Rakem Balogun and his son were asleep in their apartment early one December morning about two years ago when they woke up to the sound of a crash.
Balogun, a North Texas activist, got out of bed and walked into his living room. From where he was standing, he couldn't see his front door, but he could tell it was open, and he heard people talking outside. Suddenly, a male voice started yelling from the doorway. Whoever the voice was coming from, Balogun says, he couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see him.
It turned out to be the FBI, ATF and Dallas Police Department.
“I pretty much let them know that I would not be resisting and that there was a minor within the house,” says Balogun, 35. “I asked them to be patient and let us surrender in a peaceful manner.”
They did just that. An officer directed Balogun to walk out of his apartment with his hands up. Once he was out of the apartment, an officer told him to turn around and walk backward toward the officers. They put Balogun and his son in handcuffs and in the backs of separate cars.
Confiscated from his home were a .38-caliber handgun, a rifle and his copy of the 1962 book Negroes with Guns by civil rights leader Robert F. Williams. According to court documents, the handgun, which was loaded, and the Norinco AK-style assault rifle were both found in "unsecured locations" within feet of Balogun's bed. Agents also found and seized body armor, a fully loaded magazine and dozens of 7.62-mm rounds.
Balogun was being charged in a one-count indictment with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, citing a 2007 domestic assault charge in Tennessee. Immediately, he was taken to a federal building in downtown Dallas for a bond hearing, he says, but he never got one. He also wasn’t allowed to make any phone calls. The government quickly moved for pretrial detention, saying Balogun was a flight risk and a danger to any other person in the community.
Two days later, a magistrate judge held a detention hearing and received testimony from FBI Special Agent Aaron Keighley. The government cited Balogun's social media activity, involvement in protests and what they called "a history of assaultive behavior." The magistrate judge agreed with the government's assessment of Balogun and allowed him to be detained without bail. For about five months, Balogun argued in court that the actions cited in the government's case against him were protected by the First Amendment.
In May 2018, all charges were dropped against Balogun, and he was released.
Today, the ACLU and Media Justice are trying to find out if Balogun was the first to be monitored under a government program that aims to identify "black identity extremists." Reports suggest the language used by the prosecution in Balogun's case resembles language used in a 2017 FBI assessment called "Black Identity Extremists likely motivated to target law enforcement officers."
In this document, the term "black identity extremist" is vaguely described. Basically, a black identity extremist is someone who is likely influenced by a mixture of black nationalist "sovereign citizen" ideology, anti-authoritarianism and "BIE ideology." Such a person might commit premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement, motivated by "perceptions of police brutality against African Americans," according to the assessment.
Nusrat Choudhury, deputy director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, says there is a significant public concern that Balogun is the first black activist who was surveilled and arrested thanks to the FBI's creation of the black identity extremist threat label. While the ACLU doesn't know all the reasons for the FBI's investigation of Balogun, the language used in his case resembles language found in the FBI's assessment, Choudhury says.
"... That language suggests that the prosecution of him stems from the FBI's labeling of him as a so-called black identity extremist," she says.
The assessment states that "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 cited six unrelated instances of violence against police in its assessment, including Micah Johnson's July 7, 2016, ambush in Dallas that left five officers dead. It mentions social media surveillance, the use of certain online search terms, the content a person creates and their associations.
"Part of what Media Justice and the ACLU is seeking to learn from the litigation we filed against the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act is the genesis of this term 'black identity extremist,' how it's being used and how state, local and federal law enforcement are being trained on it," Choudhury says. "That's the kind of information that will help us figure out if the prosecution of Mr. Balogun was the result of the creation of a 'black identity extremist' threat label."
Choudhury says the assessment was disseminated to at least 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide. She says it's a flawed assessment that isn't based on evidence.
"It asserts without evidence that there is a so-called group of black identity extremists who are likely motivated to target law enforcement officers," Choudhury says. "So, it uses circular reasoning, and what that does is it draws attention and focus on black activists, like activists involved in Black Lives Matter."
