How the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremist” label feeds into our willingness to throw Black radicals under the bus
State violence is the fundamental issue, not the violence of those who respond to it.
Last week, I was banned from Facebook for the second time. That this has only happened twice in seven years is a small miracle, given Facebook’s well-documented penchant for censoring the words of Black thinkers and writers, and my history of publishing some of my most controversial thoughts as statuses on the platform.
This time, I was banned for the half-joke, half-honest musing that “white people should be harassed at all times.” I posted it many months ago, and considering the reality of the constant harassment of Black people—harassment which, as I said, Facebook itself constantly partakes in—it seemed a fairly inconsequential aspiration at the time. If white comfort is part of the reason white supremacy is so entrenched, making white people uncomfortable via harassment “at all times” is a self-evident way to go about rectifying that, at least in humorous theory.
But, as the FBI recently reiterated (and also made clear decades ago with COINTELPRO), Black people seeking to rectify white supremacy, even in the most minor of ways, is always extreme, and a threat that requires censorship if not complete eradication. According to a new report obtained by Foreign Policy, “the FBI’s counterterrorism division has declared that black identity extremists pose a growing threat of premeditated violence against law enforcement.”
The report argues that “it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.” It mentions cases such as that of Micah Johnson, a Black gunman who shot and killed five police officers in Dallas last summer in response to ongoing police killings of Black people.
The report’s apparent use is to justify further surveillance and intensified policing, despite the issues of police violence against Black people being what led Johnson to his ultimate act in the first place.
While it is tempting to distance oneself (even farther) from those seen as “extreme” in the face of this blatant attempt to validate crackdowns against activists in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, this can only contribute to the problem of how these justifications are made in the long run. For instance, in acknowledging that the new “Black Identity Extremist” designation is informed by baseless logic, Foreign Policy quotes former Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst Daryl Johnson who explains, “When talking about white supremacists versus black supremacists, there are way more white supremacists.”
Though it may be true that “Black supremacists” and the Micah Johnsons of this country are outnumbered, presenting this fact as a comforting rejoinder to the government’s attempts to ignore the very real issues fueling the violence of Black “extremists” does nothing to challenge how those issues are ignored in the first place. State violence is the fundamental issue, not the violence of those who respond to it. Instead of keeping this in focus, justifications for attacks against Black folks deemed “extreme” go unabated as those of us who might not share their retaliatory convictions seek desperately to be seen as different from them.
And while seeking distance from Black “extremists” does reinforce the justifications for killing them, it does nothing to protect us from the state’s violence that will only continue to create new reasons to stomp out any actions that go against the white supremacist country it constitutes (hence the creation of “Black Identity Extremists” in the first place). Because there aren’t too many Micah Johnsons, we reason, “extremists” like him can continue being unethically bombed by robots, as long as we don’t get bombed, too. But Black people always get bombed, literally and figuratively, in an anti-Black world, and no amount of distance between us and Black “extremists” will change that.
The supposed safety we are offered if we are not like those “extreme” Black people does not exist. It is a ruse that only ever further entrenches our lack of safety collectively.
Rather than cave to the constant pressures to throw Black radicals under the bus in a vain attempt to save ourselves, what might happen if we developed structures to better protect them? How might our work to challenge anti-Black paradigms evolve if we committed to fleshing out our ideas in conjunction with those willing to make extreme sacrifices? What is possible when we recognize Black safety in an anti-Black world as an impossibility, and work to create a new world rather than continue trying to change the unchangeable? What if it is only comforting that Micah Johnson is a rarity to the state who killed him—the same state is now “expanding” its killing efforts to include basically whichever Black people they want to include?
On August 1st, 2016, only weeks after Micah Johnson was murdered by police, Korryn Gaines stood in her home, her five-year-old child in her arms, recording as police attempted to illegally break into her home. She attempted to stream the incident to Facebook Live, but, according to The Guardian, police requested that the social media platform shut off her streaming capabilities, and with it all proof of her subsequent murder and the shooting of her child. Facebook complied immediately.
This was before the Trump administration began talk of “Black Identity Extremists,” but Facebook—the same Facebook that called my joke about harassing white people “hate speech”—had already taken the side of the state, and already had enough justification to help police murder a Black woman who had the “extreme” audacity to resist the police while holding a gun. The justification was that she was Black.
Terrorism is so effective because it allows fear to override reality, and this is a terrorist country. Including my status about harassing white people, my words have often been called extreme. When the news of the “Black Identity Extremist” label broke, my first inclination was to be afraid, to go and scrub away these “extreme” positions to try to avoid being put on some list and eventually have my own killing justified. But I quickly remembered that these justifications do not require new birthing, which is why almost no cops face consequences for murdering Black people ever.
This work requires that “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” especially if that means bartering the lives of radical Black people who are on the same side as us, even if they might be misguided.
It requires re-calibrating our resistance to the possibility of extremism, because it takes extreme measures to come out from under 400 years of genocidal subjugation. It means knowing that we cannot be safe unless the most dangerous among us are safe, too. The task is to refuse to allow fear to convince us otherwise.