Foreign Policy leaked a report last month revealing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has established a new designation within their conception of the current terrorist landscape — the “Black Identity Extremist” (B.I.E.) movement. This horrifying label is based on the FBI assessment that “it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (B.I.E) 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.” They theorize that “incidents of alleged police abuse” have caused a “resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity.” The only problem with the FBI’s report? It is entirely false.
First, the incidents of “alleged” police brutality that the FBI report refers to are in fact completely legitimate — over 850 people have been shot and killed by the police this year, and a significant number of those murdered have been people of color. Furthermore, former government officials and experts in the field of domestic terrorism have stated resolutely that the problem of “violent black ideology” is fabricated. An unnamed former senior counterterrorism and intelligence official from the Department of Homeland Security stated, “This is a new umbrella designation that has no basis [and] there are civil rights and privacy issues all over this.” Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Security intelligence analyst, commented, “I have no idea of why they would come up with a new term.” The six incidents cited in the report as evidence for the proliferation of B.I.E.s are only vaguely connected and are unconvincingly linked to one overarching ideology.
The FBI has acted on this designation already, targeting Black Lives Matter activists and members of other similar groups. DeRay McKesson, a BLM organizer, was visited by the FBI before the Republican National Convention. He told Foreign Policy that other activists experienced similar visits. The B.I.E. conception eerily mirrors the COINTELPRO campaign run by the FBI in the 1960s and '70s. The Bureau has a history of painting dissimilar groups and people with a broad brush, claiming that they all adhere to one violent and radical ideology. This report seems to reflect a continuation of that unofficial policy. The Congressional Black Caucus views the B.I.E. report as evidence of the FBI conflating “black political activists with dangerous domestic terrorist organizations that pose actual threats to law enforcement.”
The revelation about the FBI fits into a narrative that has been developing in the news since the 2016 election (but has been a recurrent theme in the United States since the first Europeans landed on the continent) — the people in power can and will do whatever they want to those over whom they have power. The FBI manufactured a conspiracy about legitimate political activists for both racist and political reasons, and appears to have run a campaign to undermine those activists as a result of their specious analysis. The groups in question are attempting to remedy a situation in which they are systematically attacked, but the FBI has instead created a narrative in which they are the attackers. The invention of the B.I.E seems to have been in response to the proliferation of legitimately violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, as if to prove that people of all races are participating in terrorism in the United States. Michael German, a former FBI agent, theorized that “basically, it’s black people who scare [the FBI].” The circumstances and lack of evidence in the report fail to disprove this statement.
The problem with the FBI is not related to electoral politics, so political action as generally conceived on campuses is not effective. The FBI remained racist under Obama and will probably continue to behave in the same manner after Trump. The Bureau has a long-term power structure that is resistant to outside interaction.
The two solutions that Princeton students can contribute to are 1. Join the power structure and reform from the inside or 2. Dismantle the power structure entirely.
Neither solution is perfect. For the first, it is potentially unethical to contribute to the FBI and its racist campaigns, but that participation would be necessary to gain the power within the institution necessary to implement reform. Whether the ends justify the means is an open question. Furthermore, the kinds of students who would be effective and positive as leaders in the FBI would have to temporarily sacrifice their morals for the greater good and accept only the possibility, not the guarantee, of success. That’s a tall order.
The problem with the second solution is that the existing power structure is incredibly institutionalized. Attempting to dismantle the FBI would essentially play into the B.I.E image the FBI has manufactured. While Princeton students who are not black would be able to evade that characterization, the strength of the FBI and their demonstrated willingness to fabricate conspiracies makes it seem likely that they would find a new way to villainize this group. Even trying to reform from the outside has been the mission of dozens of organizations like those currently and historically targeted by the FBI. The activists of the 1960s and '70s were compromised by the FBI when they attempted this goal. With disruption as the ultimate aim, the temptation to turn to violence may also overpower any organization, playing into the false image the FBI has created.
Despite problems with both answers, I believe that the first (enacting positive reforms from the inside) is the most effective solution for Princeton students who are angry about this horrifying revelation and want to make a change. The organization has clung to its power with tenacity, and will react aggressively to any group that wants to remove that influence. Working from within the FBI would be less likely to provoke an immediate backlash. Dedicated reformers would be able to work, albeit slowly, to mold the Bureau into an organization truly representative of the democratic values it purports to defend. We have been privileged enough to receive the education necessary to even enter an organization like the FBI, and with that prestige comes future power. Those who want the FBI and other, comparable agencies to reform must be prepared to do the dirty work themselves.
Madeleine Marr is a first-year from Newtown Square, Pa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.