COINTELPRO specter haunts Black America

The announcement by the FBI that it was propagating new guidelines that would extend far-reaching powers to its agents to monitor the internet, snoop in mosques and keep an eye on people everywhere from the local library to a protest demonstration was met with reactions within the Black community ranging from disbelief to anger and fear accompanied by calls to resist this unconstitutional encroachment on civil liberties and the right to dissent.

“The administration’s continued defiance of constitutional safeguards seems to have no end in sight,” stated the dean of the Black Caucus and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers (D-Mich). “Any government effort to institutionalize the same powers that allowed the FBI to wrongfully spy on the activities of civil rights organizations and disclose information on the private affairs of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he continued, “would constitute an embarrassing step backwards for civil liberties in this country.”

This concern was actually mild compared to an editorial by Bill Tatum, publisher and board chair of the New York Amsterdam News, who called the FBI “totally corrupt.” He continued in the June 3 editorial, “Once upon a time, the FBI was said to have had the bad guys at the top of their most-wanted list. That was true, except for the bad guys who were rich and famous ...” Linda Burnham, director of the Berkeley-based Women of Color Resource Center, reminds us “we know from our own history how readily the government resorts to spying and disruption to squash legitimate protest, and we will all live to regret the broad surveillance powers being assumed by the FBI.”

Clearly, if the rest of the nation has amnesia on FBI history, Black America does not. A Black person who lived through the civil rights battles of the 1960s and 1970s cannot help but see the revitalized specter of COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program carried out by the FBI against all political dissent, and particularly against those involved in the racial justice movement. This disruptive and illegal activity by the FBI targeted not only groups like the Black Panther Party that called for a radical transformation of race and class relations but also groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or even more moderate formations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

What many of the younger Black activists may not know is that COINTELPRO did not just unconstitutionally collect information about people. It was a conscious program to neutralize political dissidents. And even though covert operations had been employed throughout FBI history, the formal COINTELPRO operations conducted from 1956 to 1971 were broadly targeted against what were perceived as radical political organizations. These activities included infiltrating African American groups and fomenting discord and antagonism among different groups and individuals, provoking marital difficulties for activists and politically motivated audits of IRS tax returns. Even more outrageous were FBI activities to instigate and suggest violent and illegal actions on the part of Black groups.

Obviously, “Counterintelligence” was a misnomer for the FBI programs then, and today’s critics fear the same is true. The people the FBI targeted were U.S. political dissidents and not foreign spies. Today, the evil threat is the “terrorists,” and the attempt by the FBI at a power grab and the further consolidation of a police state apparatus within the United States is truly frightening.

On another front, Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington office, warns, “There is no proof that the incessant seizure of new powers by Congress and the Bush Administration does anything to increase safety.” In fact, the current Washington scandal is not about what the FBI or the CIA knew – which apparently is plenty – but the fact that the FBI and other security agencies refused to act on information because of political interference from higher ups rooted in the political and economic ties of the bin Ladens to the Bush family.

Again, FBI history is telling. As a mechanism to “predict violence,” COINTELPRO was a complete flop. It is estimated that the FBI conducted over 500,000 separate investigations of “subversive” persons or groups from 1960 to 1974, predicated on the possibility that they might try to overthrow the government by force. Yet, not a single individual or group was prosecuted under the laws prohibiting action to overthrow the government. Nonetheless, numerous individuals were imprisoned or lost their jobs or were otherwise maligned on unrelated or spurious charges in order to “neutralize” them and to prevent the spread of their political views.

This sordid FBI history strongly suggests that a broad Black United Front in defense of democracy and against these emergent police state powers is as necessary to the survival of Black America as the broader struggle for racial justice. Indeed, if we don’t take up this struggle, we will have lost the right to fight racial inequities because the demand will be treated as aiding and abetting terrorist activity.





Frances M. Beal is the national secretary of the Black Radical Congress and political columnist for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. This article was reprinted with the author’s permission. The author can be reached at fmbeal@igc.org