Foreign Policy Magazine dug up something new and, well… unusual from the vaults of FBI documents available to the public this month. It’s a change in terminology when it comes to various dangerous groups that the Bureau is keeping its eye on. That may sound like business as usual (and it traditionally is) but this one carries some social justice buzz which was sure to cause a Disturbance in The Force.

Along with various other groups of potential troublemakers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has identified, “Black Identity Extremists” (BIE). But what does it mean? The Black Panthers? Black Lives Matter? The Congressional Black Caucus? Nobody really seems to know for sure.

As white supremacists prepared to descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, the FBI warned about a new movement that was violent, growing, and racially motivated. Only it wasn’t white supremacists; it was “black identity extremists.”

Amid a rancorous debate over whether the Trump administration has downplayed the threat posed by white supremacist groups, the FBI’s counterterrorism division has declared that black identity extremists pose a growing threat of premeditated violence against law enforcement.

“The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) 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,” reads the report, marked for official use only and obtained by Foreign Policy.

On the one hand you can see an obvious cause for concern and a basis for having some sort of planning in place. Various sources inside the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have expressed concern over The Ferguson Effect and incidents of violent and even murderous attacks on police. It’s no coincidence that the timing of some of those attacks lines up with incidents of widespread protests against the police. From that perspective you might think this is just common sense.

But at the same time, hasn’t the FBI traditionally identified established “groups” with some sort of branding and cohesive identity? Think of the original Black Panthers, FALN, the Weather Underground, the Klan and that sort of thing. The phrase BIE sounds more like a general description of randomly assembled people taking advantage of a social issue (or violently responding in actual anger) who may not have any idea who the rest of them are. There’s also the fact that a lot of the protesters who turn violent (think Antifa) wind up being white, while certainly sympathetic with the issues raised by and affecting blacks.

What’s really causing problems for the FBI here (at least as I see it) is that the vague definitions they attempt to provide actually revolve around activities which are not only legal but constitutionally protected.

And even though the report mentions in a footnote that “political activism” and “strong rhetoric” by themselves don’t amount to extremism and “may be constitutionally protected,” it identifies anger with police or “anti-white rhetoric” as indicators of a potential “violent threat.”

It’s the “potential violent threat” part which makes this problematic. They’re specifically talking about political activism and rhetoric. You may disagree with their claims and even be suspicious of at least some of their motives, but protests and social media campaigns – provided the former remain non-violent – are not something which should draw law enforcement scrutiny in and of themselves. There’s a “potential for violence” in any large group of people, if only because of human nature and the baseline percentage of jerks we produce.

The report that Foreign Policy located goes on to show that the FBI does sort of give a nod to the idea of disorganized, non-structure which I mentioned above. But it’s still not exactly a tight definition.

“Domestic terrorism groups differ from traditional criminal groups in that they take action for a different purpose, to bring attention to a social or political cause,” the FBI wrote. “Therefore, their existence as a group has a legitimate purpose, at least in part. Their legitimate activity may include acts of protest, advocacy, and civil disobedience.”

There does seem to be one saving grace for the FBI in this. My initial assumption of their habit of generally identifying targets which are organized under a single umbrella group was apparently off base. Here’s the list of the “nine persistent extremist movements” in the United States which they provide.

  • white supremacy
  • black identities
  • militia
  • sovereign citizens
  • anarchists
  • abortion
  • animal rights
  • environmental rights
  • Puerto Rican Nationalism

You can identify some specific, well known groups with a few of these “movements” as the FBI describes them. White supremacy is obviously the Klan and the various neo-nazi organizations which have sprung up. Animal rights would encompass PETA I suppose. Environmental rights could be ELF. And… Puerto Rican Nationalism? I suppose they mean FALN, but is that really a thing anymore in terms of violent extremism?

As for the others, BIE isn’t the only one which is vague and tenuous. The militias are mostly independent operations as far as I know. And the anarchists? They’re sort of against organizing by definition, aren’t they? I haven’t seen an abortion clinic blown up or a doctor assassinated in a while now, but those tend to be the lone wolves of the pro-life movement.

So anyhow… in that context, I suppose the FBI can justify adding BIE to the list. There have certainly been enough cops shot. But we can’t be clamping down on leftist rallies and free speech any more than the Tea Party. This will be something to keep an eye on.