We Can’t Fight Trump-Style Hate with the Surveillance State

“Life After Hate” has attracted widespread support as an anti-racist organization. Yet, the group has a troubling history of collaborating with Islamophobic “war on terror” federal programming.

Debbie Southorn September 19, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at the 36th Annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, May 15, 2017. (Chris Kleponis/Pool via Bloomberg)

How do we effec­tive­ly chal­lenge orga­nized white suprema­cists? Post-Char­lottesville, the spot­light focused on the work of an orga­ni­za­tion of for­mer white suprema­cists that helps turn neo-Nazis away from racism: Life After Hate. Inter­views with the group’s co-founders cap­tured head­lines on out­lets from Moth­er Jones to The Inter­cept to Democ­ra­cy Now—and even caught the atten­tion of come­di­an Saman­tha Bee.

Much of this cov­er­age decried cuts to the fund­ing of Life After Hate, imple­ment­ed ear­li­er this year, when the Trump admin­is­tra­tion decid­ed to roll back fund­ing of an Oba­ma-era pro­gram aimed at fight­ing extrem­ism.” The organization’s online, crowd-sourced fundrais­er has raised more than $330,000 since it launched in June, demon­strat­ing immense pop­u­lar sup­port for the group’s work in this moment. As an orga­ni­za­tion of for­m­ers,” the group appears well posi­tioned to pro­vide edu­ca­tion and con­sul­ta­tion on the rea­sons why peo­ple join far-right orga­ni­za­tions, and its is best known for its work coun­sel­ing and sup­port­ing indi­vid­u­als through the process of leav­ing white-suprema­cist groups. 

How­ev­er, a deep­er look at the orga­ni­za­tion reveals dif­fi­cult truths for those invest­ed in dis­man­tling the white suprema­cy that’s entrenched in U.S. soci­ety and insti­tu­tion­al­ized in law enforce­ment. The fund­ing that Life After Hate lost came from a fed­er­al pro­gram focused on sur­veil­lance and polic­ing that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­gets Mus­lims, called Coun­ter­ing Vio­lent Extrem­ism (CVE). This pro­gram has been wide­ly crit­i­cized for pro­mot­ing insti­tu­tion­al dis­crim­i­na­tion and crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties. Fur­ther­more, Life After Hate plans to expand its pro­grams to include work chal­leng­ing jihadism,” indi­cat­ing that the orga­ni­za­tion is buy­ing into the fed­er­al program’s trou­bling war on ter­ror” framework.

By ral­ly­ing around CVE fund­ing, some pro­gres­sives are pro­mot­ing law-enforce­ment col­lab­o­ra­tions through a counter-ter­ror lens — there­by under­min­ing anti-racist strug­gle and the well-being of Mus­lims across the Unit­ed States. We can’t fight Trump-style racism by cling­ing to the most reac­tionary poli­cies of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. Grass­roots, anti-racist orga­ni­za­tions have been mobi­liz­ing against CVE for years, which I’ve seen first­hand in my posi­tion as a staff orga­niz­er with the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee in Chicago.

Sur­veil­lance, snitch­ing and counter extremism”

Since 2011, a fed­er­al pro­gram admin­is­tered by the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, in con­junc­tion with the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion and the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, has been car­ry­ing out a com­mu­ni­ty-polic­ing strat­e­gy to counter vio­lent rad­i­cal extrem­ism” with­in the Unit­ed States. The ini­tia­tive, CVE, is based on a sim­i­lar pro­gram in the Unit­ed King­dom called PRE­VENT and was devel­oped large­ly under for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma. CVE is designed to com­pel com­mu­ni­ty part­ners to work with law enforce­ment in order to iden­ti­fy indi­vid­u­als alleged­ly at risk of rad­i­cal­iza­tion and stop the home-grown” ter­ror threat.

In 2014, CVE pilot pro­grams were rolled out in three cities — Los Ange­les, Boston, and Min­neapo­lis — to fur­ther engage with com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions. And in 2016, the first-ever CVE grants, total­ing $10 mil­lion per year, were made avail­able to non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions will­ing to locate and report com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers deemed at-risk for vio­lent extremism. 

These polic­ing and sur­veil­lance pro­grams have dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get­ed Mus­lims. Near­ly 80 per­cent of CVE grants have gone to orga­ni­za­tions in Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, accord­ing to a scathing report released ear­li­er this year by the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Justice.

