Reimagining National Security
The fake road, its cruel deception, is what we have to abandon.
—Adrienne Rich, The School among Ruins
In 2017, a former gang-involved student reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided his Chicago home in search of an undocumented immigrant. During the raid, the agents showed the student a picture of their suspect, describing him as a Muslim man and imminent national security threat. When the student commented that the person “looked Mexican not Muslim,” the agents argued that Muslims “hide out” in Mexican neighborhoods because “they can blend in.” After searching the student’s home, the agents left. A few days later, another ICE agent called the student to report that he was “all clear” and then demanded the names of any undocumented immigrants living nearby (personal communication).
By insisting that Muslims hid in Mexican neighborhoods and confirming that a person could “look Muslim,” ICE agents mapped the “terrorist/criminal” label onto a strategically ambiguous Brown body to justify their raid under the rubric of national security. The process of re-racializing Mexicans as Muslim criminalizes all Brown bodies as potential criminals and possible terrorists. These messy interactions create a malleable category of “terrorist/criminal” that can be deployed to target Brown bodies as threats to both public safety and national security. This example illustrates how the national security drive to police “Muslim-looking” populations has enhanced the U.S. security state and its targeting of Black, Brown, and immigrant bodies and communities.
This terrifying act of state-sponsored violence also reveals how technologies of control traffic across time, space, and contexts, transmuting policing practices that reaffirm racial hierarchies. la paperson (2017) similarly reports how “technologies of antiblackness circulate onto non-Black bodies. In a U.S.-Mexican borderland context, for example, we see the condensation of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous technologies to dispose of brown bodies and to create frontier space—a militarized zone of policing and death” (12). Documenting similar transpositions, one community organizer argued, “When we talk about the war on terror and how Muslims have been criminalized, we have to make the connection to the war on drugs and the way that Black people have been criminalized for years” (participant observation, August 20, 2017). This organizer argued that CVE has drawn from and intensified coercive policing practices that have criminalized, enclosed, and eliminated Black bodies. In this view, CVE programs have strengthened anti-Muslim racism and reinforced the policing of Black, Brown, and immigrant communities through the application of similar technologies of control, ontological illegality, and lethal geographies. CVE thus is an instructive case as it illuminates the technological transits of racial hierarchies and associated policing practices used to control, assimilate, and/or eliminate racialized bodies. These discursive and material circulations maintain racial hierarchies while obscuring the role of racism in criminalizing certain bodies, cultures, and communities as internal threats to “homeland and hometown security.”
Despite the utility in mapping these transits, not all technologies are comparable. One incomparable technology of anti-Blackness, for example, “is the production of the Black body as in itself the preeminent site for antiblackness,” whereas “settler technologies can focus on space, and technologies of Indigenous erasure can focus on land” (paperson 2017, 12). As these distinct yet co-constitutive technologies mutate and transit, they connect racial hierarchies, corresponding practices of state-sanctioned violence, and struggles for freedom and liberation. These transmutable technologies, however, produce differential forms of state-sanctioned violence. Although Muslim communities live under constant surveillance and intimidation that produce an “internment of the psyche” (Naber 2006), these racialized technologies of control are distinct from the hyperincarceration and police killings of Black people.
In this racialized context, “the state recruits people of color to demand their due recognition as deserving U.S. citizens or law-abiding immigrants” by “disavowing another devalued racial other of U.S. citizenship and American empire” (Cacho 2012, 15). Unfortunately, “there is no way out of this dilemma because recuperating social value requires rejecting the other Other” (17). Documented immigrants, for example, sometimes mark themselves as “deserving citizens” by demonizing undocumented immigrants, ultimately reaffirming technologies of statecraft (legal citizenship) that support racial hierarchies. For Muslims “cast out” of U.S. citizenship through racial and religious profiling, participating in CVE initiatives has offered political power, cultural recognition, and community resources (Razack 2008). As Yusuf Elmi warned, the U.S. security state has cultivated this impossible dilemma to fuel an “internal war” that distracts from “challenging the government.”
To recuperate their social value in this charged context, some Muslim leaders eagerly accepted opportunities within the U.S. security state to restrain racialized surveillance and institute a more community-driven domestic antiterrorism initiative that “learned from past mistakes.” Guided by these commitments, some Muslim leaders engaged the U.S. security state through CVE initiatives while marking those who refused to participate in these collaborations as “ostriches” unwilling to acknowledge the problem of terrorist radicalization in their own homes, community centers, and places of worship. To establish more liberal national security policies that affirmed the social and cultural value of their communities, some Muslim leaders sought inclusion into the U.S. political establishment by contributing to CVE while others rejected such institutional arrangements as additive reforms incapable of transforming oppressive systems.
Unfortunately, the U.S. security state has designed CVE to legitimize and shore up support for the very institutions that historically have criminalized communities of color, while appearing to learn from and attenuate past practices of coercive policing, racial profiling, and political exclusion. This means that struggles to make U.S. security regimes more liberal—“participatory,” “democratic,” and “community-driven”—have led to the increased surveillance and monitoring of Muslim communities, particularly by calling on racialized populations to serve as terrorist watchdogs and giving law enforcement access to spaces otherwise unavailable to them. Although CVE practitioner Junaid Afeef (2018) encouraged the “cooperation of government with groups like Muslim Advocates and ACLU of Illinois” to ensure the protection of civil liberties and civil rights in pursuit of national security, increasing community collaborations with government organizations has enhanced, rather than destabilized, the U.S. security state while reaffirming CVE’s organizing logics that “leech out the political dynamics” of extremist groups by amplifying the atomistic study of individual motivations “with little if any regard to what [people] may be fighting for” (Li 2015, paras. 21–22). This approach reduces political violence to an individual radicalization process defined by cultural, psychological, and theological pathologies.
