What Real Radicals Think About the FBI Hunting 'Black Identity Extremists'
A veteran Black Panther and younger activist on a young man being labeled a terrorist threat, and why it's never been easy to fight racism.
Photo by David William Turner/VICE
Last October, Foreign Policy leaked a report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that examined a novel perceived threat to American security: not white supremacists, not anti-abortion activists, but black people driven by bloodthirsty rage at police.
The intelligence assessment, dated August 2017, suggested that an ideologically-driven subset of black activists termed “Black Identity Extremists” was actively seeking to attack cops of all stripes—and might have already done so, citing the fatal attack on police in Dallas in July 2016. "The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence,” the report stated.
Legal scholars railed against the findings of the assessment. "This designation, just recently invented by the FBI, is as frightening and dangerous as the bureau’s infamous Cointelpro program of the 1960s and ’70s, under which J. Edgar Hoover set out to disrupt and destroy virtually any group with the word ‘black’ in its name,” wrote law professors Khaled A. Beydoun and Justin Hansford in an op-ed published by the New York Times last November. And it wasn’t long before a black activist did come under state scrutiny for his activism: In December 2017, the FBI banged on the door of Dallas activist Rakem Balogun, who later learned he was under investigation by agents focused on domestic terrorism. He was believed to be the first person targeted and prosecuted as part of the FBI’s crackdown on “BIEs,” although the indictment against him has since been dismissed.
VICE recently caught up with two activists to discuss the significance of the BIE designation's existence and the current state of black organizing in a climate of resurgent white supremacy. Eddie Conway was a prominent member of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party and served 44 years in prison for the murder of a police officer, although his many advocates argued there was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and he has maintained his innocence. He now works as a producer at the Real News Network. Shannon Jones is the co-founder of “Why Accountability,” a black and woman-led group in New York that organizes against police brutality.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: What were your first thoughts when you learned that the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit was engaged in this effort to track “Black Identity Extremists”?
Shannon Jones: I relate everything black people have to experience directly to plantation dynamics. So a person must be labeled "extreme" so folks can distance themselves from the person, from the organization, from the belief system or rites of passage that come from that person or organization… To even bring up a completely manufactured term of Black Identity Extremist or Extremism, is to keep people away from seeking full justice and liberation for African people in the United States. So it didn’t strike me as shocking when the discussion took place about what is a BIE.
Eddie Conway: I think the first thing that struck me about it was that’s in sync with the trend in America towards fascism, and I immediately thought about the National Defense Authorization Act that Obama had signed [in 2011], that gave the president the right to designate anybody in the world [as terrorist sympathizers or belligerents], including all American citizens, and have them detained indefinitely by the military. What was interesting about that was that he signed the [Memorandum of Understanding] that said he would never use it—well, of course, [several] years later he’s out of office, [and a version of it is still] the law of the land.
An issue that comes up when we discuss the BIE label is what it means to engage in “self-defense,” and by the same token how the state (in this case, the FBI) endeavors to define who and what poses a threat to “national security.” What does self-defense mean to you?
Jones: We look at self-defense as something much more granular—it doesn’t have to be involving guns, it can and in some instances it should, but in the day-to-day life it may not. So one of the examples that we have of black self-defense is our swipe-it-forward resistance action. The reason we call that black self-defense is, it’s not just as simple as swiping in with your metro card, like some sort of charity work, or doing someone a favor. It’s saying that we are confronting racist policing within the subway system. So by swiping someone in, [we’re] protecting them from being snatched up by the criminal justice system.
Conway: I look at the position we’re in, and I’ve already stated—I look down the road and I see concentration camps in our future if we don’t organize to make sure that that doesn’t happen… I look at self-defense as the need to apply everything [all tactics]… but [there’s] a bottom line in all self-defense… [Consider] the quote from Huey P. Newton, “An unarmed people are slaves or are subject to slavery at any given moment.” If everybody else is armed, then by golly we need to be armed also.
We have a history of the government using "divide and conquer” in this country to play minorities against each other, but we also have moments of real solidarity. I’m thinking about Fred Hampton’s “Rainbow Coalition,” for example. What do you think it takes to build coalitions across racial difference, and are activists today doing enough of that?
Jones: Africans in the United States are constantly burdened with the question of unity, or we are compelled to unify with [allies or other racial minorities]. We always get asked that question. Why are we burdened with unity? It relates back to plantation dynamics. Because when we "unify" those white-supremacist hierarchies tend to play out. This is why “Why Accountablity” is an organization predicated on black liberation.
Conway: I think that allies and unity actually happen as the result of other people having skin in the game. The Water Protectors, for example, or environmental activists. If they realize the planet is being killed by this economic system or white supremacy, by racism, by materialism and profit-making—they can recognize that. They can recognize how that will affect them [just like] thousands of people just being laid off, say, or being kicked off of the social-service roles in Alabama, Arkansas, etc. Now, if Trump do what he's doing, they got skin in the game. And I think when people start recognizing that and people start feeling the pain of that, they won't look for allies, they will take a stand, they will take a position.
In your work at “Why Accountability” you’ve sought to expose the institution of the NYPD as inherently racist—that it’s not just an issue of “bad apples.” In the age of Trump, though, sometimes the “bad apples” get all the attention. What do you think are the challenges of doing this kind of political work right now, especially in an allegedly liberal place like NYC?
Jones: Well for us, at “Why Accountability,” we in a so-called blue state, so whatever we experience is from the Democratic Party club. All this with sex assault in Rikers, beating people up at Rikers, police brutality, police murder, that has nothing to do with Trump. That's a binary that liberal whites benefit from and they benefit from black people participating in that binary, so then everything that's happenin' to others because of Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump—no… That is one thing that I really do not engage in because that is a binary that keeps black people from fully comprehending our condition.
That makes a lot of sense to me, but I wonder what it means to hold that idea alongside a reality like Charlottesville—the fact that there appears to be this resurgence in white nationalism and far-right violence. How do we hold those dual realities in concert with each other?
Jones: I guess I'll repeat. To black people it's the rise of nothing. It's always been there. Barbecue Becky was always there. It's just a confrontation to a white liberal that is desperate to believe that society is not like that.
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