Barr’s New Task Force Is a Blatant Attempt to Target Racial Justice Protesters

By embracing preventive policing, the task force aims to eliminate the threat of dissent.

Chip Gibbons

Attorney General William Barr arrives with President Donald J. Trump to speak with members of the coronavirus task force at the White House on Wednesday, April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On June 26, Attor­ney Gen­er­al William Barr announced the cre­ation of a new task force on vio­lent anti-gov­ern­ment extrem­ists.” Made up of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (FBI) and oth­er rel­e­vant com­po­nents,” the task force comes in the midst of a nation­wide upris­ing against racism and police vio­lence. While Barr’s ini­tial state­ment cit­ed as exam­ples of vio­lent anti-gov­ern­ment extrem­ists” both the right-wing Booga­loo” move­ment and Antifa,” the task­force is pri­mar­i­ly as a right-wing reac­tion to racial jus­tice protests erupt­ing across the country.

The FBI has always been central to Red Scares in the United States.

This devel­op­ment is in keep­ing with the FBI’s his­to­ry of spy­ing on near­ly every major social move­ment, from the anti-Viet­nam war and civ­il rights move­ments, to Occu­py Wall Street and Black Lives Mat­ter. And it comes as Barr and Trump have repeat­ed­ly tried to turn Antifa,” or anti-fas­cist ide­ol­o­gy, into an all-pur­pose boogey­man. With­in this con­text, the cre­ation of the new task force on vio­lent anti-gov­ern­ment extrem­ism should be viewed as a dan­ger­ous act aimed at polic­ing the pol­i­tics of racial jus­tice protesters.

The prob­lem with pre­ven­tive polit­i­cal policing

The task force is not just tasked with pros­e­cut­ing vio­lent anti-gov­ern­ment extrem­ists who engage in domes­tic ter­ror­ism, but pre­vent­ing these groups or indi­vid­u­als from engag­ing in vio­lence before it occurs and to ulti­mate­ly elim­i­nate it as a threat to pub­lic safe­ty and the rule of law.” While pre­vent­ing vio­lence before it occurs may sound noble, pre­ven­tive polic­ing is fraught with abuse. After all, it inher­ent­ly involves law enforce­ment action or intru­sive intel­li­gence gath­er­ing against peo­ple who have not com­mit­ted any crime based on the notion that law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence can suc­cess­ful­ly pin­point poten­tial criminals.

Mike Ger­man, a for­mer FBI agent and cur­rent fel­low with the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Justice’s Lib­er­ty & Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Pro­gram, told In These Times the claim that law enforce­ment or intel­li­gence offi­cers can accu­rate­ly pre­dict who will engage in crim­i­nal behav­ior in the future is a dubi­ous assump­tion.” Such a pre­ven­tive frame­work, says Ger­man, jus­ti­fies broad law enforce­ment or intel­li­gence activ­i­ties as nec­es­sary to serve the lauda­to­ry goal of pre­vent­ing crime where the evi­dence of suc­cess — no crime occur­ring — jus­ti­fies the action tak­en even when there is no evi­dence the tac­tics pre­vent­ed the crime rather than that the pre­dic­tion that a crime would occur was false.”

The lan­guage about pre­ven­tion is also a red flag for those famil­iar with the FBI’s use of rad­i­cal­iza­tion the­o­ry, which has been cen­tral to its Coun­ter­ing Vio­lent Extrem­ism ini­tia­tive, a counter ter­ror­ism pro­gram aimed at iden­ti­fy­ing indi­vid­u­als like­ly to become ter­ror­ists. Rad­i­cal­iza­tion the­o­ry posits that one becomes a ter­ror­ist by adopt­ing ideas the FBI deems rad­i­cal or extrem­ist. This the­o­ry rests on the premise that there is set path by which one rad­i­cal­izes into becom­ing vio­lent. As this path has iden­ti­fi­able points, know­ing those points allows to law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence to inter­vene before an indi­vid­ual is a full fledged terrorist.

The under­ly­ing method­olog­i­cal assump­tions of this the­o­ry and the idea that there is a set path to ter­ror­ism are wide­ly dis­put­ed. Civ­il lib­er­tar­i­ans also point out that polit­i­cal speech the gov­ern­ment deems rad­i­cal or extrem­ist is still pro­tect­ed by the First Amend­ment. Claim­ing that espous­ing polit­i­cal views dis­fa­vored by the gov­ern­ment is the first step to becom­ing a ter­ror­ist opens the door to polit­i­cal surveillance.

