L.A. Program Targets Muslims Under Guise of National Security
Exactly one week after the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban, dozens of Los Angeles residents descended upon City Hall to urge lawmakers to reject nearly $500,000 for a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program that would target Muslims under the guise of national security.
Just days before, a coalition of civil rights and community groups filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to release documents about its CVE programs in response to a California Public Records Act request (similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act). After a 16-month battle to obtain information characterized by mysterious delays and grossly incomplete productions (the mayor’s office actually conceded that its production was insufficient but refused to detail documents being withheld), far too much about these programs remains unknown. All this dodging and delaying begs the question: What does the city have to hide?
Likely, quite a lot.
From its inception, CVE in LA has been mistrusted and opposed by many of the Muslim groups that serve the very communities the programs claim to help. Recently, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of the LA CVE regime’s remaining Muslim community partners, declined to receive any funding from the program. LA CVE never has been and never will be the “community led” initiative it purports to be.
LA’s CVE efforts were kicked into high gear in September 2014 when the city was picked by the White House for a pilot program. The pilot's purpose was both to build upon the city’s ongoing CVE efforts (which almost exclusively targeted Muslims from the get-go) and to establish an intervention program called Recognizing Extremist Network Early Warning (RENEW) — later renamed Providing Alternatives to Hinder Extremism (PATHE). The renaming was part of an effort to masquerade CVE initiatives by rebranding them. Another program, Safe Spaces, allocated $20,000 to the Muslim Public Affairs Council to provide workshops to explore “taboo topics” and counseling services primarily for LA’s “underserved population of Muslims.”
In June 2017, the LA mayor’s office was one of 26 grantees awarded CVE funding through the Department of Homeland Security. The LA effort exemplifies the fundamental, inevitable problems present in all CVE programs — the stigmatizing of Muslim Americans as inherently suspect, flagging individuals as potential terrorists based on debunked theories, the total absence of any demonstrable national security benefit, and risks to civil rights and civil liberties. Despite openly acknowledging such risks, the city has failed to present any mechanisms to deal with them in practice.
The 16-page grant application reveals next to nothing about how the city plans to use $425,000 of taxpayer money to prevent violent extremism. We do know that the program revolves around establishing a “service referral system” through which an individual deemed at risk for violent extremism would be identified (by their parents, a teacher, a community organization, or law enforcement), “screened” (by community organizations, an online resource platform, or the Department of Mental Health Services), and then referred to services ranging from job-placement to mental-health services. They also intend to partner with the county’s School Threat Response Team (START) program, through which law-enforcement and mental-health professionals identify, evaluate, and when necessary arrest, students identified as a threat.
The heart of the problem is what the grant application leaves unsaid: How will individuals be “identified”? In other words, what are the physical, behavioral, or other “indicators” that can brand someone as a potential violent extremist?
Recently, the mayor claimed that the program would focus on “protective factors” and would not be rooted in the radicalization theories that “alarmed community activists and attorneys.” This seems unlikely based on the grant application (which emphasizes “preventing radicalization”) but especially given the history of LA CVE.
The city’s preexisting CVE programs have been widely criticized for flagging individuals as potential violent extremists based on First Amendment-protected activity or wildly overbroad criteria. For instance, official LAPD training documents from 2010 list “being passionate about Somalia,” “having absolute trust in the mosque,” and “lacking resources” as possible risks for terrorist recruitment. LAPD’s PATHE program poses questions that include: “Have you traveled recently?” and “Do you have a religious community affiliation?” and “Do you have animosity towards any religious, community, or political group?” Additionally, the city’s Safe Spaces program considers factors such as “misguided interpretations of Islam,” “troubles at home,” and “a desire to look cool,” as possible indicators of a propensity to use violence according to their training and guidelines.
These factors are considered despite the fact that the 2015 LA CVE Framework (which supposedly “codified” the city’s CVE approach) states that there is a need for “credible research-based baselines for indicators of violent extremism.” Coupled with the grant application's silence on the matter, it seems likely that the city will continue using current “risk factors,” placing people on an intervention conveyor belt based on religion, ethnicity, race, or political opinions.
LA’s CVE program also puts a significant burden on individuals and groups who are not qualified (and should not be expected to be qualified) to identify potential terrorists within their communities with little to no guidance. Although the grant application claims that part of the initiative will include “capacity building” of community organizations, few specifics are provided, and it seems likely that “capacity building” is code for funding.
Meanwhile, the LA City Council has decided that it needs more time to mull this controversial issue that could, according to the mayor’s office, expand CVE programming to roughly 10 million people in the LA region. The groups who organized the protest, along with countless other concerned residents, hope that the City Council comes to see LA CVE for what it is — another means for stripping away the rights and liberties of Muslims and other minorities and casting them as inherently suspect.
Sophia DenUyl is the Special Assistant to the Co-Directors of the Liberty and National Security Program. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, she interned with the Survivor Network at Everytown for Gun Safety, which brings together survivors of gun violence and empowers them to become leaders in the gun violence prevention movement.