Last year, Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights obtained a trove of documents from the Federal bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The FOIA release included a heavily redacted document simply called “race paper,” which the groups are now demanding be released without redaction in a federal lawsuit. While almost the entirety of the paper’s contents were censored by federal agencies, one of the groups who obtained the documents says it proves an extensive government operation to spy on black activists across America at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are at war with Black activists,” Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson said in a public statement announcing the suit. “The documents we’ve forced the federal government to release expose how these agencies are demonizing and intimidating Black activists – people who are rightly demanding that our country be more just – through coordinated and systemic surveillance.”
According to the documents, the surveillance of black activists ramped up significantly following the killing of several police officers monitoring a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas in the summer of 2016. This was despite the shooter acting as a lone wolf, having no known affiliations with black activists or Black Lives Matter organizations.
“Due to sensitivities surrounding recent police shootings, the threat of copycat attacks against law enforcement exists,” read an email written in July of 2016, adding that there could be a “threat of black supremacist extremists attempting to violently co-opt the upcoming DNC/RNC.”
However, as The Intercept reported in its analysis of the documents, the extensive surveillance campaign — which included tracking organizers’ movements through social media posts — never once alluded to any known threat of violence from the black activists they were monitoring. Omar Farah, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said forcing the redacted content in the “race paper” to become public could prove informative, as it may show federal law enforcement agencies are engaging in extensive racial profiling.
“In the emails discussing the document, there is also more than one reference to ‘drivers’ and ‘indicators.’ These are terms that, in the absence of more information, hint at bunk analytical frameworks that attempt to predict criminality by ascribing behavioral tendencies to protected classes of people,” Farah told The Intercept.
The lawsuit over the “race paper” may also answer additional questions about an FBI counterterrorism report leaked late last year to Foreign Policy, in which the FBI raised fears about “black identity extremists” carrying out violent retribution on police officers as a means of retaliation for police brutality. In a December 2017 hearing, Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) questioned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the report.
During her question-and-answer session with Rosenstein, Rep. Bass referencing the FBI’s prior surveillance program COINTELPRO, which involved covert operations to disrupt various civil rights and leftist political causes. She also expressed concern that the FBI had invented the term “black identity extremists” based on no scientific research, and that local law enforcement agencies would use that document as justification to classify anyone protesting police brutality as a “black identity extremist.” Rosenstein countered that he had no knowledge of the FBI monitoring nonviolent protesters.
Watch the exchange below:
Scott Alden is a freelance contributor covering national politics, education, and environmental issues. He is a proud Toledo University graduate, and lives in the suburbs of Detroit.