READ: We redistributed $3 million to 68 organizations and $600,000 to the Emergency Victims and Survivors Fund in Georgia

Why Oakland Cut Its Ties with a Racist FBI Program

June 8, 2022 Perspective

Author

Nashwah Akhtar

Nashwah Akhtar

Digital Communications Associate

Nashwah Akhtar

Digital Communications Associate

Nashwah has been part of mobilizing grassroots movements on issues including racial justice and civil rights. She was most recently on Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, conducting digital organizing and fundraising on their digital team. Previously, she was also a Communications Associate at Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) in Washington, DC, where she led social media initiatives to promote programs and events to get more AAPIs into elected office. She was also at Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as their Communications Coordinator, where she registered Bay Area community members to vote.

She holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, as well as a Masters of Public Diplomacy.

In October 2020, the Asian Law Caucus, partners, and community members across the East Bay came together in celebration – Oakland City Council voted unanimously to end the Oakland Police Department’s (OPD) partnership with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Oakland is one of five cities that has withdrawn from the JTTF since 2017. As more cities launch similar efforts to strengthen community safety and unity, we’re taking a look back at the harm OPD’s involvement with the JTTF has caused and the steps we took with local families and neighbors for community well-being and justice.

JTTF is an FBI program that deputizes local police officers as FBI agents. This gives local police officers working with the JTTF the same investigative and policing authority as FBI agents. The FBI, through the JTTF, has a well-documented record of profiling low-income, immigrant, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian, Black, and Indigenous communities, as well as civil and human rights organizations, even while repeatedly denying it to the public.

"Too many members of the JTTF seemed to be driven by personal animus, describing Islam as a religion of violence, a message that was still being promulgated in FBI and other law-enforcement training materials as late as 2011," one former JTTF agent told the New York Times last year.

The JTTF partnership was harmful to Oakland’s community safety for several reasons:

  • Through the JTTF, the FBI and local police targeted their resources and surveillance on communities of color, especially Black, Arab, Muslim, and immigrant communities. With little evidence or reason for these actions, the JTTF created an atmosphere of fear that loomed over community members. “What the FBI was directing us to do was to go into these communities and instill fear and then generate this paranoia within these people so that they know that they’re under suspicion perpetually,” said former agent Terry Albury.
  • Even with transparency and accountability measures like Oakland’s 2017 ordinance in place (read below), the partnership made it hard to hold OPD officers in the JTTF accountable to the local community. OPD often failed to comply with the ordinance’s reporting requirements. Moreover, the FBI dictated much of what OPD could and could not share with the public and elected officials.
  • By participating in the JTTF, OPD may have violated the city’s sanctuary laws, which do not permit any city employee to share the immigration status of any individual with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is a prominent federal partner in the JTTF, and has access to all information uploaded by the JTTF, including people’s immigration status.

WATCH: Mohamed Taleb, former community advocate at ALC, explains the dangers of a JTTF partnership with local law enforcement

Before Oakland community members fiercely advocated that their city cut ties with the FBI, the OPD was part of the Bay Area JTTF and had an officer assigned to it, with real consequences to community safety. In the summer of 2020, for example, the FBI deployed JTTF members to surveil people protesting for racial justice and an end to police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. OPD fired tear gas and other hazardous weapons into a crowd of young protesters before the city-enacted curfew went into effect. These officers violated OPD’s use-of-force policy 35 times during four days of protests.

READ: Our Letter to Oakland City Council - “End OPD’s Participation in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force”

"The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has long terrorized Oakland's communities of color, especially those of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian descent, based on nothing more than race, religion, and ethnicity. The end of Oakland's partnership with the JTTF is a step in the right direction towards true public safety,”
said Javeria Jamil, former staff attorney with the National Security and Civil Rights Program at the Asian Law Caucus.


Oakland’s transparency ordinance and why it wasn’t enough for accountability


In 2017, Oaklanders and local grassroots and civil rights organizations first came together to hold the JTTF and OPD accountable to residents. Through their advocacy, the city council passed a transparency ordinance that required OPD to follow local and state laws and policies when participating in the JTTF, and to submit an annual report on its activities to the city council.

However, three years after the ordinance was passed, OPD was continuing to disregard the ordinance and failed to submit its 2018 and 2019 reports to city council.


Community-led advocacy wins & OPD withdraws from JTTF


Throughout 2020, ALC was one of the core organizations working to end Oakland’s relationship with the JTTF, alongside key partners like CAIR-SFBA and Secure Justice, and advocates and community members from Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities across the region.

12 community members pose in a elected official's office in Alameda county, gathering to advocate for an end to the JTTF.

In February 2020, ALC staff and community partners gathered in then assemblymember Rob Bonta's office as part of advocacy to pass a statewide bill (AB 2598) requiring California law enforcement agencies to follow state and local laws and policies at all times, and creating transparency and oversight measures for state and local agencies participating in the JTTF.

We encouraged community members, especially those impacted by surveillance and policing, to raise their voices. We met with elected officials to raise awareness and address their concerns, worked with mosque leadership to share information about the JTTF during Friday sermons, and provided public comment at public safety hearings – inviting community members to share their stories of FBI surveillance. We facilitated Know Your Rights webinars and workshops at mosques and community centers on government surveillance and how to keep our communities safe. Hundreds of people testified, wrote to and called their representatives, and called for an end to the city’s involvement with the JTTF.

At one of the final city council hearings on OPD’s relationship with JTTF, a community member testified:

“Attorney General Barr announced in May 2020 that 56 regional JTTF offices around the country would be used in the wake of the George Floyd peaceful protests to investigate protestors under domestic terrorism laws. Indeed, JTTF personnel around the country have interrogated protestors about their religious and political views. We see this in our city as well.


You all have a duty to make decisions that keep us safe from overbroad and overreaching federal laws that infringe on our first amendment rights. Because of this, I ask you all to vote to end the partnership between OPD and the JTTF.”

8 Community leaders and members of Alameda county meet at a state official's office to advocate for an end to the JTTF.

Oakland residents have a right to live safely without worrying that Oakland police officers working in collaboration with the FBI’s JTTF will surveil and harass them, and we continue to monitor any attempts by OPD to re-join the JTTF. The Oakland City Council’s decision to end this partnership is a step in the right direction to reimagining true public safety, no matter what we look like or the faith we practice.

Over the past decade, community members and civil rights advocates have led campaigns to disentangle JTTF from Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, and Atlanta. Today, these ongoing campaigns for community safety are helping residents in other parts of California and other states similarly protect their communities' rights and end unjust targeting and surveillance.