Looking back at state repression of Black people and their movements in the USA
“The Negro youth and moderate must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.” - FBI memo dated 3rd April 1968, from San Francisco Office to Director.
20th January, 2009, a momentous day for America and its Black population, or so at least is being said. The first American with a Black lineage took the presidential oath at the Capitol after a very impressive ballot box turn out with voters being promised Change urging them to be audacious with Hope.
Interestingly, 89 years back on this 20th day of January in 1920, there was another attempt aimed at Hope. It was the birth of the American Union of Civil Liberties (ACLU). The ACLU had its origins in the anti-militarist National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) which worked for pro-active opposition to American intervention in the WW-I by aiding, legally and otherwise, “conscientious objectors” who refused to participate in the imperialistic war. The ACLU today has grown to a membership of 500,000 members and supporters with offices in all the 50 states of USA along with Washington DC and Puerto Rico. Though with a history undeniable contribution to the Civil Liberties movement in the US, the ACLU comes with its share of criticism. Under the leadership of Roger Baldwin and Counsel Morris Ernst, the ACLU in 1940 conducted a ‘purge’ in its ranks to bar communists from being part of the organisation. Justifying this act of ideological straight-jacketing it said, “[it was] inappropriate for any person to serve on the governing committees of the Union or its staff, who is a member of any political organisation which supports totalitarianism in any country, or who by his public declarations indicates his support of such a principle”. This led to the expelling a large number of communists and radical trade unionists from the ACLU ranks including founder member Elizabeth Flynn. Elizabeth was a towering civil liberties activist working for trade union and women rights issues in the US. Her expulsion was due to the fact that she also was a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the International Workers World (IWW) trade union. This watering down of the ACLU came at a time when the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) led by Martin Dies Jr. led a rabid and insane witch-hunt against communists and communist sympathisers, both actual and alleged. This Red-scare drive charged people cutting across age lines including the then 9 year old Shirley Temple! Though the ACLU was established with the stated aim of working “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States”, this anti-communist purge was seen as a u-turn in its claim of being anti-discrimination. The ACLU since its inception and later growth has largely been Centrist and arguably the biggest in the Civil Rights arena. However the Civil Rights movement in the US, especially the African-American part of it, branched off into multiple streams with growing time. Almost each stream had its own variant of Black liberation ideology and most certainly its distinct working method. From the Christian pacifist Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by Gandhian Martin Luther King, Jr., to the revolutionary Black nationalist movement led by Malcolm X to Black supremacist Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad and so on.
As is common knowledge, the American government has since the very beginning been wary of and opposed to groups and individuals advocating, demanding or agitating for liberty, whether civil or political, both within the boundaries of the Land of Liberty and without. This has been laid bare by the many covert and overt actions taken by the American rulers from time to time starting with the First Red Scare in the 1917 to 1920 period to the modern day Patriot Act. Incidentally the history of political repression and retribution in the USA is as old as its movements for liberty. This is evident from the first recorded existence of Red Squads, which were secret police bodies meant for infiltrating into, and hence help counter, Leftist groups, going as far back as 1886 at the time of the Haymarket Uprising in Chicago. The activities of the Red Squads were however not restricted to only surveillance and intelligence gathering. They were used in all possible ways to sabotage and crush mass movements. This, on the part of the Squads, called for activities ranging form agent-provocateur roles to discrediting and even killing leaders and committed workers of such organisations. The Red Squads were existent and used to varying degrees by intermediate administrations till they were officially declared ‘stopped’ after the Church Committee findings post Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the discovery of COINTELPRO. Interestingly, COINTELPRO, the FBI’s loving short for Counter Intelligence Program, was not ‘de-classified’ and opened to the public by the government. It was discovered by a group of Left-wing radicals who called themselves “Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI”, when they burgled an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania. The information found was sent in copies to all leading media houses in the country. Initially however, most media outlets refused to publish the findings. This could very well be the effect of Operation Mockingbird as per which the US government actually placed their field agents in media offices to ensure that they kept in line with the principle of prevent support in any form to “indigenous elements in threatened countries of the free world.” This is corroborated by Deborah Davis in her book Katharine the Great, saying “By the early 1950s, [Frank Gardiner] Wisner [of CIA] ‘owned’ respected members of The New York Times, Newsweek, CBS and other communications vehicles”. Though the list of targets of political repression and silencing of opposition in the US is long and varied, arguably the prime targets and hence the worst victims of it were the Black liberation and other Left leaning groups. Though said to have investigated Right wing groups too, historically this type of ‘special’ treatment was almost exclusively reserved for the Black and Communist movements. This little license of partiality is laid bare through the FBI director for nearly half a century, J Edgar Hoover’s own directive in the COINTELPRO papers demanding “PERSONAL ATTENTION TO ALL OFFICES” written on the 25th of Aug 1967 stating “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or OTHERWISE NEUTRALIZE the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters…”(emphasis added). In fact as Rodery Jefferys-Jones notes in his book The FBI, “Eighty five percent of COINTELPRO operations had been against such targets as the CPUSA, Black Nationalists, Martin Luther King Jr., and the new Left”. It also goes on to note that “Whereas the FBI needed little invitation to proceed against the Left, it had required the intercession of Democratic politicians, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, to arrange the White Hate COINTELPRO”.
