‘Mic Dispatch’: Inside the FBI’s crackdown on “black identity extremists” (Full transcript)

A man in a black tank top holding a gun while looking down

White supremacists aren’t the only ones who feel their First Amendment rights are being infringed upon. Civil rights activist Rakem Balogun exercised his freedom of speech, legally owned guns — and spent nearly half a year in jail for it.

In the first episode of Mic’s Facebook Watch show, Mic Dispatch, correspondent Aaron Morrison looks into the FBI’s crackdown on “black identity extremists.”

Natasha Del Toro: This is Mic Dispatch on Facebook Watch, and I’m Natasha Del Toro. On this show, we’re going to take a step back and provide some context to the news. We want to introduce you to real folks beyond the headlines who present a more nuanced picture of what this country is really about. So those stories are the ones you can expect from us each week. In this first edition, we take a look at the secret effort by the FBI to track black activists. They’re reportedly labeling them “black identity extremists” and monitoring their activity. Is there a real threat? Or are the feds just engaging in good old racial profiling? We’re going to talk with our correspondent, Aaron Morrison, who spoke with Rakem Balogun, a man who was jailed after the FBI pursued him for supposed terrorism under this designation.

Rakem Balogun: We’re just regular, working-class individuals who’s just using our rights as a way to influence our community. Our goal is not to rely on white people when shit hit the fan. We want to be able to rely on ourselves.

Aaron Morrison: I’m in Dallas looking into a secret surveillance program on black activists. Last year, we learned the FBI was looking into potential threats they call ”black identity extremists.” The FBI report claims “perceptions of police brutality against African-Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.” The report has been alarming to activists and civil rights experts, who fear it could be used to target people for their race and political beliefs. Now I’m going to meet with Rakem Balogun — reportedly the first person prosecuted under BIE and held for five months before the case against him fell apart. The FBI raided his home in December 2017.

[Morrison (to Balogun): Rakem?]

[Rakem Balogun: Yes.]

[Morrison: Hey, Aaron Morrison]

[Rakem Balogun: Hey, nice to meet you, man. Please, come in.]

Morrison: As you’ve gone through this case, you’ve been able to see what the government is actually saying. Can you remember what they said you said in court?

Rakem Balogun: They said that — they made reference to a post I made on Facebook that stated, “One man named Micah X. brought the whole Dallas pig department to his knees protesting police terrorism, and I stand with him.”

Morrison (voiceover): The FBI was concerned that Balogun might carry out an attack against police, similar to the one carried out by Micah Xavier Johnson. The BIE label was reportedly created after Johnson’s attack.

Rakem Balogun: They used that post as a way to say that I’m encouraging other people to attack law enforcement and things of that nature.

Morrison: So you’re not saying that you would ever advocate or encourage people to actively go out and kill cops, what you’re saying is you understand —

Rakem Balogun: No, not — I wouldn’t advocate that unless it’s for reasonable self-defense.

Morrison: Can you see why people might construe or, in this case, misconstrue what your intent is by the way you characterize Micah X. Johnson?

Rakem Balogun: Yes, I can see why people can misconstrue that. I do have the First Amendment right to express my opinion. I have the First Amendment right to support someone who could possibly have killed somebody. And I have the First Amendment right to not empathize with the deaths, just like everybody else in this country do.

Morrison (voiceover): The reason why Balogun was arrested caused controversy among criminal justice experts. The FBI thought Balogun had weapons he shouldn’t have because of a prior domestic assault charge. But in May, a judge ruled that that was wrong.

Michael German — Fellow, Brennan Center for Justice Liberty and National Security Program: The only thing the prosecution had and the FBI had to justify holding him was his political activities and his online rhetoric. And that struck me as an attempt to punish him for his political activity, rather than to protect the public from any kind of security threat.

Morrison (voiceover): The FBI first started looking into Balogun, whose real name is Christopher Daniels, after he was seen in an InfoWars video at an open-carry rally against police brutality in 2015. He was protesting with his group, Guerilla Mainframe.

Rakem Balogun: Guerilla Mainframe is a community organization that started in 2008. It started with the conversation and the questions of dealing with poverty and dealing with the over-policing of those communities as well. We train in firearms. We use the firearm as a microphone. I know it sounds crazy, but, you know, you get a black man walking around with guns in a public area and you’d be surprised how many cameras will follow up eventually. And so, you know, we use that as an opportunity to get our message and our voice out about the injustice that’s going on in our community.

Del Toro (interviewing Morrison): This story actually raises a lot more questions for me. Fortunately, I have the reporter with me, Aaron Morrison. He does a lot of reporting for Mic around social justice issues and is the one that brought us Rakem’s story. Do you think that there are legitimate threats from some of these black activist groups?

Morrison: Well it’s hard to say. I mean, if you ask anybody in the law enforcement community or most people in the law enforcement community, they would say at the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014, most police officers or beat cops felt like there was a threat of violence against them because of some of the rhetoric that was used at protests. But they can only really point to a very few number of cases where violence has actually been carried out against police officers by black groups.