This is appar­ent in an online game cre­at­ed in 2016 by the FBI to teach teenagers how to pre­vent vio­lent extrem­ism. In one sce­nario, stu­dents are giv­en a list of fic­tion­al social media posts and asked to iden­ti­ty the one most like­ly a vio­lent extrem­ist look­ing for new recruits.” The cor­rect answer is a post ask­ing if any­one is inter­est­ed in join­ing him at that awful ani­mal test­ing lab” to send them a pow­er­ful’ mes­sage and shut them down once and for all.” It’s a vague post that could refer to a destruc­tive act, but it could also refer to mere polit­i­cal protest. The mes­sage it sends to stu­dents is clear: cer­tain forms of polit­i­cal speech are sus­pi­cious. (The ini­tial ver­sion of this game used as an exam­ple of reportable behav­ior a stu­dent with a Mus­lim-sound­ing name dis­cussing an over­seas trip. After civ­il rights groups object­ed to the game’s pro­mo­tion of racial pro­fil­ing, this spe­cif­ic exam­ple was changed. Civ­il rights groups still object­ed to the game on grounds that it pro­mot­ed racial and reli­gious profiling.

This game isn’t the only rea­son for con­cern. A 2010 FBI primer on anar­chist extrem­ism describes it as encom­pass­ing a vari­ety of ide­olo­gies, includ­ing anti-cap­i­tal­ism, anti-glob­al­ism and anti-urban­iza­tion.” In 2001 con­gres­sion­al tes­ti­mo­ny about the ter­ror­ist threat posed by left-wing and Puer­to Rican extrem­ist groups,” the FBI direc­tor defined those groups as pro­fess­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist doc­trine and view them­selves as pro­tec­tors of the peo­ple against the dehu­man­iz­ing effects’ of cap­i­tal­ism and imperialism.”

If polit­i­cal speech leads to one becom­ing a ter­ror­ist, then pre­ven­tive polic­ing based in the rad­i­cal­iza­tion frame­work means polic­ing polit­i­cal speech. As Ger­man told In These Times, His­to­ry shows the gov­ern­ment often posits that polit­i­cal activ­i­ties and speech are pre­cur­sors or indi­ca­tors of future vio­lence, so the whole pre­ven­tion frame­work serves to jus­ti­fy the sup­pres­sion of polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion rather than crime.”

The focus on not just pros­e­cu­tions, but elim­i­nat­ing the threat of extrem­ism, is evoca­tive of one the dark­est chap­ters in the FBI’s his­to­ry. While the FBI has a long track record of polit­i­cal sur­veil­lance, from 1956 to 1971, the FBI went a step fur­ther. Under the Coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence Pro­gram (COIN­TEL­PRO), the FBI car­ried out what the Church Com­mit­tee, the land­mark Sen­ate inves­ti­ga­tion into US intel­li­gence oper­a­tions, labeled a domes­tic covert action against Amer­i­can cit­i­zens viewed as threat­en­ing the exist­ing polit­i­cal and social order.” COIN­TEL­PRO drew upon tech­niques of wartime” designed to counter hos­tile for­eign agents and applied them to domes­tic polit­i­cal movements.

The FBI cre­at­ed COIN­TEL­PRO in 1956 because it was frus­trat­ed with what it per­ceived as a lack of law enforce­ment avenues to destroy the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Fear­ing it was unable to pros­e­cute indi­vid­u­als whose speech the FBI con­sid­ered a nation­al secu­ri­ty threat, it moved into active­ly try­ing to neu­tral­ize” or dis­rupt” these groups. As his­to­ri­an Ellen Schreck­er suc­cinct­ly put it, FBI Direc­tor J. Edgar and his men decid­ed to use dirty tricks instead of crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions to neu­tral­ize the party.”

