From COINTELPRO to ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ Black Activists Face State Suppression When Fighting for Their Rights

Protestors rally outside 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty)

Late last year, an FBI report was leaked to the public. Titled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated To Target Law Enforcement Officers,” it was meant to justify the targeting of so-called BIE (Black Identity Extremists), who were defined in the report as having a “mix of anti-authoritarian, Moorish sovereign citizen ideology, and BIE ideology.”

For many Black activists, this report is a continuation of COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program run by the FBI to root out political dissidents, and more recent efforts by the FBI, state, and local law enforcement to target Black activism. Those efforts have intensified since the eruption of the Black Lives Matter Movement after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown. In Texas, Christopher Daniels, an African American gun rights advocate, was recently arrested after more than two years of FBI surveillance.

In the foreword for “When They Call You A Terrorist,” written by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullers and poet Asha Bandele, noted Black activist Angela Davis argues that the rhetoric of terrorism often “attempts to discredit anti-racist movements in the United States.”

Rian Brown

Rian Brown, who helped organize Black Lives Matter Cleveland, experienced the impact of that rhetoric firsthand. She says that after the Cleveland, Ohio police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in late 2014 outside a recreation center, she was harassed and threatened by local law enforcement.

“It wasn’t the safest thing for me anymore to shut down things in Cleveland,” Brown remembers, referring to her role in protests. “I was just too identifiable. I couldn’t even go to a Cavs game without basically being held hostage by Cleveland Police.”

For many Cleveland activists, the arrival of the Republican National Convention to the city in July 2016 brought another wave of harassment from public officials. The city banned various items, including tennis balls, tape, bike locks, sleeping bags and more, within a three-mile radius of the convention, which prompted a lawsuit from the ACLU of Ohio. The lawsuit noted that these restrictions had an “acute effect on individuals who are homeless living within this area” and placed “unacceptable restrictions on free speech.”

Local FBI agents also visited the homes of roughly two dozen activists prior to the RNC. “The feds came to my mother’s home,” Brown said. “They harassed me. Basically they wouldn’t leave and I told them if I wasn’t under arrest, then I wasn’t going to speak to them.” Brown later had a lawyer contact the FBI agents, who had left a business card at her mother’s home. The agents relayed a warning that Brown could be arrested if she chose to protest the RNC.

The targeting and harassment from the Cleveland Police Department led Brown to leave Cleveland in September 2017. “So I’m actually relocated out of Ohio for the time being,” she said, “which basically means that I no longer run with BLM Cleveland, not by choice, but by force.”

Brown says the Black identity extremists report reflects the ongoing targeting of Black activists by federal, state and local law enforcement. She laments the fact that she and others are labeled “extremists” simply for pushing for police accountability and healthier communities.

“The idea that we’re trying to empower our communities [and that] makes us such a threat speaks volumes within itself,” Brown explains. “I didn’t do nothing but help a Black mom [the mother of Tamir Rice] tell her truth. I didn’t say anything but that kids my little sister’s age shouldn’t get killed in their neighborhood park. That should tell you about the gravity of the nation that we exist in.”

But Brown has no intention of giving up. “Just because I’ve been scared out of my hometown, it doesn’t mean that my work stops,” she said. “It shifts.”