The program was initially used to target the Puerto Rican independence movement, but COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) tactics were quickly applied to a wide range of groups mobilizing for social change, from the American Indian movement, to the anti-Vietnam student movement, to the women’s movement, and most infamously, to the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement more broadly. The program was exposed in 1971, when activists burgled an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania. A committee of the United States Senate conducted a major investigation in 1976, and concluded that:
“The Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”
What I particularly appreciated about COINTELPRO101, was that the filmmakers narrated the history of the program with the aim of making it relevant to the present day. I want to briefly draw out three of the lessons that I learned from the film, as it applies to the contemporary context for many communities and social movements on both sides of the Atlantic:
1) “Nationality security” has long been the justification given for quelling political challenges to the white, wealthy power structure.
I n 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover commented, "the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country”, and in fact by this time the Black Panthers and their allies were the primary target of COINTELPRO operations. It’s important to recognize that the primary aim of the Black Panther Party was to empower the Black community in the United States to control and determine their own destiny. From its inception in the late 1950s, COINTELPRO was about subverting and neutralizing movements that challenged the racism and neo-colonialism inherent to American foreign and domestic policy.
Today, “national security” is used as a justification for the widespread surveillance, infiltration and entrapment of Muslim communities across the United States and the United Kingdom. Brown folks have become our new bogeymen, the people we are taught want to undermine “our” American [read: white, Christian] way of life. When I watch decades-old footage of the brutal repression of civil rights demonstrations, it becomes clear on a visceral level, just how far the dominant white power structure was willing to go to protect its vested interests, from the policemen, to business owners, to local and national politicians. Yet today we seem totally unfazed by the Islamaphobia that colours every inch of our political landscape – Muslims are welcome in the United States and the United Kingdom, but only under particular conditions, only if they dress in acceptable ways and don’t adhere to this or that extremist ideology, only if they embrace aspects of “our” [white] national culture. Just last week I was speaking to a family member who commented she was shocked and disturbed on a recent trip to Paris, by the number of hijabis walking around the city streets… presumably, because she perceived a racial dissonance between the hijab and “real” French identity. Furthermore, since Muslims are lesser citizens, infringing on their civil liberties is all right, as long as it makes the rest of us safer. National security becomes a means of entrenching the white power structure against the “threat” of the vocal or visible Other.
One more thought: COINTLEPRO formed part of a strategy to convince White America that it was Blacks and the New Left who were to blame for the nation’s problems, rather than the political elites who pressed for continuing, costly wars abroad. The frustrations and insecurities of White America were turned inward towards an internal enemy (and the external enemy of communism) rather than towards the harm caused by the militarization and policing of society. In the context of the War on Terror, so-called Islamists – once our allies in the war against communism – have seamlessly become our sworn enemies. The hatred generated by the state’s Islamaphobic rhetoric is directed against Muslims, both domestically and abroad, rather than against the politicians who drew us into wars and economic crises for which we are paying the price.
2) The state tactics of political neutralization used during COINTLEPRO remain durable and effectual today.
It’s striking just how many parallels there are between the tactics used decades ago by the FBI, and those used today by the police and secret services on both sides of the Atlantic. Agents infiltrated groups with the hopes of undermining trust and scaring off potential supporters; they spread misinformation, forged correspondence, and planted false media stories; harassed and intimidated activists using perjured testimony and fabricated evidence; and used illegal force (including break-ins, vandalism, beatings and even assassination) to frighten and eliminate particularly “dangerous” dissidents.
There are particularly disturbing patterns worthy of note. J. Edgar Hoover mailed Martin Luther King FBI tapes of his sexual encounters with other women, hoping the tapes would silence him or convince him to commit suicide. Today, FBI officers instruct their informants to record the sexual encounters they have with Muslim women, in order to blackmail them into informing on their communities. Decades ago, an undercover agent in the Puerto Rican independence movement married a fellow activist; last year, the Guardian revealed that a police spy married an activist he met while undercover – he even went on to have children with her.
