In the wake of the Capitol riot, many racial justice activists and some progressive lawmakers are warning against attempts to increase the government’s surveillance powers. They’ve lived this before. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks Muslims were targets for crimes and harassment, even as all Americans faced the increased federal surveillance that accompanied passage of the USA Patriot Act of 2001.
That’s why now — even as the FBI, Washington Metropolitan Police Department and both chambers of Congress continue their respective formal investigations — Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and other activists are already trying to slow what they expect to be another push to expand federal policing powers, because the Muslim American community still bears wounds from being targeted after 9/11. And many of today’s activists of color can’t shake the fear that stems from the collective and vivid memory of the FBI’s racist targeting of Black civil rights activists with programs like COINTELPRO, which targeted members of the Black Panther and Socialist Workers Party, alongside the Ku Klux Klan.
“For many of us, the Jan. 6 attack was shocking but not surprising. Sadly, many of us have experienced that kind of hatred before and know it’s a bigger part of this country than people would like to admit,” Tlaib told a group of activists last week.
Tlaib was a part of an event hosted by Media Justice (the advocacy group formerly known as Center for Media Justice). The ‘E-panel’ was, tellingly, titled: “Safety, Not Surveillance: Resisting Criminalization After Crisis.”
In 2017, Media Justice created its #ProtectBlackDissent campaign after a leak revealed the FBI created a new domestic terrorism category: “Black Identity Extremist.” A resulting FOIA (or Freedom of Information Act) request by the ACLU and Media Justice discovered the FBI has more than one million investigative records on supposed Black Identity Extremists alongside other racially based targets in a new operation it is calling “IRON FIST.”
While we may be a nation that aspires to liberty, justice, and equity for all, we are also a nation that officially or in practice has made white supremacy a central color of its governance for the overwhelming majority of its historyRep. Rashida Tlaib
The second-term representative from Michigan also referenced the recently-breaking news that Rinaldo Nazzaro, found of the Neo-Nazi hate group “The Base, previously worked for the FBI as a military contractor for the Department of Defense and was also once an employee of The Department of Homeland Security.
“We’ve already begun to hear calls from both sides of the aisle for new national security and surveillance powers to combat the threat posed by white nationalists,” Tlaib said.
As of this date, no formal expansion of surveillance or policing powers for the national security apparatus has been proposed, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights also issued a call to Congress to ask that members refrain from any proposed expansion of terrorism-related legal authority.
The Leadership Conference consists of more than 220 civil and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and The Brennan Center for Justice, represented by former FBI agent and current Liberty and National Security fellow, Mike German.
“This has been a long-standing problem where the FBI and the Justice Department, as a matter of policy and practice, de-prioritize the investigation and prosecution of white supremacists and far-right militant violence,” German said.
Like Tlaib, German also sees a correlation between white supremacy and unequal treatment from law enforcement as it relates to Black and Brown activists.
“A lot of it goes back to the foundation of our country as a white supremacist project,” German said. “The purpose of policing for hundreds of years was to enforce white supremacy.”
That’s why Tlaib and the others say no new surveillance powers are needed: The government has the tools. It just hasn’t used them.
“If our government and the previous administration,” Tlaib said, “had focused more on the threat of white nationalist terrorism and less on harassing Black Lives Matter, civil rights, and left-wing protestors, they would’ve seen [Jan. 6] coming a mile away and taken action to prevent it.”