In early October, reports surfaced that the FBI had declared “Black Identity Extremists,” or BIEs, a threat to public safety. The news left many scratching their heads. What are Black Identity Extremists? And why, barely a month after the White supremacist march on Charlottesville, are they suddenly considered such a serious problem?
Essentially, a BIE is someone who carries out violence against law enforcement as retaliation for police brutality against unarmed black men and women. It is important to acknowledge that this kind of violence against law enforcement has taken place over the last couple years. Most notably, Micah Xavier Johnson killed five Dallas police officers and injured 9 other people last July. That same month, Gavin Eugene Long killed three Baton Rouge police officers and wounded three others. Both men were acting in response to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, so there is some legitimacy to the FBI’s concern about this type of violence.
But the problem with the BIE designation is who it includes. The term doesn’t just target lone wolf shooters who may or may not be affiliated with Black fringe groups. BIE is really a blanket term to include Black separatists, Black supremacists, and Black nationalists as well as anyone who could be perceived as anti-police or anti-White.
People who intend to inflict harm on others, including law enforcement, should be stopped and held accountable, but who gets to decide who’s anti-White or anti-police? Plenty of people have labeled Black Lives Matter an anti-White, anti-police organization, though we know they are anti-police brutality. Could the BIE focus be used to go after BLM protestors and organizers with more aggressive force? Are BLM participants now walking around with targets on their backs?
A lot of mystery shrouds just who these BIEs are, but the ACLU wants more transparency. On October 18, ACLU representatives filed a Freedom of Information Act request, urging the FBI to release information on the individuals who’ve been declared extremists. They are worried that the BIE designation is racist and potentially puts powerful advocacy groups in danger. They are concerned that Black advocates’s First Amendment rights are in jeopardy.
It is a logical concern. The current situation is reminiscent of the FBI’s one-time “war on civil rights.” Back in the 1960s, civil rights activists were considered a subversive group, on par with the Communist Party. As they fought for equality, these activists were monitored as though they were criminals. Now, there is fear that our society could be headed back in the same direction.
Again, to be clear, those who intend to harm or kill law enforcement are on the wrong side of the battle however, groups like BLM believe in free speech and peaceful protest. They are using their voices, signs, and gatherings, to speak out against a major issue that is affecting our community. These men who have brandished weapons and ambushed police aren’t fighting the same fight, and critics of BIE surveillance want to know that the FBI separates them, too. Speaking up about our rights shouldn’t lump us into the same category as terrorists, and it shouldn’t put us in harm’s way.
Given the recent indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and the Trump administration’s push to distract us with renewed interest in a tax reform plan, there are plenty of other fires out there– Unfortunately, the news of BIE surveillance has stayed off the mainstream cultural radar.
However, we need to pay attention.
One would hope that free speech continues to be protected and that Black people who speak out are not considered a threat simply because they are Black.
The BIE designation stokes that fear in our community, but let’s hope it stays just that—a fear.