While the use of these sexual tactics by the police and secret services is exceptionally troubling, they fit into a much wider pattern: whether fifty years ago or today, one of the ultimate aims is to generate mistrust and disloyalty within targeted communities and social movements, to the point where mobilization becomes impossible. The FBI developed tactics to heighten tensions between existing factions of the black power movement, which sometimes led to shootings and beatings between the groups. Some Black Panther Party members grew so worried about the use of informants, that they tortured and killed a 19-year old member of the New York chapter that they suspected was working for the cops. Today, the widespread presence of informants in mosques in the United States – especially given that most of these individuals pose as new converts – has profoundly undermined trust within the ummah. Some Muslims are too frightened to attend mosque or shy away from vocal political organising. Amongst leftwing activist groups, informants have also aggressively endeavoured to undermine mobilisation. Consider the following excerpt from a statement released by the Cardiff Anarchist Network, after it was confirmed that an undercover cop they knew as ‘Marco’ had infiltrated their group for four years:
“[Marco] changed the culture of the organisation, encouraging a lot of drinking, gossip and back-stabbing, and trivialised and ran down any attempt made by anyone in the group to achieve objectives. He clearly aimed to separate and isolate certain people from the group and from each other, and subtly exaggerated political and personal differences, telling lies to both ‘sides’ to create distrust and ill-feeling. In the four years he was in Cardiff a strong, cohesive and active group had all but disintegrated.”
Whether it’s through informants or the use of programs like Prevent, the police and secret service aim to gain insider allies to spy on the communities they deem susceptible to “domestic extremism”. This infiltration overtly violates our civil liberties, but it also subverts our political power in a less obvious way, by generating mistrust and disloyalty within our communities.
3) Building alliances across our movements and communities against state surveillance and infiltration is just as important as it has always been.
As COINTELPRO101 renders clear, it wasn’t only the Black Panthers who were targeted by COINTELPRO – it was a wide range of social movements mobilizing for justice. Today, the War on Terror is inseparable from the war on protest. Just consider how the tactics used to entrap Muslims, are being similarly applied to progressive activists (consider what happened at the Republican National Convention in 2008 and more recently at the NATO protests in Chicago). In the United States, animal rights and environmental activists are being sentenced under the same egregious guidelines as Muslims, and even imprisoned together in the repressive Communication Management Units. In the US and the UK, there have been pre-emptive arrests against leftwing activists, crackdowns on student protests, Occupy and other movements, and the widespread surveillance of demonstrations and political meetings.
Furthermore, the War on Terror has been used to justify police and state violence directed against many communities of colour, not just those that are visibly Muslim. In the UK, the stop and search powers given under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act were used disproportionately against Blacks more so than any other racial group. The misuse of stop and search powers has been repeatedly cited as one of the primary causes of the breakdown of the relationship between Britain’s black community and the police, widely recognized as a major contributing factor to the summer riots of 2011. Similarly, it’s expected that Black youth in the communities adjacent to the Olympics will be the most directly affected by the heavy police and military presence there, all justified in the name of national security and protecting London from a potential terrorist attack. The Newham Monitoring Project, a Black-run organisation that campaigns against racist violence and police harassment, is even training Community Legal Observers to monitor the police during the Games.
In the United States, cases like the Newburgh Four demonstrate just how easily anti-Black racism can become co-opted in the name of the War on Terror, and that one cannot be eliminated without challenging the other. In many cities, Latino communities and Muslim communities have worked in collaboration to prevent the Secure Communities from being put in place. And the fight against the prison industrial complex, solitary confinement and the death penalty – the prison justice issues that have long occupied a central place in African American and migrant organizing – are now equally becoming “Muslim” issues.
COINTELPRO wasn’t just directed against the Black Power movement, and today’s counter-terrorism strategies exceed the confines of the mosque and the Muslim community. The state is endeavouring to repress civil liberties across the board using the bogeyman of the Muslim terrorist. But working together can allow us to subvert this state strategy. We all have a responsibility to justice, and to our own communities, to reject the state’s claim that we should fear Muslims, when our real enemy is the expansion of state power over our lives and basic civil liberties. Building alliances will allow us to share ideas and strategies for maintaining trust within our communities, despite the presence of undercover cops, informants and agent provocateurs. COINTELPRO might show us the success of state efforts to undermine challenges to state power, but that’s why we should endeavour to learn from the past. Only by recognizing our mutual interests in challenging the expansion of state power, and working together, will we be able to maintain our basic civil liberties.
****This week, Cageprisoners is hosting the event “The enemy within: State surveillance and infiltration in our communities” in four locations across England: two in London, one in Manchester and one in Leeds. Each event will feature a screening of the documentary COINTELPRO101, followed by a panel of American and British activists working to address issues of surveillance, infiltration and entrapment in their communities.****