The roll­out of CVE has been met with fierce oppo­si­tion and push­back, pri­mar­i­ly from Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties across the Unit­ed States. Crit­ics express con­cern that such prac­tices have the poten­tial to entrap young, Mus­lim, Black and/​or men­tal­ly ill peo­ple, crim­i­nal­ize entire com­mu­ni­ties and chill dissent. 

In Min­neapo­lis, the Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty has been par­tic­u­lar­ly tar­get­ed by CVE efforts, and young peo­ple have been lead­ing the push­back. After the Min­neapo­lis Pub­lic School dis­trict announced in 2015 it would par­tic­i­pate in a CVE mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram, orga­niz­ers have been edu­cat­ing the com­mu­ni­ty about the dan­gers of such collaborations. 

In Boston, crit­ics from the Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Islam­ic Rela­tions and the Mus­lim Jus­tice League have been speak­ing out about the dan­gers of CVE since before the pilot was launched. As the fed­er­al grant pro­gram rolled out in 2016, resis­tance to CVE spread. Stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chapel Hill, for exam­ple, cam­paigned to have their uni­ver­si­ty refuse CVE fund­ing and with­draw from the pro­gram. In Octo­ber of 2016, a his­toric forum on CVE’s impacts was orga­nized by youth with the Young Mus­lim Col­lec­tive in Minneapolis.

A brand­ing problem

Fac­ing an image prob­lem, CVE re-brand­ed as a pro­gram aimed at fight­ing all vari­eties of vio­lent extrem­ists,” includ­ing ani­mal rights activists and envi­ron­men­tal­ist rad­i­cals in this cat­e­go­ry, along­side white suprema­cists. In Feb­ru­ary 2016, the FBI launched an online video game called Don’t Be a Pup­pet,” which dis­played a menu of diverse paths to rad­i­cal­iza­tion.”

When the first-ever CVE grantees were announced in the final days of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, the list notably includ­ed fund­ing for Life After Hate. Found­ed in 2011 by for­mer mem­bers of the Amer­i­can vio­lent far-right extrem­ist move­ment,” accord­ing to its web­site, Life After Hate adver­tis­es itself as a non­prof­it that sup­ports peo­ple look­ing to exit that lifestyle.

Fatema Ahmad, Deputy Direc­tor for the Mus­lim Jus­tice League, told In These Times that try­ing to equiv­o­cate those two com­mu­ni­ties — white suprema­cists and all Mus­lims, because that’s how it’s applied to us — won’t redis­trib­ute the dam­age that’s being done to the entire Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty through these grants.” 

A lot of what peo­ple gen­er­al­ly think of as dan­ger­ous about CVE is that it dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­gets Mus­lims,” Ahmad con­tin­ued. But that’s not the only rea­son it’s dan­ger­ous — that’s why it’s racist. Why it’s dan­ger­ous is that it’s real­ly based on debunked the­o­ries of rad­i­cal­iza­tion that end up crim­i­nal­iz­ing First-Amend­ment-pro­tect­ed rights.” 

The cri­te­ria that CVE pro­grams rely on to deter­mine who’s at risk of rad­i­cal­iza­tion are dubbed the Stair­case to Ter­ror­ism.” They include fac­tors like polit­i­cal dis­sent, reli­gious expres­sion (includ­ing wear­ing a head­scarf), or social isolation.

CVE pri­mar­i­ly tar­gets young peo­ple, many of whom are in stages of iden­ti­ty devel­op­ment that are for­ma­tive and vul­ner­a­ble. Ado­les­cents are prone to express­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion or demon­strat­ing behav­ior changes, mak­ing the use of such fac­tors to spot some­one on the track towards becom­ing a ter­ror­ist” trou­bling. Fur­ther, the FBI has admit­ted that there is no sin­gle, lin­ear path­way to extrem­ist” violence. 

This approach is made even more dan­ger­ous by attach­ing stip­u­la­tions of law enforce­ment col­lab­o­ra­tion to social ser­vice pro­vi­sion. Com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions, teach­ers and men­tal health work­ers — all of whom should be safe for young peo­ple devel­op­ing their iden­ti­ties — become poten­tial informants.

In ear­ly 2017, a string of com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions approved for CVE fund­ing under Oba­ma announced their refusal to par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram with Trump at the helm. Ka Joog, a Soma­li non­prof­it in Min­neapo­lis slat­ed to receive $500,000, refused fund­ing after the inau­gu­ra­tion, and the Clare­mont School of The­ol­o­gy in Los Ange­les opt­ed out of an $800,000 award.

