Q&A

The lawyer fighting government surveillance of Black Lives Matter

We spoke to Brandi Collins about the long history of government surveillance and how the Trump administration is labeling black activists.

Q&A

The lawyer fighting government surveillance of Black Lives Matter

We spoke to Brandi Collins about the long history of government surveillance and how the Trump administration is labeling black activists.
Q&A

The lawyer fighting government surveillance of Black Lives Matter

We spoke to Brandi Collins about the long history of government surveillance and how the Trump administration is labeling black activists.

Civil Rights lawyer Brandi Collins was only 12 years old when she was forced to reckon with the destructive impact of surveillance on black people. It hit her while her mother’s first husband, Chester Evans, was painting her portrait at his home on the Southside of Chicago. Her older sister’s father was a unique character in her life. On one hand, he was the smartest and most creative person she knew — he made art for local black churches and had a wicked wit. On the other, he was a tortured soul and suffered from drug addiction and mental health issues that she was told began during an unfortunate stint in prison.

“While he was painting me, I asked why he had been sent to jail,” Collins told me during a recent conversation in her office in Lower Manhattan. “He said, ‘The government put me there, baby girl… Because when they can’t kill you, they aim for your soul instead.’”

Before serving time for murder, Evans had been a member of Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers in the ‘70s. While it might have started as a small-time street gang, the divisive grass-roots group blossomed into a powerful pro-black force in Chicago that provided services and community outreach to its neglected community. But regardless of the group’s legitimate efforts, the FBI labeled every one of the Rangers’ 3,000-plus members as dangerous criminals and subjected young blacks like Evans to COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program that consisted of surveillance, infiltration, and disruption. This was the same unlawful program, lead by deranged FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, that was responsible for the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, the psychological terrorism inflicted on Martin Luther King Jr., and the schisms fomented within the Civil Rights Movement that contributed to it ending before it had achieved most of its goals.

When Evans told Collins that he believed this illegal law enforcement program led to his incarceration and derailed his life and the positive work of the Rangers, it stuck with her and influenced her later in life. After a few unfulfilling years working in internal legal compliance and employee relations at a multinational investment bank in England, the young attorney returned to the U.S. to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who earned a law degree and worked as a union organizer. Collins became a Senior Campaign Director at the country’s largest online racial justice organization, Color of Change, in 2014. Around the same time, Black Lives Matter was coalescing into a full-fledged movement. During the unrest in Ferguson around the police killing of Michael Brown, Collins heard paranoid and fear-filled anecdotes from many of the black activists who were doing work on the ground.

Collins’ friends told her that “law enforcement would intimidate activist by picking them up and driving them to another location. And they’d refer to activists by their social media handles as if they already knew who they were — even if those activists weren’t speaking at a rally or identifying themselves as a leader.”

With this in mind, in the fall of 2015, Color of Change submitted a Freedom of Information request to the federal government, requesting everything they had on file about “Black Lives Matter.”

“The government came back and was like, ‘We don’t have ‘Black Lives Matter’ in our system,’” Collins recalled with a laugh. “We were clearly doing the whole FOIA thing wrong. So we started talking to Center for Constitutional rights.”

And so began a coordinated effort between a number of civil rights organizations like CCR, journalists at Muckrack, and legal experts to reveal the extent to which the government was targeting black activists who were simply exercising their right to free speech.

Brandi Collins is the Senior Campaign Director for Media, Democracy & Economic Justice at Color of Change

Brandi Collins is the Senior Campaign Director for Media, Democracy & Economic Justice at Color of Change

Under Collins’s direction, after several years of FOIAs, court dates, and research, Color of Change has been able to acquire thousands of documents. Most of these files are almost completely redacted. However, paired with the complementary work of others, they give us glimpses into how similar the tactics of law enforcement are today to those of the FBI’s counterintelligence programs of the past.

One of the biggest takeaways is that during the Trump administration the FBI invented a “black identity extremist” catchall category that is so broad, activists fear it could be used to criminalize anyone who advocates on behalf of black people. The FBI went on to propagate the threat of black identity extremists to local and federal law enforcement agencies, despite the fact that black nationalist motivations account for a meager portion of extremist murders in America — especially when compared with white supremacists. We know that the FBI even tried to prosecute and incarcerate at least one black activist named Rakeem Balogun under this designation in 2017. He was locked up for five months, during which he lost his job, car, and home, before being cleared of any wrongdoing.

Most recently, Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights have released internal FBI documents that appear to verify the fears activist expressed to Collins during the unrest in Ferguson. In obainted email threads, there are discussions of stakeouts, details about the travel plans of protestors, dossiers on individual activists, and what appears to be information about the use of informants. Nowhere in these documents, however, is there talk of direct threats of violence by these activist that could justify the surveillance and disruption levied against them.

People are being surveilled specifically to freeze the right to protest.

Collins is currently focused on getting the Department of Homeland Security to release an unredacted version of the “race paper,” an internal nine-page document that the DHS uses to evaluate the presumed radicalization of black activists. It’s release will give insight into the law enforcement’s rationale for targeting black activists and enough information to challenge this rationale’s legality.

We caught up with the 37-year-old during one of her rare moments of downtime at the Color of Changes headquarters in New York City to talk about how much of a threat government surveillance poses to the Black Lives Matter movement.