Informed by radicalization research, the U.S. security state has engaged “moderate Muslims” and social service providers to enhance its daily operations, without abandoning its more coercive practices like FBI stings, intelligence-gathering activities, and war-making. Social service providers therefore have come to view their clients through an antiterrorism lens, sometimes equating common immigrant experiences like homesickness as signs of radicalization. As one component of a multipronged approach to combatting terrorism, CVE has contributed to, and articulated with, more coercive antiterrorism methods by strengthening community-police partnerships, deputizing community members as terrorist watchdogs, and reinforcing dominant radicalization narratives.
Given the operational failures of CVE and its damaging logics, targeted communities have reaffirmed their commitment to building alternative forms of public safety independent of the policing institutions that have oppressed, surveilled, and controlled them across history. In this view, the drive for recognition by, and integration into, the U.S. political establishment has reinforced rather than disrupted contemporary racial hierarchies and national security regimes that harm Muslim communities and articulate with anti-Black, anti-Brown, and anti-immigrant policing. These political struggles therefore have refused liberal reforms like “community-driven” antiterrorism initiatives that do not contest the institutions, practices, and logics that criminalize communities of color. Rather than “remain dependent on their oppressors for their freedom and self-worth,” anti-CVE organizers have struggled against the “assimilative lure of colonial recognition” by creating alternative forms of self-recognition and developing new methods to ensure community safety without relying on the U.S. security state (Coulthard 2014, 43).
Against Deceptive Solutions: A Struggle for Freedom
Although I was drawn to the unsure and hesitant contradictions CVE actors regularly expressed, the fierce organizing and political imaginations of targeted communities compelled me to reorient my ethnographic gaze. I learned, firsthand, how institutions and policies do not always produce their intended results and often carry subversive beings who refuse to consent to their dehumanization. In the CVE context, community organizers have connected freedom struggles across targeted communities to incubate revolutionary dreams aimed at liberation.
In their analyses and struggles for freedom, community organizers have crafted “scale-jumping” and “geography-crossing” counter-topographies that intentionally connect “disparate places similarly constituted or affected by certain problems” (C. Katz 2001a, 1216, 2008, 25–26). Although topographies explore the social and historical relations through which places are made, counter-topographies examine how expansive social processes link seemingly disparate places and struggles together. Counter-topographies therefore cultivate political imaginations that connect distinct yet co-constitutive systems of oppression and freedom struggles, from anti-Black police brutality in Chicago to anti-Muslim national security policies in Minneapolis to U.S. military operations in Iraq. These political imaginations importantly locate state violence within global systems of dominance like gendered racial capitalism and heteropatriarchal colonialism that disproportionately harm nondominant communities.
By drawing counter-topographical contour lines between anti-Black, anti-Brown, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant racisms, community organizers affirmed their commitment to “stand up against any and all programs that work to criminalize our community.” In Minneapolis, two hundred demonstrators took to the streets to protest CVE, call for the end of the global war on terror, and support the Movement for Black Lives and the Indigenous struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. In Chicago, community organizers collectively have struggled to end state-sanctioned violence by drawing connections between anti-Muslim surveillance, immigrant detention and deportation, the police department’s discriminatory gang database, the disappearance of Black girls and women, and the global war on terror. In Los Angeles, community organizers studied the mass incarceration of U.S.-Japanese families during World War II and its resonance in contemporary anti-Muslim surveillance practices. Recognizing these interrelated forms of state violence, communities have developed viable alternatives that reduce our dependence on police interventions, like creating community-based crisis assistance teams that respond to mental health emergencies without law enforcement (Meiners 2016; Berger, Kaba, and Stein 2017; Kaba and Meiners 2014). Through these struggles, community organizers have come to imagine and build alternative futures within oppressive contexts not of their own making.
In our various roles as academics, community members, and political subjects, we must continue to take our cue from community organizers who connect oppressive institutions and refuse security reforms that do not challenge the institutional arrangements that criminalize communities of color, from new community policing paradigms to “ideologically ecumenical” CVE programs. As Angela Davis (2016) instructs, “Our understandings of and resistance to contemporary modes of racist violence should . . . be sufficiently capacious to acknowledge the embeddedness of historical violence—of settler colonial violence against Native Americans and of the violence of slavery inflicted on Africans” (82). These “deep understandings of racist violence arm us against deceptive solutions. When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them” (90). Through their intensive study of and experiences with structural racism, colonialism, and state-sponsored violence, Muslim organizers came to view CVE as a “deceptive solution” that encouraged working with, rather than dismantling, the U.S. security state on the premise that “our kids are inherently violent and in need of rehabilitation” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Instead of calling for better or more community-driven domestic war on terror initiatives, community organizers began developing alternative forms of safety and security independent of “the same institutions” that “we have seen oppress people through various methods” since the creation of slave patrols and Indian constables (participant observation, August 20, 2017).
By imagining a world without CVE and establishing community resources independent of national security funding, community organizers have begun transforming the conditions that have shaped their everyday lives, reaching for freedom, liberation, and self-determination. Rather than rely on oppressive institutions to ensure public safety and grant political recognition, communities have struggled for these ends themselves. With political, intellectual, and moral clarity, one community organizer concluded, “We’re going to do it ourselves.”