COIN­TEL­PRO quick­ly expand­ed beyond the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, but the ini­ti­a­tion of new oper­a­tions was always premised on the FBI’s belief that, for what­ev­er rea­son, pros­e­cu­tion and nor­mal law enforce­ment avenues were fore­closed when it came to thwart­ing the move­ment in ques­tion. As a result, COIN­TEL­PRO by its very design often tar­get­ed entire­ly law­ful First Amend­ment-pro­tect­ed polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing for neutralization.

Tar­get­ing racial jus­tice protesters

The task force’s stat­ed tar­get gives fur­ther cause for con­cern that it will allow the FBI to ramp up its his­to­ry of polit­i­cal polic­ing. The phrase anti-gov­ern­ment extrem­ism” entered the FBI lex­i­con as part of a shift in how the FBI defines domes­tic ter­ror­ism. In 2017, the FBI claimed it rec­og­nized the exis­tence of nine per­sis­tent extrem­ist move­ments”: white suprema­cy, black iden­ti­ties, mili­tia, sov­er­eign cit­i­zens, anar­chists, abor­tion, ani­mal rights, envi­ron­men­tal rights and Puer­to Rican Nation­al­ism.”(Abor­tion extrem­ism, per the FBI, refers not just to anti-choice actors, but pro-choice ones, as well.) The term Black Iden­ti­ty Extrem­ism, which was revealed ini­tial­ly when an FBI intel­li­gence assess­ment was leaked to For­eign Pol­i­cy, gar­nered sig­nif­i­cant back­lash. Faced with Con­gres­sion­al scruti­ny, FBI direc­tor Christo­pher Wray told Con­gress the bureau no longer used that term. Instead, the FBI now rec­og­nized four cat­e­gories of domes­tic ter­ror­ism: racial­ly moti­vat­ed vio­lent extrem­ism, anti-gov­ern­men­t/an­ti-author­i­ty extrem­ism, ani­mal rights/​environmental extrem­ism, and abor­tion extremism.

Gone was not only Black Iden­ti­ty Extrem­ism, but white suprema­cist, anar­chist, sov­er­eign cit­i­zen, mili­tias, and Puer­to Rican extrem­ism. Or at least the terms were gone.

A sec­ond leak of FBI doc­u­ments shows that the def­i­n­i­tion of Black Iden­ti­ty Extrem­ism had hard­ly been elim­i­nat­ed, but incor­po­rat­ed whole­sale into racial­ly moti­vat­ed vio­lent extrem­ism. Law­mak­ers crit­i­cized this cat­e­go­ry for merg­ing Black Iden­ti­ty Extrem­ism and white suprema­cy. A let­ter signed by sev­en U.S. sen­a­tors states that doing so cre­ates not just a false equiv­a­len­cy, but obfus­cates the white suprema­cist threat.”

The terms anti-gov­ern­ment” or anti-author­i­ty extrem­ism” works accord­ing to the same log­ic. Right-wing mili­tias and anar­chist pro­test­ers are brought togeth­er in one uni­fied category.

The obfus­ca­to­ry nature of the FBI’s new domes­tic ter­ror­ism cat­e­gories is on full dis­play with Barr’s task force on vio­lent anti-gov­ern­ment extrem­ism. While it’s clear Barr is tar­get­ing antifa,” a catch-all for left­wing pro­test­ers, he is also able to pre­tend he is focus­ing on rightwing groups.

This isn’t the first time antifa has been men­tioned. In late 2017, direc­tor Christo­pher Wray, when asked by Con­gress if the FBI was inves­ti­gat­ing antifa,” explained that antifa or anti-fas­cism was a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy. The FBI did not, accord­ing to Wray, inves­ti­gate ide­ol­o­gy. The FBI, how­ev­er, had opened numer­ous anar­chist extrem­ism” inves­ti­ga­tions into indi­vid­u­als sup­pos­ed­ly moti­vat­ed to vio­lent action by a kind of an antifa ide­ol­o­gy,” he explained. The FBI’s own primer on the domes­tic ter­ror­ism threat of anar­chist extrem­ism ref­er­ences this group’s and anti-glob­al­ist ide­olo­gies. This is all firm­ly with­in the juris­dic­tion of a task force focus­ing on the sin­is­ter sound­ing vio­lent anti-gov­ern­ment extremism.

A new Red Scare?

