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Several Minneapolis City Council members denounce federal counterterrorism grant, citing past controversial anti-terror effort

The council on Thursday sent the grant back to committee after nearly half of the council expressed concerns about its lack of scope and potential for reigniting fears of surveillance.

Minneapolis City Council
Minneapolis City Council
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes

The Minneapolis City Council on Thursday sent a federal extremism prevention grant back to committee after nearly half of the council expressed concerns about its lack of scope and potential for reigniting fears of surveillance.

Several of the council members, including the three Muslim members, likened the grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to past federal dollars used to fund the Countering Violent Extremism program. The divisive federal program received widespread criticism and fueled concerns that it was being used to surveil the Twin Cities’ Muslim communities.

The proposed grant

The grant would provide nearly $300,000 over two years to use public health methods to create programs aimed at preventing violent extremism. The Community Partnership to Identify and Prevent Violent Extremism in Minneapolis program, housed within the city’s health department, would use a community-focused awareness campaign to “decrease risk factors for radicalization and violent extremism to keep communities safe.” 

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The program would host trainings and events to gauge community members’ specific concerns about violent extremism and facilitate prevention through community involvement. According to the Racial Equity Impact Analysis conducted by city staff, the community events would be a mix of educational sessions, programming and activities meant to raise awareness. 

The programming funded by the grant would take place in the East Phillips, Ventura Village, Near North, Central and Bryant neighborhoods, which are all areas with significant numbers of people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including immigrant and Muslim communities. 

Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah
Council Member Robin Wonsley
During the Public Health and Safety Committee last week where the proposed grant was being presented, Ward 2 council member Robin Wonsley asked why the programs would be directed at those neighborhoods featuring prominent non-white and immigrant communities. Wonsley also asked whether right-wing extremism would be a focus of the grant, citing the recent surge in attacks on mosques

Toni Hauser, supervisor of the health department’s Emergency Preparedness and Response, told council members the goal of the grant is not to use past methods of targeting specific demographics, but to prevent extremism and radicalization through social cohesion and community involvement. 

“Our goal isn’t to teach people how to identify if someone might be a threat, it’s to support communities, to create more programs and become more involved,” she said. “We do know that people who are connected in their community are less likely to go online and start reading things and start believing things that might be more extremist.”

Surveillance concerns, limited scope

Several council members raised concerns that the grant program would open old wounds, likening it to another federal counterterrorism program from nearly a decade ago that raised widespread concerns among the city’s Muslim communities. 

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) was a program launched in Minneapolis by the Department of Justice in 2015 that had a stated goal of using community-based outreach, oftentimes targeted at youth, to prevent radicalization. Led by U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, the program’s counterterrorism efforts were aimed at Minnesota’s Somali community.

The program was started after nine Somali men were arrested and charged with conspiring to travel to Syria to join ISIS following an FBI probe. Six of them pleaded guilty while three of them went to trial, were convicted by a federal jury and are now serving decades-long sentences. 

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But the program was divisive, and was seen by many as an effort to use the guise of community outreach to spy on Muslim youth and the Twin Cities’ Somali community at large. Fears of surveillance caused paranoia and divided the community as mosques and community groups that received the federal funding were viewed with suspicion. 

Council Member Aisha Chughtai
Council Member Aisha Chughtai
“We should not relive what happened to our community again and again and again,” said Ward 10 council member Aisha Chughtai. “We should learn our lesson from what happened with CVE and the way in which it destroyed our community, the way in which it surveilled our children and tore them apart from their families, and the way in which it was harmful to the perception of safety within our own neighborhoods.”

Some of the council members also pointed to the lack of attention paid to white supremacist extremism within the scope of the grant. Ward 9 council member Jason Chavez, who represents some of the neighborhoods chosen for the proposed programs, said many of his Muslim constituents have told him that on top of being targeted by the Justice Department, the programs show a distinct pattern of omitting far-right extremism as a focus from its scope.

Council Member Jason Chavez
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Council Member Jason Chavez
Ward 1 council member Elliott Payne echoed those concerns, sharing his experience during the unrest in 2020 in the days after George Floyd’s murder as one of the few Black people that lives in his northeast Minneapolis neighborhood.

“I was worried about being a recognizable Black man in a white neighborhood, and I was worried about white supremacists coming and finding me,” Payne said. “So I vigilantly stayed up all night, every night, terrified. I was terrified. That’s terror, and this grant doesn’t address that type of terrorism at all.”

No council members spoke in favor of the program during the meeting. Due to the number of members who spoke out against the grant, the council referred the proposal back to the Public Health and Safety Committee for further discussion.