J20, “Black Identity Extremists,” and Resisting State Repression

Above: Woodcut by Annie Morgan Banks in collaboration with political prisoner David Gilbert, from “Drawing inspiration: interviews and prints made with movement mentors” series

This year has been one of “shock and awe” – as people here and around the world push back against the growing power of the Right and white nationalists who are determined to turn back every advance made in the struggle for a more just world.  We continue to see so many powerful examples of resistance – from Standing Rock to the airport takeovers against the Muslim Ban to the anti-fascist rallies.

And the state is responding in the way it always has – with intimidation and violence – violence, as H. Rap Brown once said, “as American as apple pie.” While we aren’t surprised at the heightened attempts by the government to silence dissent, we do need to be prepared to respond collectively. Some political charges are already happening, and the FBI is preparing to escalate repression of Black movements (much more on this below).

STUDY GROUP readings and questions on resisting state repression for activists developed by Catalyst with Rob McBride & Annie Morgan Banks
Also for collective study–Catalyst’s pamphlet, A Troublemakers’ Guide: Principles for Racial Justice Activists In the Face of State Repression

As we write this, over 200 activists known as the J-20 defendants are facing up to 60 years in prison for the massive protest on January 20th of Trump’s inauguration in DC. These sweeping charges are designed to have a chilling effect, to make people afraid to march, to speak out, to protest. The state is charging everyone who was scooped up at random with conspiracy and major felonies. In a display of solidarity, most of the defendants are refusing to testify against each other, collectively fighting the charges instead of accepting plea deals. Read more about their case and the ways you can support them. As one resistor says:

“How are people expected to be brave enough to resist when the consequences could be a lifetime of incarceration? Never mind the beatings from the police. When taking the streets and demonstrating could mean facing concussion grenades, jail cells infested with roaches, and the promise of eight felony charges, who is going to stand up and fight back? These charges are intended to keep people afraid, indoors and obedient. And this case itself is intended to set the precedent for all of this.” (J-20 resistor)

“Liberal” San Francisco also pressed charges against some people who took direct action that same day to protest Trump’s inauguration; they are scheduled to go to trial in March.  And a year after highly militarized police viciously attacked and arrested water protectors at Standing Rock,  over 300 of the more than 700 arrestees still face charges for trying to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. Just yesterday, it was revealed that the person facing the most severe criminal charges from Standing Rock was unknowingly in a romantic relationship with a paid FBI informant, whose gun she was accused of firing.

Equally disturbing is the recent revelation that the FBI’s counter-terrorism division has written a report declaring “Black Identity Extremists [BIE]” a violent threat. The BIE label applies to “[I]ndividuals who seek, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence, in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society and some do so in furtherance of establishing a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.” The report further asserts that “Incidents of alleged police abuse” have “continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement”.

In the eyes of the FBI, Black identity itself is seen as a threat, and promoting Black self-determination and liberation becomes a crime. The BIE label is being used to justify surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives and other organizations working in the Black radical tradition. Recent Freedom of Information requests reveal an alarming effort to train police to view Black activists organizing against police violence as terrorists.

The BIE report brings chills to those of us who remember J. Edgar Hoover’s 1969 declaration that the burgeoning Black movement was “the biggest threat to the internal security of the U.S”. He directed his agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist … organizations and groups.” COINTELPRO – the FBI’s counterintelligence program of the 60’s and 70s – was authorized to use any and all illegal tactics to destroy Black organizations – illegal surveillance, informants, disinformation, and assassination. The goal was to break down the organizations, create conflict between groups, undermine the ability of Black organizations to access resources and hamstring activists’ ability to organize. And to a large degree, it worked.

As anti-racists, we need to learn from this history, and refuse to allow a new generation of Black organizations to be targeted for destruction. We have to resist the extreme Islamophobia of this administration as it tries to paint a picture of all Arabs and Muslims as inherently dangerous and their leadership as terrorist. We have to prepare ourselves for a collective response to repression whenever the state moves on our community.

We can’t let it be the precedent.  We need to channel our political ancestors in defending our right to collective resistance. As Malkia Cyril, director of the Center for Media Justice reminds us, “Acting with great principle in this time is not just a matter of moral high ground but also a matter of personal safety. Principles and thinking about ourselves in relationship with each other, that is going to be our greatest defense.”

Donna Willmott,
On Behalf of Catalyst

PS. Don’t forget to check out A Troublemakers Guide: Principles for Racial Justice Activists In the Face of State Repression and these readings and questions on state repression.