These LA Activists Are Showing How to Fight Surveillance Under Trump
Racial justice organizers stopped the mayor from expanding an Islamophobic “counter-terrorism” program. They’re building a coalition to end all spying on communities of color.
On a hot August day at a community space on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, about two dozen youth of color from the undocumented-led Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC) gathered for a workshop.
At the front of the room an activist from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which aims to end police surveillance programs, gave instructions to the participants. On pieces of paper folded into four quarters, organizer Nadia Khan told the kids, “I want you to respond to the following question: What do you consider suspicious?”
Everyone scribbled down their answers in marker, crumpled up the pieces of paper and threw them towards the front of the room. Participants got up from their seats to grab someone else’s answer from the balled-up sheets, then took turns reading them out loud.
“Police,” read one. “White people in my neighborhood watching me,” said another. “Men following me.”
The participants repeated the activity with another prompt: “Was there a time or moment when you were suspicious of someone? What were the indictors?” The next: “Was anyone ever suspicious of you?” And a final one: “If you see something, say something — what is this statement asking you to look for?”
By the time the activity was over, the kids were speaking fluidly about their experiences of being surveilled and how notions of suspicion are tied into race, class and gender — and that’s exactly what the moderators intended.
The youth were there, in part, to learn about Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), an anti-terrorism initiative ostensibly intended to prevent vulnerable people from being recruited by “violent extremist” groups. Last winter, Stop LAPD Spying and a coalition of racial justice groups began developing a curriculum that contextualized CVE alongside the broader targeting of Latinx and undocumented people, the LGBTQ community, indigenous people — and, most of all, Black people. The kids at IYC in August were one of the first groups to engage with this new pedagogical approach.
Launched by the Obama administration, CVE is undergoing a shakeup under Trump. Last month, NBC News reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to discontinue funding for the program. That decision, arriving shortly after the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, drew criticism from commentators such as The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart as another example of Trump aiding and abetting far-right and white supremacist groups.
Yet civil liberties and racial justice groups have assailed the program for focusing disproportionately on Muslims and treating individuals’ political views, religiosity and even mental health as potential markers of future violence.
What’s more, declarations that CVE is dead are premature — the approach at the heart of the program appears likely to continue through other federal and state channels, albeit under different names.
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, notes that even if DHS ends its CVE funding, the Justice Department, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and FBI all have their own programs.
“Another feature of CVE programs is that they often rebrand to escape scrutiny and accountability, so communities and local policy makers need to be cautious about new government programs moving forward,” he told In These Times. “CVE may be ending, but the negative impact it had on targeted communities will last much longer.”
That’s why, for Khan and a coalition of organizers in Los Angeles, the fight against surveillance cannot begin and end with CVE. They’ve already won an important local victory — in August, Los Angeles announced it was turning down a $425,000 CVE grant following public pressure. The coalition’s public education and organizing efforts offer important lessons for organizers continuing the fight against government surveillance in an uncertain landscape.
Coopting relationships of trust
CVE was born in 2014, when then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was creating a pilot program to “bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders and the United States Attorneys to improve local engagement [and] counter violent extremism.”
The program is rooted in the “conveyor belt” theory of radicalization, which holds that so-called extremist religious ideologies operate like a mechanical force driving people to commit violent acts. Under this logic, potentially vulnerable people — those with mental health issues, for example — are considered especially “at risk” of radicalization. Anti-American political beliefs and increased religiosity are seen as potential indicators of an individual’s growing extremism. Importantly, there’s no empirical evidence to bear out this theory of radicalization — there are many complex factors that can lead someone to commit an act of political violence.
CVE extends the reach of law enforcement by coopting relationships of trust between community members and workers in the public and non-profit sector. Three municipal CVE pilot programs announced in 2014 enlisted community partners that provide mental health and social services, including a mentoring program for Somali youth in Minneapolis and antibullying programs in Boston.
In Los Angeles, the third pilot city, the mayor’s office has accepted at least a quarter of a million dollars from the federal government to fund CVE programs.
One local non-profit, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), received tens of thousands of dollars in seed money from the mayor’s office for a pilot program called Safe Spaces. The program provided Muslim community members with individual, couples and family counseling with a specific aim in mind: “to help troubled individuals and intervene with potentially harmful behaviors, and to prevent ideological violence that could stem from those vulnerabilities.” Mental health workers screened participants for “threats of public violence” that could potentially require referral to the police.
Racial justice and anti-surveillance groups raised the alarm when they discovered that MPAC had also been awarded CVE funding directly by the Obama Department of Homeland Security, though the funding was never disbursed by the Trump administration. The Safe Spaces program is no longer in operation.
