Last week, Rakem Balogun — who has been described as the first American citizen targeted for prosecution under a secretive government program focused on identifying “black identity extremists” — gave his first interview after being incarcerated for five months.
He’d been waiting in jail as federal attorneys tried, and failed, to prosecute him for terrorism and, when that case fell apart, illegal possession of firearms. Even that charge got dismissed by the judge.
His prosecution and time behind bars represented “tyranny at its finest,” Balogun told the Guardian.
In an August 2017 report, the FBI argued that black domestic terrorists, spurred by concerns over “alleged police brutality” following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were likely to take up arms against law enforcement.
The terrorism charge against Balogun crumbled when the FBI admitted it had nothing more on him than a few overheated Facebook posts and advocacy of black gun ownership. After the death of five police officers in Dallas in July 2016, Balogun wrote on Facebook: “They deserve what they got. LMAO!” And he took part in a rally outside the Texas Capitol at which black men carried guns and some chanted, “The only good pig is a pig that’s dead.”
Despite its failure, the aggressive prosecution signals a serious imbalance in law enforcement priorities, especially at a time when virulent and violent white nationalism is on the rise.
The long history of viewing black radicals as unique threats, even when white supremacists are wreaking havoc
While it would be easy to assume this is a symptom of the malignancies of the Trump era —the FBI report on black identity extremism was published a little over a week before torch-wielding white supremacists attacked anti-racist activists in Charlottesville, Virginia — that would be a mistake.
The disparity reflects a more longstanding problem: the inability of US officials to see white people as genuine threats, and its equally longstanding inability to see black people as rights-bearing citizens.
That long history runs through Balogun’s story. He is a co-founder of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, and when he was arrested, agents confiscated two firearms (prosecutors said he was barred from owning guns because of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge) and one book: Negroes with Guns. That 1962 tract, by civil rights activist Robert F. Williams, was the first of the era to advocate for armed resistance against white supremacy, cutting against the nonviolent framework that dominated the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
The book shaped the activism of Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party, which started as an armed defense against police brutality in 1966. When the Panthers appeared on the scene with their bandoliers, berets, and guns, they were immediately framed as a threat to the system of law and order in America. White journalists overlooked their calls for police reforms to focus instead on the weapons the Panthers brandished. White Californians were so worried about armed black activists that members of both parties hurried the Mulford Act through the California legislature in 1967; it banned people from carrying firearms in public.
Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.
The federal government was paying attention to black people wielding guns too: In 1967, the FBI targeted the Panthers as part of its campaign against “black nationalist hate groups”; in 1969, J. Edgar Hoover branded them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Considering that he was speaking at the end of a decade in which three national leaders had been assassinated (none by black nationalists), and in which white Southerners and white police officers were regularly assaulting and murdering civil rights activists, this was a stunningly disproportionate claim. Also disproportionate: the collusion between the FBI and local law enforcement to illegally jail, frame, beat, and even murder members of the Black Panther Party.
Even when white supremacists turned against the US government, they seemed like less of a threat than the Black Panthers
The treatment of the Panthers stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of white supremacists in the 1960s, and to the government’s response to the white power movement of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Early white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Citizens’ Council, had helped shore up a government officially committed to white supremacy, but by 1983, the white power movement was in open revolution against the US government itself, as Kathleen Belew documents in her new book Bring the War Home. Its militants were well-armed. They regularly broke federal and state law, committing crimes ranging from thefts to hate crimes to murder.
Yet law enforcement repeatedly failed to intervene. In 1979, Klansmen and neo-Nazis killed five anti-racist protesters in Greensboro, North Carolina. Federal officials and local police knew about planned attacks in advance, yet did nothing to stop them. The federal government eventually pressed charges, but at that point, jury nullification reared its ugly head. The men responsible were twice acquitted, and ultimately only had to pay a settlement in a civil suit.
It’s not that the federal government has historically done nothing in response to heavily armed white nationalists. It’s that they lacked the ability to imagine them as a genuine threat to the civic order in the same way they did armed black activists. Think of the array of power that local and federal officials brought against black activists: In a joint operation between the FBI and the Chicago Police Department, officers shot more than 90 rounds into a Black Panther apartment, killing two and wounding four of the seven others who survived. In 1985, in a notorious episode, nearly 500 police officers surrounded the headquarters of the black liberation group MOVE in West Philadelphia, firing 10,000 rounds before bombing the house and the surrounding neighborhood, killing 11 people.
While federal agents did move against white power activists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, there were two important differences: Those raids were followed by intense national soul-searching, underscored by a widely shared belief that the raids should never have happened, and that there should be some reckoning for the lives lost. And they were followed by the deadliest domestic terror attack in American history, the Oklahoma City bombing. In contrast, the MOVE bombing was largely forgotten, while a coroner jury ruled the Black Panther deaths justifiable homicides.
And still, black activists are seen as a greater threat than white supremacists.
False equivalence shaped the police response to Charlottesville
Nor is this disparity a relic of the past. On August 9, 2017, Homeland Security circulated a threat assessment for the city of Charlottesville (separate from the FBI report on “black identity extremists”) — two days before white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia’s campus and attacked student protesters, three days before they murdered Heather Heyer.
That assessment discussed both white nationalists and protesters, but it did so in a telling way: It marked the protesters as the most imminent source of violence, warning that “anarchist extremists’ use of violence as a means to oppose racism and white supremacist extremists’ preparations to counterattack anarchist extremists are the principal drivers of violence at recent white supremacist rallies” [emphasis added].
Local and university police acted under similar assumptions, allowing white nationalists to move freely even after the violence on August 11, careful to protect their First and Second Amendment rights; they even brought charges against DeAndre Harris, a black activist who was badly beaten by white nationalists (he was ultimately found not guilty).
So why can’t law enforcement discern the threat posed by violent white nationalists when they so readily — more than readily — see it in the figure of an armed black activist?
The answer is deeply rooted in the long history of the United States, which for much of its history was a nation in which white supremacy, backed by state violence, was the law of the land. Segregation and black disenfranchisement were state policy, and lynching was considered a form of justice — vigilante justice, extralegal justice, but justice all the same (it was very rarely prosecuted).
At the same time, black activists have often been sharply critical of the state, particularly law enforcement. That should come as no surprise: Law enforcement has from its inception been arrayed against black Americans, from slave patrols to the prevalence of local sheriffs in massive resistance to desegregation to decades of police brutality against African Americans.
Those histories shape how law enforcement, from street patrols to FBI directors, perceive threats in America. And as we have seen time and time again, from the blood-soaked streets of Selma to the ashes of Oklahoma City to the wreckage of Charlottesville, these misperceived threats leave us all less safe.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at email@example.com.