I’ve been called an extremist more times than I care to count. Before Unite the Right, a city councilor said that the activist group I organized with was “worse than terrorists.” British transphobes have called me a transgender extremist. Quasi-journalist Andy Ngô particularly loves using that term to describe me. I’m secretly hoping he sends me a cross-stitch sampler with the words “Antifa Extremist” some day. Despite never being charged with a crime, never being arrested, and never having been shown to raise a hand against anyone in anger, I’m regularly labeled by right wing media to be one of the most dreadful extremists in the world. It doesn’t end there. At work, I specialize in consulting in “Extreme Programming." I even prefer the Sour Patch Extreme. What can I say, I’m a sucker for sour gummies.
The term “extreme” is so overused that by now it should have lost its edge, but for how it gets weaponized. The FBI loves using the term to justify the further erosion of American civil rights. Over the years, we’ve seen the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security wield the term freely. Some examples:
- a man arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm was labeled a White Supremacy Extremist;
- in the lead-up to Unite the Right, the FBI tracked so-called Black Identity Extremists;
- an FBI article from 2016 refers to Animal Rights Extremists;
- a 1980 paper hosted by the Justice Department refers to a smorgasbord of extremist categories: Jewish, Black, Indian and Feminist Extremists.
And finally, a recent DHS memo refers to “abortion-related violent extremists,” placing them among a broader category of “Domestic Violent Extremist[s].”
Welcome to the club, I guess. We’ve got vegan rice and beans in a huge pot out back.
The broader federal law enforcement apparatus has used these labels to justify increased surveillance and policing of dissenters, with little skill in differentiating between groups known to commit or prone to commit violence, and groups who organize for civil disobedience. These terms have been used to justify search warrants, secure indictments, and enhance sentencing. They are used to justify privacy breaches by the government, including broad surveillance of your social media. The FBI has a 12,051-page file on me; I’ve never committed a crime, but I was the victim of a hate crime and a terrorist attack. Stories of victims of racial violence finding bugs in their cars or homes abound.
If you vocally oppose the Dobbs decision, regardless of whether you have any intent to commit a crime, you’re probably going to be caught up in the surveillance network constructed under the guise of “counter-extremism.” This is because the label “extremist” has become simply a more polite way to say “enemy of the state.” The right to bodily autonomy is not the only right you have lost. Congratulations, you’re now a de facto political target. I have good news, though. There are things you can do about this.
Reject the legitimacy of protest policing
The FBI is not your friend. The FBI is out to catch the bad guys. But what you need to understand is that in their eyes you are now the bad guy. Despite the fact that your beliefs haven’t changed, were legal a mere handful of days ago, are shared by a majority of Americans, and have no correlation with violence at all, they will view you as a suspect or an enemy. They will try to use you to gather information on abortion-rights organizers, try to lead you to protest forms that are ineffective, to inform on your network of peers, and to erode your beliefs in what justice in America is.
The only defense against this is to politically oppose this form of policing. The fight for abortion rights is the same fight as the fight for Black lives. The fight for abortion rights is the same fight as the fight against warrantless searches of metadata, or the use of facial recognition in policing, or the surveillance of social media. If you want to protest Dobbs, you should also be protesting the unbearable surveillance infrastructure that the government has constructed.
The police will shoot you in the face with tear gas, regardless of whether you’re breaking the law or not. And they’re going to do it with glee. 2020 showed us this.
Understand threat modeling
A lot of people are trying to be clever about posting about helping someone go “camping” or visiting their “aunt Annie.” This doesn’t work. Nobody was fooled when neo-Nazis talked about committing violence “in Minecraft” and no one is going to be fooled by “camping,” especially when roughly every third American is making a post like this. You’re not helping people in need and you’re not helping yourself.
There’s also a lot of advice out there about deleting your period trackers. I don’t think this is a great idea, at least not by itself. There is no federal law against abortion (yet), and local police departments do not have the skills or resources to conduct massive dragnets of period tracker data. However, this data could be used against you in individual cases. In that scenario, there are several things to consider:
- deleting your period tracking app does not mean the data is gone;
- deleting your account with a period tracking service does not mean the data is gone;
- period tracking apps are not the only source of relevant data, but you also have to consider fitness apps, mood trackers, pill minders, and anything else;
- iCloud backups of app data is one of the most common ways for law enforcement to get data, so you have to make sure iCloud is turned off, even if you do delete your app and the data;
- locally-stored data is only as secure as your phone’s passcode, a 4- or 6-digit numeric PIN is not enough.
If you delete your tracking systems, and you rely on these apps to help manage your health, you might end up doing more harm than good. Instead, it’s better to put the data out of reach of US courts. The best way to do this is to use overseas-based companies who are domiciled in countries with strong data protection laws and clear opposition to things like the CLOUD Act. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but if you do need legal advice, I suggest finding a lawyer familiar with modern data protection law.