Fight­ing jihadism”

When the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion took pow­er, it froze all CVE fund­ing for six months, then decid­ed to pri­or­i­tize pro­grams that fea­ture strong col­lab­o­ra­tions with law enforce­ment. Life After Hate’s pro­pos­al and 11 oth­er Oba­ma-approved grants were denied. Cuts includ­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Carolina’s pro­pos­al to pro­duce anti-jihadist videos ($867,000) and fund­ing for the Mus­lim Pub­lic Affairs Coun­cil Foun­da­tion ($393,800).

When Life After Hate lost its fund­ing, many pro­gres­sives defend­ed the group as pro­vid­ing crit­i­cal anti-racist pro­gram­ming. Yet the organization’s work expands beyond the frame­work of coun­sel­ing for­mer white suprema­cists away from hate, and aligns with trends in fed­er­al and glob­al counter-ter­ror” strategy.

In its CVE grant pro­pos­al, Life After Hate out­lined the organization’s inten­tion to use online tar­get­ing tools to iden­ti­fy indi­vid­u­als at risk of rad­i­cal­iza­tion, includ­ing sym­pa­thiz­ers of far right extrem­ism and jihadism.” On its dona­tion wall, Tony McAleer, co-founder and board chair of Life After Hate, open­ly states, The organization’s pro­pos­al was focused on domes­tic ter­ror­ism, the far-right and ISIS-inspired extremism.” 

In These Times spoke with Sam­my Rangel, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Life After Hate. When asked why the orga­ni­za­tion chose to include coun­ter­ing Islam­ic extrem­ism” in its work, he respond­ed that it would have been in coali­tion [or] part­ner­ship with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions that are try­ing to serve Mus­lim or Islam­ic sec­tors of our nation…so that we could meet the needs of some of the peo­ple out there that aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly from the far Right.”

While the inten­tion to work with Mus­lim part­ners can appear inno­cent, it still upholds the per­va­sive racist notion that Mus­lims are unique­ly prone to vio­lence. This false assump­tion under­lies the vast major­i­ty of counter-ter­ror efforts, includ­ing CVE.

When asked whether CVE-relat­ed work would con­tin­ue despite not receiv­ing fed­er­al fund­ing, the direc­tor expressed con­fi­dence that it would, cit­ing an upcom­ing CVE con­fer­ence he plans to attend this fall. Rangel also claimed that online fundrais­ing on behalf of the orga­ni­za­tion post-Char­lottesville like­ly raised more mon­ey for the group than it would have received through CVE, because the orga­ni­za­tion would be required to share CVE funds with part­ners, as stip­u­lat­ed in its grant proposal.

We aren’t look­ing for equal-oppor­tu­ni­ty surveillance”

Nicole Nguyen, assis­tant pro­fes­sor and researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go, told In These Times, The events in Char­lottesville caused peo­ple to want to refund Life After Hate because they thought this is an orga­ni­za­tion that can fight white suprema­cy … not real­iz­ing they are also tar­get­ing Muslims.”

By argu­ing for this project to be fund­ed,” Nguyen con­tin­ued, you’re not only prop­ping up an orga­ni­za­tion that has said we’re going to tar­get the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty, you’re also prop­ping up [the] Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty and all the law enforce­ment agen­cies that sup­port the CVE project.”

Rangel expressed famil­iar­i­ty with crit­i­cisms of CVE, which he described as a mis­un­der­stand­ing on the part of com­mu­ni­ties. There’s this mis­trust that leads to this mis­per­cep­tion that gov­ern­ment-grant-fund­ed pro­grams are basi­cal­ly exten­sions of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and law enforce­ment,” he said. Accord­ing to Rangel, Life After Hate works to clar­i­fy the line between its work as an NGO and law enforce­ment. He said the orga­ni­za­tion does not share iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion that could lead to direct arrests or pros­e­cu­tion of indi­vid­u­als, except in emer­gen­cies, in which the orga­ni­za­tion does its due diligence.”

Yet, he went on to describe the organization’s pride in its good rela­tion­ship with fed­er­al law enforce­ment, explain­ing, What we do is share infor­ma­tion about what’s work­ing in the field, how peo­ple are respond­ing to us, best prac­tices — what seems to be work­ing what seems to not be work­ing, and then DHS shares with us the same. It’s more of an edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence that we share.” 

