At the height of 2014’s Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, FBI agents tracked the movements of an activist flying in from New York, and appear to have surveilled the homes and cars of individuals somehow tied to the protests, according to recently released documents provided to The Intercept.
The documents, which include FBI emails and intelligence reports from November 2014, suggest that federal surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests went far beyond the online intelligence-gathering first reported on by The Intercept in 2015. That intelligence-gathering by the federal government had employed open-source information, such as social media, to profile and keep track of activists. The newly released documents suggest the FBI put resources toward running informants, as well as physical surveillance of antiracist activists.
The heavily redacted records were obtained by two civil rights groups, Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and are being published here for the first time. Internal communications from Department of Homeland Security officials, released through this lawsuit, also revealed the existence of a document described by DHS officials as the “Race Paper,” which was the subject of a filing by the civil rights groups on Monday.
Though cleansed of much substance by redactions, the released surveillance documents give rough sketches of the sort of activities the FBI engaged in surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. The documents don’t directly mention Black Lives Matter, but they were released by the government in response to a request specifically about the movement.
One report, produced on November 21, 2014, shows an FBI agent alerting officials about a protester’s plans to travel from New York to Ferguson for a Thanksgiving Day protest starting at a facility of Monsanto, a multinational agrochemical corporation. The FBI narrative, which was provided “for coordination with Monsanto,” does not mention how authorities knew about the protester’s travel plans. The report also highlights money raised for bail funds and “direct action devices” — a reference to materials used in protest demonstrations — but does not reference any indications of potential violence.
The intelligence summary notes the activist in question, whose name was redacted, is “believed to have been arrested at a previous protest.” The report also refers to a separate document about the individual, suggesting that the FBI had compiled an individualized dossier on the protester, according to summaries of the documents provided by Color of Change. A search of two FBI databases found no derogatory information on the activist, according to the report narrative.
Some of the documents released as part of the lawsuit contradict the FBI’s claim that it does not police ideology and only targets individuals taking up violent action, said Michael German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program.
“This is clearly just tracking First Amendment activity and keeping this activity in an intelligence database.”
“This is clearly just tracking First Amendment activity and keeping this activity in an intelligence database,” said German, in a phone interview, referring to the FBI report about an individual’s plans to travel for a protest. “Even if you made the argument that it is about a propensity for violence, why isn’t there a discussion of that propensity? Instead they are discussing bond money, not detailing a criminal predicate or even a possibility of violence.”
In a statement to The Intercept, the FBI denied it had surveilled anyone on the basis of exercising their rights. “The FBI does not engage in surveillance of individuals exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Rebecca Wu, a public affairs officer with the FBI in St. Louis. “However, the FBI is responsible for reviewing intelligence that indicates an individual may be involved in criminal activity or is a threat to national security.”
The FBI also released heavily redacted reports and emails suggesting FBI agents staked out the cars and residences of individuals somehow associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. A November 25, 2014, report released in response to the request for FBI records on Black Lives Matter surveillance shows that an FBI bomb technician and another officer from an unspecified task force observed a vehicle outside a residence and gathered registration information on vehicles parked in the vicinity. The FBI agents had identified the first vehicle thanks to a confidential human source.
An email chain, also from November 25, 2014, shows FBI agents discussing logistics for a continuous stakeout of a redacted physical location. One email from 2:08 a.m. that day indicates that FBI agents were camped outside an unknown location during the early-morning hours and planned to have other agents take over their monitoring shift at 6 a.m. Another email sent less than an hour later alerts agents at “approx 1 am, two cars came and parked at” the redacted location. It is unclear who was the focus of this surveillance operation and whether the operation was part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
The report was compiled on the day a grand jury declined to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Three days earlier, the FBI had arrested two members of the New Black Panther Party after they bought three nonfunctional pipe bombs as part of a sting operation.
German, who reviewed the other released records for The Intercept, said it is impossible to tell whether the in-person surveillance that they reference was appropriate. “The fact that they have a confidential human source, why does this come up in a search of Black Lives Matter?” said German. “Because these documents are so redacted, we don’t know. Perhaps there was some justifiable reason to be following them.”
Years after the surveillance of black activists detailed in the 2014 documents, the FBI expressed its concern about black activism by producing a bureau report on “Black Identity Extremist” groups. The 2017 report, which was leaked to Foreign Policy, spurred criticisms, including from several leaders in the Congressional Black Caucus, that this extremist classification unfairly lumps numerous black groups into one movement threatening law enforcement and public safety.