In view of the above, the Black Panther Party (BPP), which as per its stated beliefs, writings, statements and work, combined the cause of Black people’s upliftment and Leftist politics of Marxist political ideology and Mao Tse Tung’s way towards the Revolution, was the obvious and one of the choicest targets of the FBI. On June 15 1969, Hoover said, “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country”. To this effect 233 of the 295 authorised Black Nationalist COINTELPRO actions were directed against the BPP. The BPP was targeted through a large number of techniques. The prime amongst them was to encourage other Black organisations that would ‘compete’ with the BPP. Notable amongst them was the FBI created ‘gang-war’ between the BPP and an organisation called the United Slaves Organisation (USO) in California and the Blackstone Rangers in Chicago. False letters and defamatory materials were sent by the FBI to the opposing groups so as to enrage them about the other and lead to altercations, at first verbal and later lethally violent. Many BPP activists were shot and beaten to death by USO members with FBI personnel assisting them in street fights. The FBI became so brazen in its activities that two active members of the BPP, Bunchery Carter and John Huggins, were killed by USO members on University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus itself. An attempt at peace talks between the USO and the BPP initiated by the latter was seen as a threat by the FBI and was quickly thwarted by more provocation and active proxy killing. Apart from this the FBI also drove a wedge between its two prominent leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton. The FBI sent letters separately to Cleaver who was away in Algeria, and Newton, who was in jail at that time, questioning their leadership abilities as compared to the other. All these letters were from fictitious ‘sympathisers’ and ‘revolutionary’ groups. The third very important activity to break the back of the BPP was to discredit them in public and dent the morale of the panthers rendering them ineffective. This is shown very clearly by one of Hoover’s letters to a field agent in San Francisco directing him to supply evidence that only works to support the former’s view that the BPP was “a violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means” or else forfeit his job. This was in response to the field agent’s report that the Panthers were simply giving breakfast to children in that area as part of their Free Breakfast for Children program keeping in line with their belief in Mao’s statement “serve the people”.
As noted above, the BPP however was not the FBI/CIA’s only target, just a ‘foavoured’ one. Other famous targets of the Black movement were Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and many more. Though unlike X and Carmichael, King was a non-violent activist using satyagraha as his means of protest, he too was not spared off government tracking and finally assassination like X. Notably Carmichael who died of severe illness had said on his death-bed that the disease was introduced in his body by the American imperialists as an attempt to assassinate him. A statement corroborated by the Washington Post and AP in June 2007 in a report on CIA’s abuses of its powers. In spite of absence hard evidence, the US administration’s dislike of King and the ‘potential threat’ he posed to them was mentioned by Hoover in his COINTELPRO directive goal number two about preventing the “RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement”. The directive reads “Malcolm X might have been such a “messiah”; he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammed all aspire to this position. Elijah Muhammed is less of a threat because of his age. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed “obedience” to “white, liberal doctrines” (nonviolence) and embrace Black Nationalism”. Two months following this, King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee hotel room. This abuse of power by the CIA and FBI and their impunity to it is brought out by Hoover’s boastful calling his own office the “Seat of Government” (SOG) as he had been waived off the compulsory retirement rule by US president Ford. This prolonged service had allowed him to see presidents come and go! The manic attitude of the US government is highlighted in the act of the FBI and CIA carrying out extensive spying on its own citizen cutting across social lines. From unknown activists or groups to well known personalities including actors, artists and even presidents were tracked and files kept about them. World renowned boxer Muhammad Ali, famous for his anti Vietnam War statement “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong ... They never called me nigger”, was one such ‘famous’ target. Apart from this, many Hollywood celebrities, scientists, thinkers etc were targeted too for their liberal views. The list even includes US president Franklin D Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt whose personal life was spied on and documented owing to her liberal views and opposition to the FBI’s Gestapo like work. Actually documenting private lives was more the norm than exception for Hoover who bugged leading public personalities in their offices, homes and stays in hotel rooms often using such information to blackmail the victims. As the Church Committee noted in its concluding report saying “Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone “bugs”, surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous—and even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous organizations—have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups did not engage in unlawful activity. Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed—including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials. While the agencies often committed excesses in response to pressure from high officials in the Executive branch and Congress, they also occasionally initiated improper activities and then concealed them from officials whom they had a duty to inform”. About the use of violence against Black and Left groups, the report says “Governmental officials—including those whose principal duty is to enforce the law—have violated or ignored the law over long periods of time and have advocated and defended their right to break the law”. The committee doesn’t exonerate the judiciary and the executive either and they have been implicated owing to its complicity to the whole subversive process by saying, “The Constitutional system of checks and balances has not adequately controlled intelligence activities. Until recently the Executive branch has neither delineated the scope of permissible activities nor established procedures for supervising intelligence agencies. Congress has failed to exercise sufficient oversight, seldom questioning the use to which its appropriations were being put. Most domestic intelligence issues have not reached the courts, and in those cases when they have reached the courts, the judiciary has been reluctant to grapple with them.”
