Resisting the Big Brother state

There is a long and ugly history of the U.S. government spying and silencing of dissent. But there's also a history of opposition to these injustices, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

Bullet holes dot the windows of a Black Panther Party office in 1968Bullet holes dot the windows of a Black Panther Party office in 1968

WHEN THE National Security Agency (NSA) was exposed for its widespread collection of telephone and Internet data behind the backs of the American public, it provided only the latest example of how the U.S. government takes liberties with our rights.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden and the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald were denounced by the Obama administration and the corporate media for shining a spotlight on the NSA's surveillance programs. But the truth is that their actions stand together with past struggles that have exposed the truth about the U.S. government's behavior.

The 1960s and '70s provide some of the worst examples of deception and repression on the part of the U.S. government. But they also show how even the most powerful government in the world can be undone by the truth.

In 1971, activists calling themselves the "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI" broke into FBI offices in Media, Pa., and stole more than 1,000 documents. Among other things, they revealed evidence of the secret Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.

While the government's campaign of wiretapping, infiltration and other dirty tricks was known to everyone on the left, now the official documents were there for everyone to see.

When the documents arrived at the Washington Post, Attorney General John Mitchell told the paper not to publish the report, because it could "endanger the lives" of people involved in investigations. The Post published the findings anyway--the first article appeared March 24, 1971.

What the reports divulged was that the FBI was doing much more than gathering information about dissenters in the U.S. It was engaged in a campaign of spying, provocation and manipulation with the goal of destroying the left.

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UNDER THE leadership of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO began officially in 1956, but its substance had been part of the bureau's above-the-law behavior for years.

During the 1950s McCarthy era, the U.S. government continued the global "war on Communism" on numerous domestic fronts. It attempted to discredit and destroy the Communist Party everywhere possible--in public hearings carried out by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), in which thousands of people were questioned about their left-wing affiliations and asked to name others; and in private, carried out by an army of FBI agents and informers who were sent into the CP.

The Feds inside the party sewed divisions and fueled infighting among members. They planted "snitch jackets"--falsified documents to create suspicion that someone might be an FBI informer--on party members.

COINTELPRO helped Hoover destroy what was left of the CP, which had tens of thousands of members during the great labor upsurge of the 1930s, but after the witch-hunt was a shadow of its former self.

By the 1960s, however, a growing political movement was offering an alternative to McCarthy-era scapegoating and fear, and loosening the grip of the witch-hunt era.

That was the civil rights movement. As Candace Cohn wrote in the International Socialist Review:

The nation watched the South, as courage multiplied and thousands stood up to fire hoses and attack dogs. "Southern justice"--daily, officially sanctioned beatings, murders, lynchings, fire bombings, cross burnings, firings and persecution--could not reduce the magnificent courage of Southern Blacks, who simply could bear no more. Their courage was infectious; the nation was transformed.

When HUAC came to hold hearings in San Francisco in 1960, it was met by protests of hundreds of people. The police refused to let protesters into the hearings, and instead sent in the riot squad, which fired water cannons, beat protesters with batons and dragged them by their hair as their heads bounced on the marble steps of City Hall.

The next day, 5,000 angry people showed up.

The paranoid grip of McCarthyism was being eroded. It was replaced by the confidence and determination of movements that stood up against the injustices perpetuated by the government--from segregation in the Jim Crow South and to imperialist war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia

These movements would drag into the light the crimes committed by the U.S. government, both at home and abroad. So while the public attack on dissent via the witch-hunts declined, the secret war on dissent continued through the Democratic Kennedy administration and beyond.

COINTELPRO targeted civil rights movement leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., bugging their offices and phones. Between 1946 and 1960, it operated some 3,000 wiretaps and 800 bugs on the NAACP alone.

Other methods to disorient civil rights activists included forging letters between members. The FBI tried to break up two St. Louis civil rights organizations by sending fake letters alleging marital infidelity. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was also the target of harassment.

The agency tried to drive King to suicide by sending him a tape of a conversation obtained by electronic surveillance with a note: "King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it [King was scheduled to accept the Nobel in 34 days]...You are done. There is but one way out for you."

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WITH THE urban rebellions in the North and the growing popularity of revolutionary Black organizations like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the FBI turned its attention toward these groups. The Black Power struggle was giving voice to the concerns of Blacks in cities across the country--police brutality, urban poverty, substandard housing and schools, and discrimination--so the FBI made it a target.

The Feds stopped at nothing in trying to crush groups like the Panthers. A November 25, 1968, COINTELPRO memo shared this information:

A serious struggle is taking place between the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the US organization [a rival California-based Black nationalist group]. The struggle has reached such proportions that it is taking on the aura of gang warfare with attendant threats of murder and reprisals. In order to fully capitalize upon BPP and US differences as well as to exploit all avenues of creating further dissension in the ranks of the BPP, recipient offices are instructed to submit imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP.

The San Diego FBI office reported in a September 1969 memo under the heading "Tangible Results": "Shootings, beatings and a high degree of unrest." It also bragged that the Panthers' Breakfast Program, a free meal program for poor children, was "floundering" due to "unfavorable publicity."

Chicago was the site of one of COINTELPRO's bloodiest assaults on Black revolutionaries. In the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, 14 Chicago police, armed with shotguns, handguns, a rifle and a .45-caliber submachine gun, raided the apartment of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

The police claimed that Hampton fired first and continued to shoot at officers while they urged them to stop. This was a lie--Hampton had been drugged by a police infiltrator earlier that night and was shot repeatedly in his bed, including twice in the head at point-blank range. Peoria chapter leader Mark Clark was killed in the raid as well.

An FBI firearms expert later reported that police had fired more than 90 shots in the apartment--just one came from the Panthers.

Thirteen years later, the FBI's role was fully revealed. The bureau had presented the idea of a raid to Cook County state's Attorney Edward Hanrahan, whose office directed Chicago police to carry it out. This was a year after Hoover had put Hampton on the national "Agitator's Index"--he had came to the director's attention for such dangerous activities as protesting for community swimming pools and forming an alliance with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the white Appalachian Young Patriots.

Some 5,000 people attended the funeral service for Hampton. The apartment where the murder took place was opened to the neighborhood for two weeks so that people could come through and view the crimes communitted by the Chicago police, under the instructions of the FBI.

Like the 1955 funeral of Emmett Till, whose mother insisted on an open casket so that mourners could see what the lynchers of Mississippi had done to her son, this put a human face on this savage, racist attack. It helped to expose the brutal face of COINTELPRO and the depths of brutality that the U.S. government was capable of.

Civil rights lawyer Jeffrey Haas, author of The Assassination of Fred Hampton, said in an interview with Monthly Review: "I would have to say COINTELPRO achieved its primary goals to neutralize the Panthers, but the FBI role was ultimately exposed. There was a backlash as represented by the Church Committee, which mandated congressional oversight of clandestine intelligence activity."

The Church Committee--a Senate investigation, chaired by Frank Church, of the U.S. government's spies and murderers, at home and abroad--came in the wake of COINTELPRO, the unraveling of the Watergate scandal and the exposure of the CIA's role in fomenting violence and coups around the world. Legislation that came out of the investigation didn't dismantle the Big Brother state, but it was curbed in a number of respects.

So while COINTELPRO succeeded in some of its aims, it couldn't accomplish its goal of silencing dissent. That's thanks to the struggles of 1960s and '70s. They may have begun as a challenge to Jim Crow segregation or police violence or an imperialist war halfway around the world, but they all eventually had to confront the power of the American surveillance state as well.