This past summer, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, which investigates terrorist threats from groups such as al-Qaeda, invented a brand new label and a brand new threat. In an intelligence assessment written in August but first disclosed by Foreign Policy last week, the FBI designated a new group of domestic terrorists: “Black Identity Extremists,” or BIEs. The report broadly categorizes black activists as threats to national security. It uses unrelated acts of violence, such as the July 2016 shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as justification for targeting black dissident voices. And it labels black activists — whose central demands are that government officials be responsible stewards of their power, accountable to the people who elect them and transparent about decision-making — as a threat to national security.
According to sources close to the FBI, the term “Black Identity Extremist” didn’t exist before the Trump administration. But while the designation is newly manufactured, the strategies and tactics behind it are not. For anyone who remembers how the FBI used extrajudicial means to target civil rights leaders and other activists through COINTELPRO, the pretext is clear: Neutralize people or organizations whose attitudes or beliefs the federal government perceives as threatening.
That technique was used against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers — against every major advocate for the rights of black people in the nation’s history. Those of us in existing resistance movements saw it coming, and we are warning the rest of you before it goes too far.
The history lesson couldn’t have been starker, in fact. Just a few days before news of the new label broke, The Washington Post had reported on the cold case of a civil rights activist named Alberta Jones. Sixty years ago, Jones, the first black prosecutor in Louisville, was beaten over the head with a brick and drowned in the Ohio River. Despite sufficient evidence, her killers were never found and brought to justice.
Her death was just one of dozens of well-documented stories of civil rights leaders who were profiled, targeted and killed for insisting that black people receive equitable treatment under the law in a country whose Constitution guarantees it.