OUTLINE: You learned about surveillance when you were a little girl. But when did you first see it in your own life?

Growing up in a black household, you hear the term COINTELPRO being thrown around before you fully understanding what it means. But when I finally understood the depths of surveillance on black people, I was probably older than I should have been, because I just thought it was something in the past.

It really hit me when I was 22 or 23, living in Southwest London where the immigrant communities are. There were CCTV cameras everywhere. But I didn’t see them where I was studying [and working]. But in Brixton at the Burger King or the chicken restaurant, there would be lots of cameras. I think that was the first time I was like, Wow, this is odd. I had the feeling of being watched.

I know about COINTELPRO, but is that the beginning of this? How far does this go back? The story of surveillance is old. The original police officers were slave catchers. There were always people in the community who were there to spot black people and pull them back into slavery. The FBI was integrated specifically in the ‘30s so they could have a black officer infiltrate the Moorish Temple, which was doing work around equity. It’s one of the earliest times that we see Muslim communities being targeted in that way, too.

As you’ve explored this current manifestation of surveillance on black leaders, are there any moments that really jump out to you?

At one point, we found an email that had been forwarded from Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. It was clearly an internal email. We had no idea how the government got a hold of it. It was this weird moment where we wondered if we should talk to NAN about the possibility of a law enforcement agent infiltrating their organization. And if we did reach out to NAN, how would we know we were talking to the right person. Also, if there was no informant and the government had hacked them, that would bring up a whole host of other issues. It was a lot.

What was it like following the trail of the “Black Identity Extremist” designation?

It became obvious to us that we had several documents that represented the evolution of that term. In documents we had from Dallas, they were talking about black supremacists and claimed several groups fit this designation. The only group that was redacted was the Black Panther Party, probably because in a lot of spaces the BPP is still considered a threat to America. But I was really curious as to who the other groups they were targeting as black extremists [were].

I know about the man in Dallas who spent five months in prison just for being what the FBI designated as a “Black Identity Extremist.” Do you think anyone else has been charged due to that designation?

I suspect yes. But we won’t hear about it as much. Because of the blowback that came from Dallas, you might not see prosecutors charge someone under BIE again. But they’ll certainly use it as a framework to track and target people until that person — just like they did to my sister’s father.

Are they targeting other people on the left?

We got documents from the 2016 Nazis protests and counter protests in Sacramento. The police talked about these “violent, dangerous” anti-fascists. While the neo Nazis were “peaceful and well-within their rights.” The symbols they said to look for to find left wing agitators were T-shirts of punk rock groups like Minor Threat. It was interesting to start seeing the narrative that was being developed by police of this presumed threat of antifa, even though most of the stuff we’ve seen them do is property damage. When you look at that, and then you look at the “Unmasking Antifa” bill, and the president’s comments about “very bad people” on “both sides” in Charlottesville, you see how the government is feeding into this. We found some documents that were trying to make the link between ISIS and Black Lives Matter, claiming activist are being compromised by terrorist Muslim groups. You see these stories that the police are spreading, then you see it in the media, and you realize it’s intentional. It’s a smokescreen to cover what is really happening in our communities.

I know you hit a wall in court with the getting the “race paper” declassified. What is the next plan of action to uncover that document?

We’re pressuring Congress to unlock it. We’ve been talking to members of the black and hispanic caucuses. Everything we’ve seen around it, we think it is really important. We need to know what are the indicators are that they are using to target radicalism. There’s also a major onslaught of bills that are geared towards shutting down leftist speech or protecting people who run over protestors with their cars. I’ve been meeting with Facebook almost weekly about them working with law enforcement and more accountability.

What’s it like working with other organizations who have similar concerns about privacy, but are coming at it from a different interest?

Well, there are a lot of groups talking about the right to privacy. But for people of color, we’re worried about more than companies just collecting our data. We also don’t want to be surveilled when we take the bus to work or have our movements be undermined by our government. Whether it’s the right to kneel at a football game or organize a campus protest, those rights are under attack. And people are being surveilled specifically to freeze the right to protest. So it’s good to build a coalition of people, but Color of Change is about helping those who are impacted by this the most.

Do you worry that you are being surveilled?

I know I am being surveilled. For awhile, I started collecting the notifications I got when my bags would be searched during air travel. At one point, I had like 40 of them. It was far too often to be random. But I work at an organization that gives me a layer of protection and privilege while I do this work.

What do you think the impact of this surveillance will be to this generation of activists?

We are already seeing history repeat itself. I recently watched Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and I was struck by how young they were — they were like teenagers who had the weight of the world on their shoulder. Because of the surveillance, they were paranoid. It fractured their sense of community. Right now, we are going through the same thing. But in order for us to win, we have to be able to organize out loud and use the tools and platforms that allow us to really shine a spotlight on what’s happening.

How is the behavior of black activists changing under the weight of the surveillance?

People are retreating. People are leaving the movement. There is a lot of burn out. They’re spending a lot of extra money to avoid being tracked, like booking their plane tickets on the same day that they plan to fly. People just feel tired I think, particularly since this administration has come in. It feels like there is a war going on and you can’t go through a war and not have PTSD. I fear that if the surveillance, stalker state keep it up, our movement is going to get stalled, again.

Follow Wilbert on Instagram.

Wilbert L. Cooper is a writer living in New York.