Since the FBI’s focus on “Black Identity Extremists” became known last October, the FBI has quietly investigated militant black activists advocating armed self-defense in locations ranging from Texas to Michigan to South Carolina, according to Foreign Policy. Black nationalist motivations accounted for five of the 34 extremist-related murders in 2017, compared to 18 white supremacist murders, according to an Anti-Defamation League report.
“Black identity extremism doesn’t exist, it’s a made-up term that they” — the FBI — “created for a guidance document on how to police young Black activists,” Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement to The Intercept last week. “In addition to other efforts to win retraction of this document, a task force of the Congressional Black Caucus will be conducting a briefing next week featuring experts and activists from around the country to examine the troubling guidance that was released last year.”
For experts on the history of government surveillance of black social movements in the U.S., the tactics described in the documents are reminiscent of a rich American history of targeting black Americans. Perhaps most infamously, the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program was aimed at disrupting and infiltrating civil rights and black nationalist movements from 1956 to 1971.
“What we have learned from history is that policies aimed at surveilling and harassing social movements among black people in the United States have never really ended.”
“What we have learned from history is that policies aimed at surveilling and harassing social movements among black people in the United States have never really ended,” said Anika Navaroli, a legal expert and researcher on civil rights and privacy in the U.S. “It is important to recognize that the practices shown in these documents are not unprecedented. They are a continuation of policies that have systematically created an environment of fear for black people in America, while rendering their right to privacy nonexistent.”
The use of informants to surveil Black Lives Matter activists draws on a history that predates even COINTELPRO. In his 1999 book “Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925,” historian Theodore Kornweibel Jr. documented how federal authorities made “extensive use of black undercover officers and infiltrators” as part of an anticommunist crusade in which authorities accused black activists of Bolshevist sympathies in the decades following the 1917 Russian Revolution.
“There are real criminals out in the world, and there aren’t enough FBI agents to spend law enforcement resources against people who don’t pose any kind of threat,” said German, the former FBI agent. “I don’t understand why law enforcement is so enamored by this work. Unfortunately, this type of intelligence-gathering often has a racial component to it.”
The release of FOIA documents showing direct surveillance of Ferguson protest activists is part of a broader legal fight by advocates with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change to create more transparency about law enforcement efforts to surveil Black Lives Matter activists. But documents and emails released to lawyers may show much more than these kinds of direct surveillance activities.
Numerous emails between Department of Homeland Security officials also refer to something described internally as the “Race Paper.” While the government has not been willing to discuss the nature of this document, lawyers involved in the case say that internal DHS communications about the document may refer to a framework for evaluating the alleged radicalization of black activists. (DHS did not reply to a request to comment for this story.)
“In our review of the documents the court ordered DHS to turn over, we came across multiple emails between individuals in the DHS Intelligence and Analysis office referring to a document called ‘Race Paper,’ though every word of the document itself is blacked-out,” said Omar Farah, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “In the emails discussing the document, there is also more than one reference to ‘drivers’ and ‘indicators.’ These are terms that, in the absence of more information, hint at bunk analytical frameworks that attempt to predict criminality by ascribing behavioral tendencies to protected classes of people.”
On Monday, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change filed a motion specifically demanding more information about the contents of the “Race Paper.” Notably, while many of the surveillance documents released so far focus on activities during the Obama administration, internal discussions about the “Race Paper” took place during the Trump administration, while now-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was running DHS.
“The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are at war with black activists.”
“CCR has focused its litigation on this newly identified document for several reasons, including DHS’s stated mission to provide ‘predictive intelligence’ to the government and the blanket secrecy it has applied to the Race Papers’ content,” said Farah. “In the absence of an open review, we are left with the disturbing possibility that DHS is using an unsound, racialized framework to surveil protected speech and activism. If that’s right, that is something the public desperately needs to know about.”
For those advocating on behalf of communities of color, they hope to see today’s activists, like those of the Black Lives Matter movement, operating without being hindered by the American security state.
“The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are at war with black activists,” said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change. “Up until recently, we’ve known very little about the government’s surveillance of our communities. But, by forcing the disclosure of more information about these surveillance efforts, including our demand today for the full and unredacted ‘race paper,’ we can better understand these attacks on black activism and fight to prevent a new generation of black activists from demonization, incarceration, intimidation, and punishment.”