Federal “Countering Violent Extremism” Grants Focus on Minority Communities — Including in Schools

The Brennan Center for Justice examines “CVE” grants focusing on minority communities, which critics say are just a new approach to surveillance.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Men pray in the Eyup Cultural Center mosque which has a large number of Uzbek and Turkish worshippers from the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn on November 3, 2017 in New York City. New York City, and members of the Uzbekistan community, are still coming to terms with last Tuesday's terrorist attack in which eight people were killed and 12 were injured when Sayfullo Saipov intentionally drove a truck onto a bike path in lower Manhattan. The 29-year-old Uzbek national is being held without bail pending his trial.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Men pray in the Eyup Cultural Center mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 3, 2017. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The United States government offers millions of dollars in grants for local and state government agencies with the stated purpose of rooting out potential terrorists, but the people receiving those grants have particular targets in mind: minorities. These minority communities, particularly Muslims, are the focus of the anti-terror grants despite surging white supremacist political violence. Some 85 percent of the grants — which are offered by the federal government under the controversial rubric of Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, programs — target Muslims and other minority groups, according to a new study issued by the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute.

“This programming is based on the idea that some communities — particularly Muslims, immigrants, and refugees — are more prone to ideological violence,” said Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center and a co-author of the report. “But we’ve never seen attempts to ‘build resiliency’ among white communities following acts of violence by white Americans.”

“This programming is based on the idea that some communities — particularly Muslims, immigrants, and refugees — are more prone to ideological violence.”

Implicit in the Brennan Center’s findings, which looked at some two dozen grant applications obtained through public records requests, was the characterization of increased local diversity as a potential national security risk. Many of the CVE applications echoed some of the toxic rhetoric of President Donald Trump’s administration — a sign that anti-Muslim sentiment and bigotry at the top of the federal government was trickling down into local policy.

“One of things that is striking about these grants programs is that they are being implemented under an administration that is overtly hostile to diversity and wants to return to a time of a more ethnically homogenous America,” she said. “If that’s your model for the country, you will obviously be prone to view diversity itself as a threat.”

CVE programs are ostensibly aimed at staunching the sort of “radicalization” that could lead to terrorist attacks, but in practice they have been widely panned by members of the communities the programs target. Criticisms of the program often state that the initiatives funded by CVE grants are ineffective and target these communities for unjust surveillance.

The Brennan Center report looks at approved grants from a number of local police departments across the country, as well as community groups and local government offices. Among the approved grants include programs intended to teach law enforcement agents and local community partners how to recognize violent extremist behaviors and indicators, as well as “terrorism ideologies” and the “root causes of extremism.”

While the report noted that actually determining who will receive the CVE funding earmarked in the applications is difficult because many of the named recipients operate their programs through “pass-through organizations” that effectively act as subcontractors for the programs, an array of local government agencies applied for the funding.

Among the organizations listed as recipients of CVE grants are the Houston mayor’s office; Minnesota’s Hennepin County Sheriff, whose jurisdiction includes Minneapolis and its Somali enclaves; the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which includes Oakland, California; and an array of domestic NGOs engaged in public safety and counter-extremism work. The grant applications typically include activities described as setting up workshops and trainings for “community leaders,” as well as the creation of reporting mechanisms for community members to inform law enforcement about extremist content that they encounter online or in the community. Many of the programs are explicit in their focus on Muslim communities.

“Law enforcement needs to be transparent about why they want to meet with communities,” said Sahar Aziz, a national security expert at Rutgers University Law School. “Community outreach in and of itself is not presumptively nefarious, but a problem arises when the outreach proceeds misleadingly and is actually a cover for law enforcement agencies doing anti-terrorism work. The way that manifests itself is by law enforcement using community outreach events as opportunities to gather intelligence, to identify possible targets for sting operations, or to identify possible informants for recruitment.”

The introduction of CVE programs in the United States has long been a contentious issue for civil liberties groups. The programs are promoted as a softer approach to fighting terrorism. In 2015, the Obama administration held a three-day CVE “summit” at the White House, where it announced its intention to begin rolling out counter-extremism programs in a number of cities across the U.S. In 2016, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Community Partnerships announced $10 million in CVE grants intended to fund programs in the U.S.

By deputizing ordinary people to act as informants against other members of their communities, critics say, the programs can act as tools of unjust surveillance for the government. In the United Kingdom, CVE programs have been blamed for creating a climate of fear among British Muslims, who have been targeted by medical professionals and teachers tasked with rooting out extremist ideologies among those they serve. These programs have led to perverse situations in which staff at children’s nurseries were asked to identify possible extremism among the toddlers under their care. In the U.S., “community outreach” programs have sometimes served as cover for gathering intelligence on immigrant and minority communities. A 2015 report by The Intercept documented how law enforcement-led community outreach programs to Somali communities in Minnesota covertly operated as a channel for conducting surveillance.

“Ultimately, CVE needs to be shut down and communities need to be able to get funds from social service agencies such as Health and Human Services, and use those funds to support problems that they identify on their own and which are disconnected from CVE,” said Aziz, the Rutgers professor, describing CVE as “a politically correct term for counterterrorism.”

“Expanding CVE activities into schools undermines young people’s ability to express themselves in ways protected by the constitution.”

The inclusion of CVE programming targeting schools and young people has been a particular source of concern for civil liberties groups. A 2016 FBI document about the threat of extremism among youth included numerous recommendations for schools to police possible radicalism among their students, including “threat assessment teams,” “annual violent extremism training,” and cooperation with law enforcement in intelligence gathering. The list of approved grants in the Brennan Center report include numerous school-related activities targeted at young people, raising concerns of the securitization of schools and discrimination against minority students. A grant program approved for the Denver Police Department, for example, includes plans for officers to lead a number of  CVE-related “mentoring” programs at five local middle and high schools, focused on young people determined to be “at-risk” by teachers, counselors, or other community members.

“Expanding CVE activities into schools undermines young people’s ability to express themselves in ways protected by the constitution, by making hem feel like they will be under government scrutiny for their speech,” said Johnathan Smith, legal director for the civil rights group Muslim Advocates. “Very troubling issues of stereotyping and profiling also arise when you bring these types of programs into school settings. Schools should be places where students feel that they are being supported to [become] fully participating members of society, but these programs encourage teachers and other students to view their peers as inherently suspicious.”

Roughly half of the CVE grants highlighted by the Brennan Center mention protecting civil liberties, but without getting into specifics of how this will be accomplished. The Houston mayor’s office names the Anti-Defamation League as a partner that will assist CVE program administrators in “ensuring civil rights and liberties are protected.” Yet the Anti-Defamation League — a group whose mission is opposing bigotry — has its own history of questionable surveillance of Muslim communities and, more recently, was helmed by Abraham Foxman, who was accused of harboring an anti-Muslim animus and defended blanket spying on American Muslims.

Instead of viewing minority communities as threats and focusing on programs to surveil them, the Brennan Center’s Patel said, the federal government should instead focus on putting resources into these communities for their betterment.

“If the government wants to spend money on helping Muslim communities, they shouldn’t be doing so under the guise of countering extremism or counterterrorism,” said Patel. “They should begin by identifying community concerns, which will likely mirror those of other Americans, from bad schools to lack of opportunity. Addressing those issues would help support the core building blocks of good citizenship, and that’s where this money would be better spent.”

Top photo: Men pray in the Eyup Cultural Center mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 3, 2017.

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