Balogun says the program is reminiscent of the FBI's counterintelligence program used to infiltrate and discredit activist groups during the civil rights movement.
"Historically, (surveillance) is what you expect," he says. "Particularly dealing with black activist groups, the police try to intervene and sabotage operations as much as possible and discredit its individuals."
In an October 2017 email obtained by the ACLU, Michael Paul of the FBI Counterterrorism Division wrote that by creating the black identity extremist threat category, the bureau was just documenting the redefinition of black separatist extremism to expand beyond those just seeking separatism.
The FBI said it had several conversations with The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) once the assessment had been made public. Since then, however, NOBLE President Clarence Cox has said he didn’t think the BIE assessment was healthy for the conscience of the country and, particularly, of African Americans.
Some of the posts that were cause for the FBI's concern went up around the one-year mark since Johnson, an Army Reserve veteran and North Texas resident, shot and killed five law enforcement officers and wounded 11 others in Dallas after a rally against police brutality.
A post Balogun shared on the eve of the anniversary read: "Tomorrow they will mourn the police. we will be saluting Micah Johnson! We will (remember) Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the others. With revenge in our hearts!"
The next day, he posted, "Today one year ago one Black Man brought Dallas Pig Department to their knees."
Through Special Agent Keighley's testimony, Balogun learned the FBI had been monitoring him for about two and a half years.
The FBI learned about Balogun, whose real name is Christopher Daniels, while investigating domestic terrorism through a video on Infowars, Alex Jones' far-right news publication, covering a 2015 rally against police brutality in Austin. The rally was organized by local activist group Guerrilla Mainframe, for which Balogun is a chief organizer.
Guerrilla Mainframe is a socialist activist group founded in 2008 by Rakem and Yafeuh Balogun. Both men, along with several other members of the group, adopted the Nigerian surname Balogun, which means "warlord" in Yoruba. The group was inspired by activists Marvin Crenshaw and Fahim Jabari Minkah. It opposes police brutality, advocates for the rights of black gun owners and coordinates food drives and self-defense lessons within the community. They also work with the local activist group Black Empowerment Movement.
In Rakem's case, the government cited the 2015 rally, saying Rakem and others were heard chanting derogatory phrases toward police like "Oink, oink, bang, bang" and "The only good pig is a pig that's dead."
The FBI is looking at First Amendment-protected activities when describing who might be a black identity extremist, Choudhury says. This creates the potential for irrational police fear of black activists and harassment in the form of surveillance, police stops, investigations and even arrests. To make matters worse, this harassment, Choudhury says, might be based on either the race or the First Amendment-protected activities of those people.
Arguably, none of this could have happened if it weren't for changes made to the Attorney General Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations in 2008. An addition to the guidelines was a new type of investigation called an "assessment." Assessments do not require any probable cause of wrongdoing or threats to national security. This allows the FBI to investigate broad categories of people, like those targeted under the black identity extremist threat category.
While the black identity extremist assessment was introduced in August 2017, months before Rakem's arrest and years after the FBI began investigating him, there are remnants of the threat category from as far back as July 2016. In a series of emails from July 8 obtained by Al Jazeera, the FBI began warning law enforcement of attacks like the one Johnson carried out.
"Due to sensitivities surrounding recent police shootings, the threat of copycat attacks against law enforcement exists. There is a threat of black supremacist extremists attempting to violently co-opt the upcoming DNC/RNC," one of the emails read. "There are a number of black supremacist extremist movements in the Dallas area — the most prominent is the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), which has numerous offshoots."
Between being locked up and all the hearings during the months he was detained, Rakem says he was just trying to survive.
“I was taken away from my newborn daughter," he says. "I was taken away from my children, taken away from my friends, and forced to live with straight-up thugs, criminals, murderers. You have to interact with these people on a day-to-day basis.”
