At an L.A. City Council meeting on Tuesday, Joumana Silyan-Saba, a director in Mayor Garcetti’s office of public safety, could barely get through a sentence without interruption from a gallery of people who had come to protest a $425,000 federal counterterrorism grant. The protesters contend that the grants target and stigmatize Muslims and other marginalized communities and pose an acute threat to civil liberties.
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) grants are doled out through municipalities to law enforcement and community organizations — including faith, mental health and refugee services — whose members are required to report back based on a set of “indicators” thought to signal extremist behavior.
Speakers called the program racist against black and brown youth, premised on a “false framework of radicalization,” and dangerously negligent of the fact that violent extremism among white men with guns has proven a far greater threat to American lives than any other demographic trend.
“While we fully understand and grasp the optics and unfortunate rhetoric coming out of (the Trump) administration,” Silyan-Saba said, such polarization is precisely why L.A. needs the money, which would also be used to fight white nationalist violence. Anyway, she reasoned, if the city refused the grant, the money would just go back to the feds. “We cannot ignore homegrown violent extremists who utilize a narrative of hate to promote violence.”
According to the Mayor’s Office, the grant will also “operate outside the lanes of law enforcement” — which, if true, would be an exception to established practice across the United States.
There is an obvious, radical disconnect between what detractors say has become an openly Islamophobic program, and what the city and its subgrantees contend will support vulnerable populations in need with virtually no strings attached.
But the city’s attempt to distance itself from a secretive and highly controversial program while simultaneously failing to respond to a Public Records Act (PRA) request from the ACLU is probably really bad optics.
Shortly before Tuesday’s council meeting (at which the matter was sent back to committee), the ACLU and other civil rights groups announced they were suing the city for failing to respond to a PRA request that asked for, among other things, specifics regarding reporting requirements for subgrantees and “indicators” used to identify suspicious behavior.
“We put in our PRA in February 2017, and at that time the Mayor’s Office received a grant of $825,000 from the feds for CVE, which the Trump administration then reduced to $425,000. We would like to know why it’s cut. We wanted to know everything about that grant … what analysis they’d done to determine this was a good policy,” said Laboni Hoq, legislative director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, L.A., who has helped lead the PRA request and resulting lawsuit.
“The PRA request was broader than that — we wanted to know how the city got involved in CVE work in the first place," Hoq added. "Only when we started to make noise did we start to get a little more info from the Mayor’s Office. ... We specifically wanted to know more about what the requirements were going to be from the feds … more about a pilot program they did with one particular subgranteee. … We also realized they didn’t do a full search [to fulfill the request], just one custodian file, when it was clear there were multiple, multiple people involved in this program,” she said. “They admitted it was under-inclusive and then selected additional documents. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Along with Boston and Minneapolis, Los Angeles was one of three pilot cities originally identified in 2014 to be part of the CVE program, which at the time sought to stem a flow of radicalized U.S. citizens traveling to Syria and Iraq and to prevent fighters returning from those war zones from launching stateside attacks. Since then, the program has shifted from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security.
“We were really founded in response to that announcement,” Fatema Ahmad, deputy director of the Muslim Justice League in Boston, said of the pilot program. “The founders knew that the same program happened in the U.K. and was still happening there and was really awful. We know this is where this is leading, based on what we’ve seen.”
Critics across the country take issue with CVE’s targeting of youth and mental health service providers — but the racial and cultural focus tends to vary according to region.
“Depending on what the Muslim or marginalized community looks like. … Here we have a large Somali community, so they’re focused on that," Ahmad said. "In Denver, for example, the Denver Police Department would also look at LGBTQ youth and Black Lives Matters–involved youth. ... But overall the goal of people who push CVE is likely very similar: They want to require that teachers and mental health providers and even mosques would be required to report on radicalization.”
Why is that problematic? According to NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, which offers a list of indicators used in other regions, the “vast majority are so vague and common as to be meaningless as predictors of violence and are unsupported by empirical evidence. This criminalizes the normal human experience of Muslims and opens the door to people acting on prejudices and stereotypes in tagging individuals as potential terrorists.”
