Black Lives Matter or Black Identity Extremist?

The FBI, Black activists, and the struggle for victimhood

10 minutes to read
Paul Mutsaers

The question 'who is the victim?' is an important social directive that shapes the struggles for victimhood in which Black Lives Matters, U.S. police forces and their various (counter)publics are currently engaging. This column begins with a controversial FBI report on so-called Black Identity Extremists and their aggressions against police, and continues with some observations on victimhood and the central role it plays in the public relations of police. 

Who is the victim?

At the Black Lives Matter (BLM) homepage we find a link that redirects readers to an article in The Washington Post, titled We say black lives matter. The FBI says that makes us a security threat. In the article, the authors—Shanelle Mathews, director of communications for the BLM Global Network, and Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice—respond with indignation to the invention by the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division of a new category that recently came to light: the ‘Black Identity Extremist,’ or BIE. The executive summary of the Intelligence Assessment reads as follows:

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. The FBI assess (sic!) it is very likely this increase began following the 9 August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent grand jury November 2014 declination to indict the police officers involved. The FBI assesses it is very likely incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans since then have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement. The FBI assesses it is very likely some BIEs are influenced by a mix of anti-authoritarian, Moorish sovereign citizen ideology, and BIE ideology. The FBI has high confidence in these assessments, based on a history of violent incidents attributed to individuals who acted on behalf of their ideological beliefs, documented in FBI investigations and other law enforcement and open source reporting. The FBI makes this judgement with the key assumption the recent incidents are ideologically motivated.”

The premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement mentioned in the Intelligence Assessment refers to six recent attacks by Black Americans targeting police officers. Among these are the shooting of 11 law enforcement officers (of which five deceased) by Micah Johnson in downtown Dallas, Texas (7 July 2016) and the ambush of six officers by Gavin Eugene Long in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (17 July 2016), which had cost the lives of four people, Long included.

The FBI assesses it is very likely some BIEs are influenced by a mix of anti-authoritarian, Moorish sovereign citizen ideology, and BIE ideology.

The FBI report and the Washington Post article that was published in response to it are interesting for various reasons. First and foremost because they draw our attention to the battle for victimhood. They lead us to an old question (Quinney 1972) to which victimologists (Walklate 2012) have recently returned: Who is the victim? The widely mediatized killings of African Americans by police officers have pushed the issue of violence by and against police to the forefront of public conversation and, in the process, have brought into existence various publics and counterpublics. 

These have alternatively depicted African Americans as victims of police racism but also as the epitome of Black criminality. Similarly, the police officers involved (and often not indicted) have been rendered  white supremacists who went scot-free as well as American heroes in the war on crime who were cleared by the criminal justice system but had fallen victim to public scandalizing. Moreover, police officers who were killed by so-called BIEs have been framed as cases of popular justice as well as victims of a vicious Black ideology. 

The FBI tries to bring across the point that violence, even terrorism, is their reputed trait.

Finally, while BLM activists like to present themselves as peacemakers who pursue ‘healing justice’ (BLM homepage) and wish to improve community life, the FBI tries to bring across the point that violence, even terrorism, is their reputed trait. Mathews and Cyril respond to this terrorism-card with furor, arguing that the FBI plays it repeatedly to reverse roles (references to COINTELPRO, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panthers appear in the article).


But the dispute here presented is worthy of a more detailed canvass. Let us, second, consider the diverging perspectives on the notion of sovereignty. For obvious reasons, I cannot pass judgement on the evidence gathered by the FBI with respect to the assailants’ ideological motivations, but stating that BIEs’ identification with Moorish Sovereign Citizen Ideology or other ideologies of Black separatism is reinforced by ‘a sense of disenfranchisement from society and a perception that the criminal justice system is unjust’ is not so strange as it may sound at first. 

In fact, anthropological studies of policing around the globe indicate that people who have become alienated from the official justice system because they consider its agents a security threat instead of a security provider, cobble together their own security solutions. Across the world, all kinds of rival forms of policing have emerged that challenge the state as the final arbiter of security (e.g. Albrecht and Kyed 2015; Denyer Willis 2015). Such ‘self-help security’ initiatives range from benevolent civilian policing groups, social networks, and community watchmen to criminal paramilitaries, gangs, vigilantes, highwaymen and outlaw armies. Some operate in cooperation with public police forces, but others are strongly antagonistic to them and indeed seek to undermine state sovereignty.   

Interestingly, the FBI talk about Moorish sovereignty is in itself not addressed as an issue in the article by Mathews and Cyril. Their concern with sovereignty takes place at a wholly different level. It has little to do with self-governance and segregation but more with the sovereign voices of victims of police violence, who should no longer be thought of (and think of themselves) as mere ‘subjects.’ In the words of Mathews and Cyril: ‘[W]e must stand up and say that we won’t let it happen again…Must we wait for the bodies of today’s Black activists to fall before we take unchecked police and vigilante power seriously?’ 

This cry from the heart aligns with Green and Pemberton’s (2018) radical manifesto for victimology in which they call on victimologists to ‘engage with victims as social actors able to wield agency and shape how they experience victimization rather than just as people who have had things done to them… A radical victimology starts from the position of the victim as sovereign rather than the victim as subject.’ This idea of the sovereign victim, who has agency and can take action against rather than only suffer from police violence, is quintessential to BLM discourses.

State crime

Third, as sovereign victims, BLM activists seek to do more than simply taking action against incidents of police racism and excessive violence. Their crusade encompasses much more than that. In their article, Mathews and Cyril address the stark contrast that is drawn by the FBI between ‘BIEs’ as a new group of domestic terrorists on the one hand and, on the other hand, police shootings of Black Americans as ‘incidents’ that are ‘perceived’ and ‘alleged’. They write: ‘[T]he FBI’s report claiming how dangerous Black activism is begins by asserting that violence inflicted on black people at the hands of police is “perceived” or “alleged,” not real’. 