But these prac­tices of shar­ing out­reach and com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment strate­gies are exact­ly what is so dan­ger­ous about CVE. Life After Hate is help­ing posi­tion law enforce­ment as a trust­ed pro­tec­tor against hate and vio­lence, rather than a pur­vey­or of immense lev­els of vio­lence against com­mu­ni­ties of col­or liv­ing under mass incar­cer­a­tion, mass depor­ta­tions and racist policing. 

Such an approach also fur­ther cements the notion that the only form of vio­lence wor­thy of fight­ing is that car­ried out by non-state actors — extrem­ist vio­lence.” This absolves the U.S. state of its role in unleash­ing cycles of vio­lence through its harm­ful and open-end­ed war on terror.”

While CVE cur­rent­ly focus­es on Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, many crit­ics fear it will chill dis­sent and access to social ser­vices for many mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. Ahmad point­ed out that the Den­ver Police Department’s CVE grant pro­pos­al extend­ed its tar­get to include Black Lives Mat­ter and LGBTQ groups. Know­ing that any dis­sent against the gov­ern­ment in the form of protest can be seen as a ter­ror threat, this is a slip­pery slope towards crim­i­nal­iz­ing a lot of oth­er com­mu­ni­ties,” said Ahmad. We aren’t look­ing for equal oppor­tu­ni­ty surveillance.”

End­ing law enforce­ment vio­lence against Black com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of Col­or is a pri­ma­ry goal of racial jus­tice move­ments in the Unit­ed Sates, as demon­strat­ed by the work of the Move­ment for Black Lives and nation­wide orga­niz­ing to end depor­ta­tions. Turn­ing to the same appa­ra­tus that cages, kills and harms peo­ple of col­or in order to fight big­otry is short-sight­ed and dangerous.

What’s more, police-cen­tric approach­es to social jus­tice issues have been shown to mean more crim­i­nal­iza­tion for the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of soci­ety. INCITE-Women of Col­or Against Vio­lence has point­ed out that cen­ter­ing law enforce­ment when respond­ing to domes­tic vio­lence leads to the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of sur­vivors of sex­u­al assault. And fed­er­al hate crimes leg­is­la­tion and enforce­ment have not mean­ing­ful­ly pre­vent­ed vio­lence against LGBT com­mu­ni­ties, but instead extend­ed the reach of the crim­i­nal legal system. 

Sur­veil­lance is no friend of social move­ments either. The Counter-Intel­li­gence Pro­gram (COIN­TEL­PRO), led by FBI Direc­tor J. Edgar Hoover, played a key role in sab­o­tag­ing and under­min­ing civ­il rights and Black Pow­er move­ments of the 1950s and 60s. More recent­ly, we know that law enforce­ment has sur­veilled Black Lives Mat­ter orga­niz­ing and used high-tech devices to track undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants.

CVE has been denounced by com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, civ­il lib­er­ties groups and pol­i­cy experts across the coun­try for its stig­ma­tiz­ing focus on Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, its shaky empir­i­cal foun­da­tions and dan­ger­ous poten­tial for curb­ing First-Amend­ment-pro­tect­ed activities.

Rather than expand­ing sur­veil­lance and law enforce­ment strate­gies that have the poten­tial to harm mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, we must build robust social move­ments that trans­form rela­tions of pow­er in this coun­try and out-orga­nize white suprema­cists. How can we fight against the real threats that neo-Nazis pose, while steer­ing clear of solu­tions” that rely on oppres­sive insti­tu­tions and the crim­i­nal­iz­ing rhetoric of counter-terror?

Ear­li­er this month, Arab, Mid­dle East­ern, Mus­lim and South Asian groups from across the Unit­ed States released a state­ment oppos­ing any expan­sion of CVE under the guise of fight­ing white suprema­cy. Inclu­sion of pro­grams focused on white suprema­cist big­otry into a larg­er sys­tem of state sur­veil­lance that upholds insti­tu­tion­al white suprema­cy through its crim­i­nal­iza­tion of entire mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties will fuel the sys­tem upon which overt big­otry thrives,” the orga­ni­za­tions warned. We can and must work togeth­er to end white suprema­cy in all forms.”

Deb­bie Southorn works for the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee in Chica­go, where she’s sup­port­ed com­mu­ni­ty based respons­es to police vio­lence. In 2012, she co-found­ed the Chica­go chap­ter of Black & Pink, and cur­rent­ly serves on the Nation­al Com­mit­tee of the War Resisters League.
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