“I think these organizations individually do good work,” Hoq said. “But we’re concerned about reporting requirements and the targeting they’ll do, based on these flawed indicators. They won’t have the right background to know people’s civil rights and liberties are not impeded on. They will likely collect some information they won’t (necessarily) have to give to government agencies, but … will keep in their files. … And clearly people will know where to get it if they get subpoenaed. There are so many unanswered questions about how confidentiality will be maintained.”
The other troubling thing, Hoq said, is that “when these groups implement (a CVE program), they’re not going to tell people they’re offering services to. … We think people would be loath to participate if they knew.”
Law enforcement tends to be part of the equation. Hoq notes that under the Trump administration the program has become “even more focused on law enforcement and targeting the Muslim community. So we thought it was particularly important to get information about how the city’s priorities had changed.”
In Boston, the two initial pilot grants went to Somali organizations; most recently, they went to the Police Foundation and the North American Family Institute (which focuses on youth and adults with behavioral health issues and liaises with police), with different grants going through the Department of Corrections, Ahmad said.
“We’re really concerned at the very least that people don’t know what’s behind this program, the narrative used to get this funding, and that police can use any information about them from those settings,” she said.
How that information would be relayed to federal agencies, Ahmad said, remains unclear. “We know from other ways police function, there are fusion centers in each state. We know the Boston Police Department has a regional intelligence center that has FBI and Homeland Security involvement. So programs that have law enforcement involved have an added layer; anytime you’re interacting with police, you can easily share with other agencies.”
Cross Cultural Expressions Community Counseling Center in the San Fernando Valley, which serves low-income immigrant and refugee populations in five languages (Persian, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Armenian), would be among a handful of local grantees. Executive director Mastaneh Moghadam says the money would subsidize services for vulnerable clients, including domestic violence victims, from a variety of backgrounds.
“As a person providing direct services and who has read through the grant completely, all I see is that it is providing us with funding to help populations who are in need to get mental health services. And I work with a lot of underserved and immigrant populations who really would benefit from us being able to go out there and do outreach,” said Moghadam, whose current efforts include work to change LBGTQ stigma and prejudice in the Iranian community.
Moghadam says the city is requiring “absolutely no names — and I would never sign up for a grant that would want me to give names anyway.” Moreover, she said, “They’ve gone above and beyond to make sure no information is being given to them that would identify clients in any way” — meaning no confidential information.
“The way the grant reads and the fact I’ve been doing this 20 years, and I’m clear on the Board of Behavioral Sciences rules … it seems very outrageous to think the city is doing this to subpoena my mental health files. At no point would I be able to tell them who these clients are. As a mental health professional, you’re required to keep case files on all clients, grant-based or private. But never are those files released. And it’s very rare to be subpoenaed,” Moghadam said.
While she understands concerns about the overarching program, she added, “From where I sit and knowing the needs of these populations and how people can really use these services, it’s almost an elitist thing for people to sit there and make these claims … and in turn affect the lives of so many immigrants.”
Sonja Diaz, founding director of UCLA Luskin School’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, questions the premise: Organizations doing community work, including with mental health and students, she said, should not come under the banner of national security.
“The majority of CVE grants, 85 percent, explicitly target minority groups, including LBGTQ, immigrants and refugees, and Black Lives Matter. And that amount of funding has only continued to grow. Further, some programs, almost 50 percent, target schools and students, including as young as 5 years old, requiring them to report suspicious behavior. … It undermines trust between law enforcement and the community,” Diaz said. “The idea of surveillance cues in law enforcement and sharing information about people doing fairly mundane things.”
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For critics, the writing is on the wall: When the Trump administration took over, it defunded Life After Hate, an organization that counters white supremacist extremism, and considered renaming the program “Countering Violent Islamism.” According to the ACLU, the federal government also rescinded a grant to the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles because it wasn’t specifically tied to law enforcement.
While the City Council mulls over the mayor’s defense and how to placate both sides, the issue remains inextricable from the virulent political climate that inflames it.
“It’s imprudent and wrong,” Councilmember Mike Bonin said of the timing, on Tuesday.
“I know the Mayor’s Office has worked very hard to try to modify this to make it not what it is nationwide … but if you lay down with dogs you’re going to get fleas. And this is a flea-ridden program nationwide.”