He says being in federal prison was a culture shock. Luckily, there were people on the outside trying to offer him support. Yafeuh Balogun, co-founder of Guerrilla Mainframe, says he heard about Rakem's arrest about an hour after it happened. The two are not brothers. Yafeuh, 34, started a GoFundMe campaign and organized an armed demonstration outside the Earle Cabell Federal Building in solidarity with Rakem.
"We wanted to let the FBI know that we weren't intimidated by them arresting Rakem," Yafeuh says of the demonstration in January last year. "We wanted to send a message to Rakem, first and foremost, that we support him."
Rakem and Yafeuh started doing community work with their group Guerrilla Mainframe in 2008. They would organize food drives and patrol apartment complexes in Pleasant Grove. Since the beginning, they both say they suspected their actions were being monitored. By 2012, Yafeuh says the FBI was knocking on their doors wanting to talk. This and, later, Rakem's detainment verified their suspicions.
"It showed me that this is real," Rakem says. "This is not a rumor or conspiracy."
Yafeuh says that a lot of people they associate with made similar posts about Micah Johnson that year. He says he thinks Rakem was targeted because he is seen as the leader of the group.
"Anytime there's a toppling of an organization, they'll oftentimes target the person at the top, and I think that's what Rakem represents," Yafeuh says.
"Keep in mind," he adds, "Rakem was in the Marine Corps, he's combat trained, he's excellent in martial arts, he's excellent with arms."
Because of this, Yafeuh says Rakem appears more militant, which gave him more reason to be targeted. In reality, Rakem is nothing more than a father and a friend, Yafeuh says. Rakem says he is not a threat to anyone who is not a threat to him.
When Yafeuh heard about the raid, he and another activist named Stephen Benavides organized the Rakem Balogun Defense Committee, a group that worked to bring awareness to Rakem's arrest. His story was picked up by The Guardian, The Intercept, Vice, Vox and many other publications. Eventually, Rakem's case was dismissed.
The ACLU and other organizations have been actively shining a light on improper federal law enforcement targeting of people who dissent, people who protested the Iraq War, environmental activists and others like Balogun. Choudhury says the focus on black activists is part of a broader story that includes federal law enforcement's long history of discrediting and disrupting the activism of black people calling out racial injustice.
To date, the ACLU has received several hundred pages of highly redacted emails that, Choudhury says, in no way satisfy the request for information about why the black identity extremist classification was created. The ACLU and the Center for Media Justice are conducting talks with the government to try to reach an informal resolution to the lawsuit through an agreement by the government to produce documents. There was a court hearing last month, and there will be another status conference in late August.
"Law enforcement should be upholding our country's commitment to fairness and equal justice by focusing on true security threats based on evidence," Choudhury says. "They shouldn't be surveilling and prosecuting people because of the color of their skin or their activism to promote racial equality."
Today, Balogun says he is still affected by his arrest. He was evicted from his home, his car was repossessed and his credit took a hit.
"They didn't say, 'Here's $15,000 for any type of damage that may have been done. Go ahead and get that squared away,'" Balogun says. "No. It's not like that. I have to go through a whole other process to get what I may feel is owed to me by the federal government. Justice is automatic when it comes to putting me in cuffs, but when the federal government is wrong it's not."
He also says people within the movement don't look at him the same.
"Once you get arrested, people want you out," he says. "But, once you get out, people are really not too quick to be connected to you the same because they feel like they're solidifying their own risk of detainment."
As much as the media likes to portray black people as if they've got nothing to lose, Rakem says, they are scared to stand up for their rights.
Despite all he's lost through his arrest by the FBI, Rakem is not involved in the ACLU's litigation. He just keeps organizing and trying to create change.
"There are no changes in our community," Balogun says. "As long as there is poverty, as long as there are children living in endangered homes, families who live in communities that do not provide the proper resources for them, as long as there is police terrorism and so many other things, we will always have work to do."
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