“MPAC never received any [CVE] funds and Safe Spaces specifically had no law enforcement role,” MPAC Director of Development & Communications Shahbano Nawaz told In These Times via e-mail.
Stop LAPD Spying has been involved in the fight against CVE from the beginning. But when the LA City Council announced in December 2017 that it was considering an additional $425,000 CVE grant, the group kicked into high gear.
As Khan started organizing to oppose the funds, she got connected to young people from a range of other groups, including Palestinian Youth Movement, the Black Student Union from University of California Irvine (BSU-UCI), the Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC) and Jewish Voice for Peace.
“What has really brought us together is just an unwavering rejection of police and the many tentacles of the system,” said Khan. Activists in Stop LAPD Spying and other groups were concerned with how anti-CVE campaigning had traditionally been framed by civil rights liberties groups.
“They’re really focusing on just the Islamophobic aspects of [CVE],” said Khan. “And that is harmful, because it feeds more into that divisiveness that is present in our communities.”
The activists decided to join forces and develop a new approach to community education about CVE and other programs that mark youth of color as violent extremists. After a campaign meeting in May, three activists who helped develop the curriculum shared what had brought them to the project. Celine Qussiny, who is active in the Palestinian Youth Movement, said she was excited to be part of a coalition organizing against CVE through a collective process, and to be in a space that centered anti-Blackness.
Jasmine Adams has served on the leadership committee of BSU-UCI. She’s also done extensive research on the significance of the FBI’s Black Identity Extremist designation, which has been used to prosecute Black activists who have advocated for gun rights. “I kept coming because the work is intersectional,” she told In These Times.
Akhil Gopal is active in Jewish Voice for Peace and has been researching how CVE is connected to police violence here and in Israel. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, brings police officers to train in Israel and is also a big proponent of CVE.
“Before there were even talks of Muslim databases, there were already gang databases, before there were talks of Muslim surveillance, there was surveillance of Black Muslims,” he said.
Glenda Stamper, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, has also been closely involved in the campaign. “I just think it’s a really good idea to bring everyone together,” she told In These Times in a phone interview.
The curriculum is designed to make connections between all these issues, linking CVE to the the crackdown on so-called Black Identity Extremist activists to the political repression of Palestine organizers and the demonization of Latinx youth as MS-13 “terrorists.”
At the August workshop, the IYC youth engaged in activities to break down what constitutes violent extremism and who gets marked as suspicious to law enforcement. They spoke about the history of surveillance programs in the United States, including COINTELPRO and its impact on the struggle for Black Liberation. By the end of the day, they’d learned about CVE and the grant under consideration by the mayor’s office and made plans to educate their family members and community.
Over the past year, Stop LAPD Spying has also engaged in other efforts to oppose the grant, including reaching out to community groups and organizing activists to attend and speak-out at City Council meetings. These efforts were augmented by efforts inside schools, including organizing by Los Angeles teacher’s union, which in July passed a motion opposing CVE as well as PVE, or Preventing Violent Extremism, which focuses on bringing “deradicalization” programming to K-12 schools.
Surveillance by a new name
A sustained public campaign by Stop LAPD Spying, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles (AAAJ-LA) and other groups paid off in August, when the office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced it was turning down the CVE grant. Experts interviewed by In These Times believe that this is a first time that a municipality has moved to turn down this kind of funding.
“I think it’s important development and give credit to the local groups who organized around the Countering Violent Extremism program, particularly the young people who are most directly impacted by it,” said the Brennan Center’s German.
The same coalition is now gearing up to fight a new round of state funding for surveillance programs. Last month, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services announced that it would award more than $600,000 to five nonprofits through a new “Preventing Violent Extremism” pilot program.
AAAJ-LA, along with the state chapter of the Council on Islamic Relations, called the program “eerily similar” to CVE and is demanding greater transparency about the new program.
“California has been at the forefront of resisting anti-immigrant and divisive policies and should be at the forefront of resisting federal policies like CVE,” said Advancing Justice-LA Litigation Director Laboni Hoq in a press release. “We urge the state to continue resisting injustice by refusing to partner with the Trump administration and DHS, who has continued to promote a white supremacist agenda of which CVE is just one part.”
As for the activists who helped develop the anti-CVE curriculum, they’re thinking big about next steps and continuing to bring their workshop to community and activist groups. Qussinys wonders if communities in Los Angeles could operate their own programming and support services, without relying on federal funding, and in doing so prevent law enforcement from infiltrating with the promise of CVE money.
“We can create things for ourselves, it’s actually possible to do that,” she said, recalling how mosques had created community centers and operates social and mental health services in the past. “And we can do that now, too.”