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Abolitionist Organizers Warn ‘Counter-Extremism’ Won’t Stop White Supremacist Violence

This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.

In May, a gunman killed ten Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and livestreamed the event on Twitch. While that by itself was horrific, many were further disturbed upon learning that the shooter’s manifesto made references to memes and online platforms where he spent most of his time. It didn’t take long for public figures to demand law enforcement target the online pipeline that “radicalized” him. 

It may seem like a win for officials to investigate Twitch, 4chan, Discord, and similar platforms. But this approach—spying on people online in search for ‘pathways to radicalization’—draws from counter-extremism logics built on the ongoing surveillance of oppressed communities worldwide. Amidst rising right-wing mass shootings in the United States, increased funding of counter-extremism, supposedly in this case to prevent white supremacist violence, represents a double-edged sword for communities of color who are most often the target of these programs. 

Counter-extremism is shaping the response to mass shootings like the one in Buffalo. Los Angeles, for example, approved a $250,000 grant to the city’s police earlier this year, provided by the Department of Homeland Security’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention program. The grant will help fund the Providing Alternatives to Hinder Extremism (PATHE) program, an intervention-based program claiming to help the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) identify individuals on pathways to extremism. 

PATHE is touted by media and police as an efficatious way to combat so-called “domestic terrorism.” Yet the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a community-driven abolitionist organization, condemns it as a “vehicle for LAPD to racially profile youth of color with pseudoscientific ‘risk assessments.’”

In Los Angeles, Stop LAPD Spying, alongside organizations like Vigilant Love, the Palestinian Youth Movement, and others, have led the charge against the LAPD’s counter-extremism programming for years. 

Stop LAPD Spying told Shadowproof by email that, in 2018, organizers blocked a $425,000 grant to expand the city’s precursor to PATHE. However, city councilors and police “ignored the wishes of Angelenos” three years later, Stop LAPD Spying said, “in order to prioritize the budget of the LAPD over the well-being of our youth.” PATHE’s expansion eventually came to fruition in 2021 on the tail end of another betrayal, this time on the national level. 

In June of that year, President Joe Biden not only abandoned campaign promises to end the Trump administration’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention program (TVTP)—a resurrection of the Obama-era Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)—but effectively recreated TVTP with the new Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3). 

Today, TVTP lives on as a grant program managed by CP3 and is described as the “only federal grant program dedicated to enhancing the capabilities of local communities to prevent targeted violence and terrorism.” CP3 distributed $20 million in grants nationwide through TVTP in 2021, including the $250,000 grant for PATHE in Los Angeles. 

Organizers like those working with Stop LAPD Spying are urging abolitionists nationwide to explicitly take up and confront the ever-expanding surveillance state. 

Abolition Beyond Police Shootings

Abolition was shoved into popular consciousness following the protest summer of 2020. However, media coverage often hyper-focuses on police killings, failing to make important connections as the U.S. pours millions into dangerous counter-extremism programming. 

“Surveillance isn’t harmful merely because it’s used by police,” Stop LAPD Spying wrote. “Intent to harm is an essential part of surveillance and [it] precedes the creation of the police as a distinct institution in North America.”

In the U.S., surveillance has taken different forms at different times, from the early development of biometric identification with slave passes to lantern laws demanding Black, mixed-race, and Indigenous people carry lanterns after sunset if not accompanied by a white person. No matter how it presents itself, though, surveillance is fundamentally “real-time social control” facilitated by a number of organizations. 

Through counter-extremism, the U.S. government uses debunked “radicalization” theories to target Muslims — and often Black Muslim youth — and communities of color with increased policing and surveillance. Exported by the United Kingdom’s Prevent, counter-extremism strategies like CVE borrow the underlying assumption that there is an identifiable pathway to “extremism” requiring early intervention through not only watching communities but selectively funding non-profit programming, universities, and more. Stop LAPD Spying writes that the federal government uses counter-extremism to “export policing and surveillance to social workers, teachers, clergy, community members, and nonprofits.”

For example, TVTP does not limit its funding to law enforcement alone. Vigilant Love’s #ServicesNotSurveillance campaign highlights counter-extremism’s encroachment into “therapy, social work, school counseling, and other related spaces.” Cultural productions have been targeted as well: in 2021, DHS provided $750,000 to the University of Texas at El Paso and $400,000 to Music in Common’s Black Legacy Project. Surveillance is not necessarily about restricting only the actions and movements of targeted communities, but their thoughts, too. 

While counter-extremism programs like PATHE masquerade as supportive interventions into communities, Stop LAPD Spying warned “they greatly expand the power of the police state, which is the primary agent of white supremacy and violence in our lives.” 

As a domestic expansion of the so-called War on Terror, counter-extremism programming is part of a “global surveillance infrastructure,” Darakashan Raja, the founding director of Muslims for Just Futures, told Shadowproof by email. That infrastructure “create[s] a global confinement zone where individuals can’t truly be free anywhere they go if they are flagged as a terrorist or potential terrorist.”

Counter extremism and surveillance. Illustration by Paul Lacombe.