While Black activists are represented by the FBI as a dangerous group, police shootings of Black Americans are framed as ‘incidents’ (involving individuals) that are misinterpreted as a consequence of distorted perceptions. This individualization of the issue reminds of Maurice Punch’s analysis of police deviancy, in which he uses the metaphor of rotten apples. Punch considers this metaphor to be ‘part of the rationalization process that beleaguered institutions engage in when defending themselves. What usually cannot be admitted is that deviance had become systemic—in some way encouraged, and perhaps even protected, by certain elements in the system’ (2003: 172).

There are deep historical forces that have created problems so clearly seen in America’s criminal justice system.

In addition to the question who is the victim? the question victim of what? thus becomes an important one. BLM seeks to replace the terminology of ‘incidents’ and ‘perceptions’ with a discourse on state crime. At their homepage, we can find out what BLM thinks is at the heart of the movement: ‘In many ways, at its essence BLM is a response to the persistent and historical trauma Black people have endured at the hands of the State.’ Similarly, Mathews and Cyril write: ‘Designating protesters as terrorists makes clear that the Trump administration thinks the government bears no responsibility to end deadly police violence and other state abuses of power against everyday Americans’ (my emphasis). At its very core, BLM discourse is about reading the police-induced deaths of Black Americans as only a modern-day symptom of a long history of racism in the (criminal) justice system. In Policing the Black Man, whose authors declare themselves staunch defenders of Black Lives Matter, we can read that the ‘issue of racially motivated police violence or racial disparities in sentencing can’t be viewed as a consequence of bad police officers or racially biased judges. There are deep historical forces that have created problems so clearly seen in America’s criminal justice system’ (Stevenson 2017: 5).

However, state crime is an accusation that is not readily accepted in modern legal cultures, for at least two reasons. First, crime is typically constructed around concepts of individual responsibility, culpability and capacity. Such a construction obscures the fact that supra-individual actors such as the state have the capacity for wrongdoing as well (Zedner 2004). Zedner argues that such an individualist construction of crime deliberately resists the labelling of state activities as criminal; it effectively decriminalizes them. As the academic extension of such legal definitions of crime, positivist victimology defines victims in a similar fashion, that is, as individual victims of conventional crime (Walklate 2012). Other forms of crime, such as lawbreaking by institutional state actors, or collective forms of victimhood remain hidden from view. It is such hiding that advocates of radical and critical victimology courageously resist (e.g. Kauzlarich et al. 2002; Quinney 1972; Spencer and Walklate 2016).

But resistance is hard for a second reason. Modern legal cultures of the kind that can also be found in the U.S. have theoretically repositioned the state as the victim of crime (Kauzlarich et al. 2002; Spencer and Walklate 2016). That is to say, ‘since the modernization of police agencies and the courts and the displacing of the king (and sovereign power) as the prime arbiter of justice, the state has stood in as victim of crime’ (Spencer and Walklate 2016: xiv-xv). This repositioning has had important effects. It has made it even more difficult to think about the state as a harmful agent in its own right and it has serious complications for people who want to find justice when they are victimized by the criminal justice system that carries out the criminalization process in the name of the state (Kauzlarich et al. 2002).

The cultural power of law

I have deliberately used the term ‘legal cultures’ a couple of times because I want to argue that these matters point at the cultural power of law (Merry 2000). It has long been recognized in the anthropology of law that the law is deeply enmeshed in the work of culture, which ‘consists of distinguishing and organizing categories in order that the world make sense and operate as it should’ (Rosen 2006: 170). Legal categories and concepts such as blame, wrongdoing, offender, culpability, victim, intent, state, and crime tell us something about how a society orders and gives meaning to relationships. 

So, rather than thinking about law and its accompanying legal processes and categories only as a vehicle for keeping society functioning, anthropologists prefer to think about it also as a species of social imagination, a framework for ordered relationships, an important force in shaping human behavior and lending significance to it; in other words, a constructive element within culture (Geertz 1983; Rosen 2006, 2017). In addition to a functionalist thinking about law that asks what it does and that is exclusively concerned with the rules that regulate disputes, this ‘hermeneutic thinking’ also considers law a ‘realm in which society and its members envision themselves and their connections to one another’ (Rosen 2006: xii).

BLM fights an uphill battle that is thwarted by a long history of individualism that is still looming large in modern law.

But in addition to being a system of meaning, the law is of course also an institutional structure backed by the political power of the state (Merry 2000). If we combine these two aspects, an interesting question arises: which (groups of) members in society have the power to give cultural meanings authoritative recognition in the law and legal processes? The answer to such a question in the here and now will always depend on historical transformations that pre-structure contemporary struggles over which parts of the cultural fabric ought to be vested with legal power. In other words, and coming back to our case study, when BLM activists fight to have the state recognize its collective responsibility for ‘destroying the Black body,’ to put in in the words of a famous BLM supporter (Coates 2015), they fight an uphill battle that is thwarted by a long history of individualism that is still looming large in modern law (Llewellyn and Hoebel 1941).

In sum, BLM activists, in their protest against police, are offering resistance against the primacy of the individual in American law, the decriminalization of the state, as well as the political void between the individual and the state. Their fight for the recognition of victimhood as collective suffering and of police violence as state crime, is a battle against the cultural power of law and thus a cultural practice that is worth to be studied in that capacity. The format of the column does not provide space for such a study, but for the reader who is interested in how this battle is waged, an analysis is presented in the forthcoming book Cultural Practices of Victimhood, which is soon added to the Routledge series Victims, Culture and Society.