Del Toro: He made that comment about the police, saying that they got what they deserved after those police in Dallas were shot. I mean, should the FBI be monitoring people who make statements like that on Facebook?

Morrison: Well if you ask experts, criminal justice experts, they say, “Well, technically, he engaged in constitutionally protected speech.” So even if your speech is not palatable, like saying that officers who were brutally murdered in the streets of Dallas deserved what they got — even if you say something like that, technically that is constitutionally protected speech.

Del Toro: What exactly does black identity extremism mean? What is this label?

Morrison: Well if I was to put it in the most simplest terms, it means if you’re black, have an affinity for your race and are upset about police shootings, then you can be considered a threat, a violent threat, to the public. The term “black identity extremist” is new, but it’s kind of not because you can go back to the ’60s and remember that the FBI is really infamous for surveilling and targeting Malcom X and Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, and sometimes that targeting and the use of informants to infiltrate those movements led to violent attacks and even assassinations against some black activists.

Del Toro: You’ve actually reached out to the FBI for a comment on Rakem’s case to see if they were using that label on him. What did they say?

Morrison: They actually declined to comment because it is still an ongoing investigation. But what we can surmise based on the facts of the case is that it really seems like they did label him a threat.

Del Toro: What kind of impact has the label “black identity extremism” had on other black activist groups like the Black Lives Matter groups?

Morrison: Well for them it’s been the clearest indication that there is a real effort to not only track and surveil black activists or Black Lives Matter activists, but that there are consequences for their outspokenness against law enforcement.

Del Toro: So we know there’s been a rise in white nationalist groups. What is the federal government doing to handle that problem?

Morrison: Well we know, as soon as the Trump administration came in, they changed a program that funded grassroots groups that are working to de-radicalize white nationalists. They took away this fund and changed it. It was initially called the Countering Violent Extremism program and now it’s called the Countering Violent Islamic Extremism program. So that certainly narrows the focus. But in addition to that, the Trump administration, or rather President Trump, pardoned the men who carried out an armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon. And before that, Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, who was widely known to be a blatant racist and really treated immigrants very poorly.

Del Toro: So are you saying then that you see that the federal government is handling this issue of hate groups differently based on race and religion?

Morrison: All evidence points to that, yeah.

Del Toro: Aaron, thank you so much for coming and answering the questions and for following the story. We look forward to more of your reporting. Now we’re going to turn back to Rakem’s story.

Rakem Balogun (to Morrison): Since the raid, my son has been very different. I think he suffered from post-traumatic stress. Keep in mind, when they bust in our door, it was an element of surprise, we was asleep and at peace. And you know, ever since that moment, we have not been able to gain our peace back.

[Rakem Balogun: I’ll use this left hand here to — then boom, right there. Now, this how it looks at full speed. So he’s here, boom. So let’s say he’s coming for an adjacent-style slash. I want you to hold the knife tight.]

[Rakem Balogun: My son, I want him to know how to defend himself from, you know, people in his community and people outside of his community. Also, I want him to be able to have the mindset of being willing to defend others.]

[Rakem Balogun (instructing his son): You know, ’cause then if I go here —]

[Budha Balogun, Rakem’s son: Right. So like the slam he just did, you’d be like, “Oh, that looked like it hurt.” Everything is not going to be soft. You know, you might have to fight on concrete, might go to the ground on concrete, and it’s going to hurt. But you have to be conditioned — mentally tough to deal with that.]

Morrison (to Budha): Do you ever worry about your dad and some of the things that he’s involved in?

Budha Balogun: If you had political education, you would know that a lot of activists have been imprisoned and falsely criminalized for their activity as far as in the community. So of course it’s a daily worry.

[Rakem Balogun (to barber): I appreciate you taking me short notice, big time.]

Rakem Balogun (to Morrison): All of this is due to me being arrested and labeled as a terrorist by the FBI about six, seven months ago. For the simple fact that one, I’m not a terrorist and never done anything terroristic.

Morrison: Obviously now you’re navigating being out of prison, having spent five months there. What’s it been like?

Rakem Balogun: You know, I’ve lost my job, my apartment, my car, you know, I lost the cohesiveness of my family and my children. And so, you know, every day it’s just a day of me trying to slowly regain that. If the federal government can go out their way to do all this to, you know, mess up, then they should go out their way to make it right.

[Rakem Balogun, to his son: One of the things I can say, you know, from dealing with this situation, is always be prepared when you’re working as an advocate for the best interest for your community, which may not be in the interest of United States government. Always be prepared for some type of backlash.]

Rakem Balogun (to Morrison): I hope to live in a society where the federal government would actually work for the best interest of the people, and not work in the interest of oppressing people. This is what I plan on embarking on in the future, and we’re going to keep continue to keep our foot on the gas and keep moving forward.

Del Toro: And that’s it for this episode of Mic Dispatch. Be sure to follow our Facebook Watch show page to get updates whenever new content goes live, and let us know what you think by commenting on our show. The next edition will be posted this Thursday, so see you then.

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