Barr isn’t hid­ing the ball: He’s attacked antifa and the left by name. In a press con­fer­ence on George Floyd protests, Barr declared in many places it appears the vio­lence is planned, orga­nized, and dri­ven by anar­chic and left extrem­ist groups, far-left extrem­ist groups, using antifa-like tactics.”

This is clear­ly the lan­guage of a Red Scare. And it isn’t just Barr who’s par­rot­ing it.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R‑Fla.) tweet­ed Black Lives Mat­ter is a Marx­ist move­ment.” On the floor of the house, Rep. Andy Big­gs (R‑Ariz.) mused that the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion reminds me an awful lot of” the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion. Sen. Tom Cot­ton (R‑Ark.), who has called for the mil­i­tary to be used against pro­test­ers, pro­claimed, Look at what’s hap­pen­ing in Seat­tle. Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, anar­chists have tak­en over city gov­ern­ment build­ings.” In the same piece, he claimed some on the left had adopt­ed the spir­it of a Jacobin mob in the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the Reign of Ter­ror try­ing to com­plete­ly erase our cul­ture and our history.”

And then there’s Trump.

An exec­u­tive order issued on June 26, sup­pos­ed­ly to pro­tect stat­ues and mon­u­ments, states, Many of the riot­ers, arson­ists and left-wing extrem­ists who have car­ried out and sup­port­ed these acts have explic­it­ly iden­ti­fied them­selves with ide­olo­gies — such as Marx­ism — that call for the destruc­tion of the Unit­ed States sys­tem of gov­ern­ment. Anar­chists and left-wing extrem­ists have sought to advance a fringe ide­ol­o­gy that paints the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca as fun­da­men­tal­ly unjust and have sought to impose that ide­ol­o­gy on Amer­i­cans through vio­lence and mob intimidation.”

Stand­ing before Mt. Rush­more on July 3, Trump decried far-left fas­cism” and warned of a left-wing cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion” designed to over­throw the Amer­i­can Revolution.”

The fol­low­ing day, at a Fourth of July Salute to Amer­i­ca,” Trump car­ried on with sim­i­lar themes, declar­ing, We are now in the process of defeat­ing the rad­i­cal left, the Marx­ists, the anar­chists, the agi­ta­tors, the loot­ers, and peo­ple who in many instances have absolute­ly no clue what they are doing.”

While Trump has resort­ed to these incen­di­ary denounce­ments of racial jus­tice pro­test­ers, this rhetoric did not entire­ly begin with the nation­wide upris­ing against police bru­tal­i­ty. At the 2019 State of the Union address, Trump pro­claimed Amer­i­ca would nev­er be a social­ist coun­try,” a claim he has again made at cam­paign ral­lies. But amid esca­lat­ing Covid-19 deaths, mass unem­ploy­ment and a loom­ing evic­tion cri­sis, Trump appears to be ratch­et­ing up his rhetoric. A nation­wide upris­ing against police racism and an insur­gent demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist move­ment has chal­lenged the polit­i­cal con­sen­sus. With sink­ing approval rat­ings, Trump is clear­ly des­per­ate. Trump and the far-right forces that have cho­sen him as their avatar are clear­ly try­ing to retain their grip on pow­er with bom­bas­tic, Red Scare rhetoric.

The FBI has always been cen­tral to Red Scares in the Unit­ed States. The height of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Red Scare came when the FBI’s new­ly mint­ed intel­li­gence divi­sion, head­ed by its future direc­tor J. Edgar Hoover, gath­ered dossiers on rad­i­cals and car­ried out the Palmer Raids. Dur­ing the Cold War, the FBI was the bureau­crat­ic heart of the McCarthy era. Barr’s cre­ation of the task force on vio­lent anti-gov­ern­ment extrem­ism is clear­ly part and par­cel of this lega­cy. It will be used to go after polit­i­cal oppo­nents and police the pol­i­tics of the left. Rein­ing in the FBI’s polit­i­cal polic­ing is not only vital to pro­tect­ing civ­il lib­er­ties, but defend­ing the move­ment for racial jus­tice it is targeting.

Chip Gib­bons is a jour­nal­ist whose work has been fea­tured in Jacobin and the Nation. He is also the pol­i­cy and leg­isla­tive coun­sel for Defend­ing Rights and Dis­sent, but the views expressed here are his own. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @ChipGibbons89.
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