This covert ‘governance’, however, did not end with Hoover. A statement even more true for repression of the Black and other liberty movements. The Black population of the US is still kept largely out of the American ‘Liberty’. They find no place in the ‘American Dream’, which infact is more of a nightmare for them! The continuance of covert governance is seen from the USA Today expose on 10th May 2006 about the four largest telephone companies in the USA, AT&T, SBC, BellSouth and Verizon who were part of the National Security Agency (NSA) created database of over 1.9 trillion call records. This led to a lot of public reaction and the George W Bush government acted on it. Just that the act that followed was not against the NSA or the guilty parties, instead on the 10th of July 2008 Bush and his coterie gave the NSA and all telecom companies a blanket immunity to carry on legally what they had earlier done illegally. Repression of the Black populace is still strong while the populace itself is poor and weak. The Justice Policy Institute based in Washington DC in 2000 showed that 791,600 black men in American prisons and county jails, and only 603,032 enrolled in colleges and universities. The organisation’s president, Vincent Schiraldi, scathingly noted the government’s lackadaisical response by saying “If we were saying that more White, middle-class men were being sent to prison than to college, the president would have to declare a state of emergency”. In a country where according to census the Black populace is just 12.8% as opposed to the overwhelming majority of 80.1% Whites, the prisons show that Black people occupy nearly half of the nation’s prisons cells. 41% of all death row inmates are Black. Texas expectedly leads with the George W Bush ruled state having 70% of the inmates on death row as non-white. For a country that once used to punish black slaves for ‘erring’ by burying them alive, the criminal justice system in the US still varies according to the accused and accuser’s race. This racial bias is noted by many human rights watch groups based on the US government’s own Justice Department’s publishings. For example, today in the US, since the 1976 since resumption of judicial killing after a gap of 4 years, Whites and Blacks have been murdered in equal numbers. However 80% of those sentenced to death since then are Blacks. The case of murder accused Harvey Green, a black citizen from North Carolina, is exemplary of this bias. Green was put to death for the murder of two White men although in the same year in all 550 other murders had taken place and none of those invited the death penalty. As noted by the US Supreme Court itself in a 1994 observation in the Callins v Collins case under Justice Blackmun, “Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.” Between 1st January 1995 and 31st December 1999 in Texas, none of the murders that involved non-white victims resulted in a death sentence while all accused of White victims’ murders were given death sentences. Their Governor, Bush, gave a measly average of 15 minutes of consideration to each death penalty case on his desk.
So there is undeniable truth in Obama’s statement when he said at the 2004 National Convention of Denocrats “…let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely [owing to his racial pedigree]”. One wishes to believe him when he said in his “Race Speech” in the March of 2008, “But what we know—what we have seen - is that America can change.”
But the questions glaring at him and his Change arising from “what we know” and “what we have seen” are too strong to ignore. History as of now stands by any cynicism about his version of “audacious hope”. Obama, for example, says nothing to oppose the market left free that sponsors hate in the first place. On the contrary he says on CNBC channel “Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market”. Does he have an option but to love the market? Did any American president ever have so in the past? So even if he says “I won’t shop there” for Wal-Mart because it is one of the country’s lowest wage payers to low-level employees many of whom are Black, he has to make Wal-Mart official Jason Furman to head his economic policy team. Will he be able to reign in the FBI, CIA, NSA, Pentagon and the like who perpetrate state repression on the Blacks? Will he really be in the ‘Seat of Government’ or will it still be in the Hoover building or in Langley or in the Pentagon? How will he undo ages of injustice when he comes from a party that is intrinsically related to the repression he wishes to change? How will he change the culture of beating, maiming and killing protesters when he keeps silent on the US Army’s Northern Command unit recently made specifically for ‘internal use’? How will he reign in the Frankensteins of repression in foreign lands to stop them from turning on the internal ‘enemies’ when he chooses to remain silent on their diabolic massacres of Gazans? Even his call of change is impregnated with ominous names when he says “I thank President Bush for his service to our nation…” Even if one optimistically assumes the thank-you as simply a courtesy to a former president, it nonetheless remains a thank-you to a person who was a very important part of a largely White dominated US history that has bled the Blacks since ages.