Framing The Problem As “Domestic Terrorism”

DHS claims CP3 will combat “domestic violence extremism, including violent white supremacy.” CP3’s formation came alongside the development of a Domestic Terrorism Branch within the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. While the government targeting white supremacy may seem like a positive development, it raises serious questions about the framing of the problem. If the focus is on “violent” white supremacy, for example, what is non-violent or non-extremism white supremacy, and what is being done about it? There are significant reasons to doubt that a “domestic terrorism” framework can confront the problem of white supremacy. 

As Nicole Nguyen and Yazan Zahzah noted in a recent report and toolkit, “Focusing on individualized acts of white supremacist violence while failing to respond to structural inequalities that harm communities of color actively contributes to the reproduction of white supremacy.”

To put it another way, counter-extremism’s frameworks reduction of white supremacy to the deeds of a few individual bad actors allows the federal goverment to ignore that “the DHS and the FBI […] have always been intrinsically white supremacist institutions, from the histories of COINTELPRO to the War on Terror,” Stop LAPD Spying wrote. 

”In addition,” Raja warned, “history has taught us that the state’s counterterrorism and national security infrastructure has always been weaponized against Black, Brown, Indigenous communities, and liberatory movements.” 

That much is easily found within the Biden administration’s guidelines for combating “domestic violent extremism” released after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. While the guidelines never mention white supremacy explicitly, “advocating for the superiority of the white race” is listed under the Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists category. It’s reminiscent of the FBI’s adoption of the “Black Identity Extremists” category in 2019, which Stop LAPD Spying argues “paves the way for the administration to equate protesters rising up against the police with Neo-Nazis.”

Abolishing Surveillance

Demanding the abolition of counter-extremism strategies seems like a daunting task especially as the federal government continues to muddy the program’s lineages by restructuring it, and as events like mass shootings create demand for further investment in them. Organizers are making it easier for people to hop onboard with an abolitionist approach, though. 

Last year, Raja led the development of the Muslim Abolitionist Futures grassroots policy agenda calling for the abolition of the War on Terror and demanding investments in care infrastructure instead. The project collected oral histories from community organizers, activists, and others, “who led, organized, and participated in social movements to resist the War on Terror.”

“The agenda brought together Muslim-led abolitionist groups in order to build a collective agenda so that we could use it as a movement and advocacy tool,” Raja explained. “It’s easy to dismiss one person or one organization, but when we can back up our demands with people power and the endorsement of multiple groups, it’s harder to ignore us.”

For both Raja and Stop LAPD Spying, rejecting the false promises of reform is central to their work as abolitionists. “We don’t measure out victories in reformist wins, which often sacrifice communities for the sake of expediency,” Stop LAPD Spying wrote. “Rather, our goal is to build community power and popular knowledge and build a culture of resistance.” This can look like working directly with community members who have been harmed by the state rather than prioritizing the perspectives of academics, attorneys, and other professionals, who lack those ties to the community. 

When it comes to policing, surveillance is sometimes presented as a reform option and is not recognized as harmful and integral to the architecture of policing. As Raja wrote, “One of the biggest trends I have seen within criminal justice reform movements is the push for alternatives to incarceration that places people under state surveillance through parole and probation.” The Community Justice Exchange, for example, highlights that more immigrants are enrolled in ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (one of its Alternatives to Detention programs) than are detained in immigration facilities. 

“Not A Moment In Time But A Continuation Of History.”

An analysis of the development of counter-extremism programming in the U.S. illuminates the importance of more complex confrontations with policing. While it is certainly necessary to highlight the $100 billion cities collectively pour into policing each year in general, CP3 distributed $20 million in grants last year alone. Its predecessor, CVE, provided $10 million in grants in 2017. Neither of those numbers account for the funding required to run and house these programs. 

Even if police are abolished, the constant evolution of counter-extremism programs shows that, without a direct abolitionist confrontation, surveillance will find a way to survive. The billions of funding currently directed to law enforcement institutions will likely find itself funneled into counter-extremism programs at city, state, and federal levels. 

Confronting surveillance, Raja wrote, “allows for us to take a transnational approach to abolition.” While the global counter-extremism industry is one small vein of surveillance as a whole, it is perhaps among the least understood. But it is a perfect representation of Stop LAPD Spying’s motto: “Not a moment in time but a continuation of history.” The motto not only frames Stop LAPD Spying’s work as part of a longer struggle but helps to “desensationalize the latest outrageous surveillance technology and ground abolition in decolonization.”

“Understanding our fight as part of a global anti-imperialist struggle has led to our collaboration with orgs like Anakbayan LA and the Palestinian Youth Movement,” Stop LAPD Spying wrote. “The struggle for abolition is one with the struggle against the US war machine.”

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor is a Minnesota-born and Philadelphia-based writer focusing on Black Muslim womanhood and technology. They are specifically interested in surveillance, Afrofuturism, and the revolutionary potential of fiction. They are the curator of NAZAR, an independent journalism project on surveillance, and the founding Editor-in-Chief of The Drinking Gourd, a Black Muslim literary magazine.