Moreover, there are much more proximate threats than a prosecutor trying to explain the nuances of real-time data collection to a lay jury. It makes no sense to post about deleting your period tracker, and then follow that with a post doxing the conservative Supreme Court Justices' home addresses. That is definitely illegal and fairly easy to prosecute, and Twitter and Facebook tend to comply with those search warrants.
Know that the system isn’t based on logic
Our justice system is not designed to use logic to find the truth, but rather is designed to incriminate you at every turn. People have been rightfully worried about cell phone usage. The police can track cell phones and use that data to incriminate you or others in a suspected crime. As a result, many people suggest using burner phones or leaving your phone at home when visiting abortion clinics. This is probably a good idea, but it’s not without its own complications.
Consider the case of Samuel Gulick. Gulick was a teenager when he attacked an abortion clinic in the middle of the night. During his attack, he left his phone at home. Despite this, he was tracked by other means; namely, through a license plate reader. In the criminal complaint used to secure an arrest warrant against Gulick, the investigating agent writes
The CDR location data indicated the phone was at the same tower location for that period of time and the tower location is consistent with the residence of REDACTED. In my training and experience, subjects are often aware that law enforcement can track a subject’s location through cellular telephone geographic data. Therefore, subjects often do not carry their cell phone or leave their cell phone behind in an effort to elude being connected to criminal acts.
What does this mean? It means that taking your phone with you is incriminating. It also means that not taking your phone with you is incriminating. The only law that matters here is the Law of the Excluded Middle, or in common parlance, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” This is because our system isn’t designed to figure out if you’re guilty. It’s designed to find reasons why you are. In Gulick’s case, good for humanity: a christofascist was caught. But this case is a perfect example of how criminal justice in America is a massive process of begging the question. You can’t beat an illogical system using logic. You have to beat an illogical system by building an alternative system to operate in. For this reason, rather than trying to outsmart the cops to get access to medically-necessary abortion care, it’s best to connect with the many existing abortion support networks that have been building this alternative structure for years.
Understand what “extremism” really is, and reject the concept
The government and the media use the word “extremism” to make people sound like their beliefs are far from mainstream, that they are the beliefs of people on the fringe. But this is not the case. When we talk about “extremist” groups like the Proud Boys, or the beliefs of 4-chan mass shooters, we’re talking about actions that are extreme, not beliefs. When we see the horrific scenes of a mass shooting or a white supremacist car attack, it’s important to remember that many times, those perpetrators' beliefs have significant overlap with what you see on mainstream news. It’s only their commitment to violence that is out of the ordinary. Great Replacement Theory is on Fox News every day; they just don’t call it that.
Likewise, as a supporter of abortion rights your beliefs could not be more mainstream. The developing world is slowly trending towards more permissive rights to abortion than not. Holding these beliefs, and even holding these beliefs strongly enough to engage in civil disobedience, is not on the “extremes.” The American political landscape is much more complex than simple right and left, and the continued use of the term “extremist” in the media flattens that. The moral value of a belief system isn’t dependent on how far away it is from a constantly-moving political center. Centrism is not virtuous by default; it is not automatically superior by its commitment to compromise.
You, like me, may find yourself labeled an extremist by the media or the government, even though all you’re doing is sitting on your couch saying legally-protected things about legally-protected rights. The label is designed to intimidate you. Don’t let it. It means nothing. It has no relevance. Hold your commitments in your heart and keep them in relief against an ever-shifting society. The fight will be long, and we’ll need you in it.
Recognize that voting isn’t the solution
Simply put, the Democrats have been as responsible for the law enforcement apparatus as the Republicans have been. Vote if you want to, or don’t if you don’t. But don’t feel like rewarding the Democrats with your vote is a path out of this scenario. After all, they’re the ones who empowered the same system that is now being weaponized against your lawful and peaceful right to object. In fact, the Democrats are just as likely to discard you as an “extremist” than they are to embrace your commitment to social change. Pressure the Democratic Party to grow a backbone and change.
For many people, this is the first time they’ll really find themselves on the wrong end of the government’s long stick. The label “extremist” is used to instill fear and compliance in people who are morally opposed to what the state is trying to enforce. You have to oppose the government sometimes; our democracy is supposed to be an ever changing reflection of our society, and while that democracy is eroding, the solution to that isn’t to play by the rules that others make up as they go. Opposing this doesn’t make you an “anti-government extremist.” Instead, it makes you a committed citizen to a society that believes in the equal rights for all. The right to hold in your heart what you know to be true isn’t granted by the state, and nobody can take that away from you. Don’t let them.
For the federal agent and/or Andy Ngô superfan reading this post, this post is not an endorsement of extremist behaviors but rather a clear critique of the overly-broad use of the term “extremism” and how it is used to oppress social movements. This legally-protected opinion is not and shall not be interpreted as an endorsement or a call to violence against person or property, so go spend your time doing something better like catching the J6 bomb guy or learning how to not be a fascist.