MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The FBI’s Long History of Treating Political Dissent as Terrorism

Posted by M. C. on October 23, 2019

“What is known is that there is a persistent pattern of monitoring civil society activity,” the report concludes, calling for strict oversight and reform of the bureau. “The FBI continuously singles out peace, racial justice, environmental, and economic justice groups for scrutiny. This is consistent with a decades-long pattern of FBI First Amendment abuses and suggests deeply seated political bias.”

https://theintercept.com/2019/10/22/terrorism-fbi-political-dissent/

While terrorism in the U.S. is relatively rare, over the last decade most politically motivated violence has come at the hands of far-right extremists. Despite that reality, the FBI has devoted disproportionate resources to the surveillance of nonviolent civil society groups and protest movements, particularly on the left, using its mandate to protect national security to target scores of individuals posing no threat but opposing government policies and practices.

Since 2010, the FBI has surveilled black activists and Muslim Americans, Palestinian solidarity and peace activists, Abolish ICE protesters, Occupy Wall Street, environmentalists, Cuba and Iran normalization proponents, and protesters at the Republican National Convention. And that is just the surveillance we know of — as the civil liberties group Defending Rights & Dissent documents in a report published today. The report is a detailed catalog of known FBI First Amendment abuses and political surveillance since 2010, when the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General published the last official review of Bush-era abuses. The incidents the report references, many of which were previously covered by The Intercept, were largely exposed through public records requests by journalists, activists, and civil rights advocates. The FBI relentlessly fought those disclosures, and the documents we have were often so heavily redacted they only revealed the existence of initiatives like a “Race Paper” or an “Iron Fist” operation, both targeting racial justice activists, while giving away little detail about their content.

But the targeting of political dissent is nothing new for the FBI. In fact, one of the bureau’s first campaigns, which began a hundred years ago next month, was an abusive crackdown of politically active immigrants it viewed as disloyal potential terrorists.

On the second anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, law enforcement agents at the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation — the FBI’s precursor — raided the Russian People’s House in New York City, where immigrants gathered to take classes, and beat and arrested everyone they found there. In the months following, local and federal police across major U.S. cities rounded up thousands of men and women, mostly foreign-born, who they accused of being subversives and Communists. The raids followed politically motivated investigations into immigrant associations, labor organizing groups, and leftist and anarchist circles.

The Palmer Raids, as they came to be known, after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, ushered in an era that tested the nation’s commitment to the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. One hundred years later, the FBI continues to target political dissent with a broad mandate, little oversight, and next to no transparency. The FBI continues to routinely conflate dissent with terrorism, and remains particularly fixated on leftist ideologies. Like the old bureau under Palmer, today’s FBI also casts its net around a wide range of civil society and social justice groups as well as racial and religious minorities.

“What is known is that there is a persistent pattern of monitoring civil society activity,” the report concludes, calling for strict oversight and reform of the bureau. “The FBI continuously singles out peace, racial justice, environmental, and economic justice groups for scrutiny. This is consistent with a decades-long pattern of FBI First Amendment abuses and suggests deeply seated political bias.”

After reviewing the report, a spokesperson for the FBI wrote in a statement to The Intercept that every activity the FBI conducts “must uphold the Constitution and be carried out in accordance with federal laws.” The spokesperson added that the bureau’s investigative activities “may not be based solely on the exercise of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment” and that its methods “are subject to multiple layers of oversight.” On its website, the bureau calls the Palmer Raids “certainly not a bright spot for the young Bureau” but adds that they did allow it to “gain valuable experience in terrorism investigations and intelligence work and learn important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”

In fact, FBI violations of civil liberties and constitutional rights continued to be exposed at different points in the bureau’s history — most notably in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and in the post-9/11 years…

Across the country, activists have taken note. “I think a lot of us have just become used to being surveilled by the government,” said Mustafa Jumale, policy manager with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration based in Minneapolis, where the FBI has targeted Muslims and African immigrants. “The FBI has been harassing Somalis since I was in college. As a student, they used to just come to our student association, pull people out of class, all these things.”

Jumale added that some fellow activists, and particularly those who are not citizens, have scaled back their engagement in response to the surveillance, working “behind the scenes” but avoiding protests and public statements. But others noted that surveillance won’t succeed to intimidate a social justice movement that feels as urgent as ever.

“Activists today are knowledgeable and informed about COINTELRPO and previous iterations of surveillance of activists, and people are pretty hip to it. They understand the government may be watching them,” said Myaisha Hayes, an organizer with the racial justice group Media Justice whose grandfather spent 45 years in prison over his involvement with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. “When people are oppressed and they’re fighting for greater justice and liberation, there are very few things that are going to stop them.”

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