As the nation rises up against police brutality and racism, Attorney General William Barr has escalated his attacks on protesters. On June 26, 2020, he announced the formation of a task force on violent anti-government extremists. Although its stated purpose is to go after violent anti-government extremists of all ideological persuasions, it is openly being created in response to the protests that have broken out in response to the police murder of George Floyd. Barr and Trump have continuously responded to this mass, popular outcry against state violence and white supremacy by demonizing the protesters, making bombastic statements about looters and rioters, blaming “Antifa” and outside agitators, and calling for force to be used to reestablish “law and order.”
This task force is part and parcel of this attack on racial justice protesters. The task force is aimed not just at prosecuting protesters, something Barr has already instructed the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces to aid with. It goes further and embraces a disturbing preventive policing model. As our Policy Director Chip Gibbons explained in In These Times, while preventive policing is inherently problematic it is made all the more so in this case by the FBI’s reliance on “radicalization theory”:
The language about prevention is also a red flag for those familiar with the FBI’s use of radicalization theory, which has been central to its Countering Violent Extremism initiative, a counter terrorism program aimed at identifying individuals likely to become terrorists. Radicalization theory posits that one becomes a terrorist by adopting ideas the FBI deems radical or extremist. This theory rests on the premise that there is a set path by which one radicalizes into becoming violent. As this path has identifiable points, knowing those points allows law enforcement and intelligence to intervene before an individual is a full fledged terrorist.
The underlying methodological assumptions of this theory and the idea that there is a set path to terrorism are widely disputed. Civil libertarians also point out that political speech the government deems radical or extremist is still protected by the First Amendment. Claiming that espousing political views disfavored by the government is the first step to becoming a terrorist opens the door to political surveillance.
If political speech leads to one becoming a terrorist, then preventive policing based in the radicalization framework means policing political speech.”
Defending Rights & Dissent is extremely concerned about this task force. As we outlined in our report, Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI FIrst Amendment Abuse, the FBI has spied on nearly every major social movement of the last decade including Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. This task force is likely to be much of the same.