COINTELPRO and Today’s Social Movements: A Continuation of State Repression of the Sixties
The 1960’s New Left and today’s Black Lives Matter Movement share the common theme of intense government suppression. COINTELPRO, or counter intelligence program, decimated the New Left organizations. COINTELPRO was able to exist because of the conditions spawned by the Cold War. The fear of a Communist takeover in the United States made COINTELPRO popular enough to be accepted as a necessary evil for the preservation of liberal democracy. These conditions still exist today with the use of tactics from COINTELPRO against modern social movements within the United States.
COINTELPRO is a program the FBI developed that employed a series of tactics to disrupt, demoralize, and neutralize organizations deemed subversive within the United States. The tactics used included; surveillance, infiltration, and disruption of target organizations. On one end of COINTELPRO’s array of tactics is creating and funding a group to get into conflicts with other subversive groups. The FBI created the Secret Army Organization, composed of anti-communists and former Minutemen. This organization used intimidation or outright violence against left groups and civil rights organizations. On the other end, the FBI used psychological warfare, planting false documents, smear campaigns and assassinations to attack these groups. The counterintelligence program was famously used on the Black Panther Party. The use of these tactics in regards to the BPP have not changed in intent when used against organizations within the contemporary period.
The Panthers were demonstrating to the Black Community that by feeding their own children, and providing their own schools to learn Black history, was directly challenging the means of production of the oppressor. Because the goal of these programs was to seek the creation of their own material power through the use of revolutionary theory, the FBI began its counter-insurgency, “The FBI was also aware of and disturbed by the Panther’s Efforts to build community institutions” (Newton, p. 339). This is why COINTELPRO came into play as it provided a strategy to internally and psychologically destroy the Panthers and prevent its goals from being achieved. In 1970 the San Francisco FBI field office released a memorandum that proposed releasing FBI documents which were, “…espousing personal philosophies and promoting factionalism among BPP members; indicating electronic coverage where none exists…” (Newton, p. 346). While these are manufactured instances of psychologically attacking the Panthers, the capitalist class looked for evidence of federal law being broken to legally detain them and not cause a public outcry. This is why the Drug Enforcement Agency was created. The DEA was created because the FBI was operating off of the assumption that Huey Newton did cocaine and was desperately looking for any evidence that he did coke. Infact, the DEA was monolithic. It could “…enter residences surreptitiously, distribute “black” or misleading information, plant phony evidence, and conduct more extreme clandestine assignments” (Newton, p. 342). Yet with all of this, the FBI, CIA, and DEA could not find any evidence that Newton did cocaine, or any drugs for that matter. These tactics have continually been used long after the 1960’s to deal with any prominent and effective organization or social movement that rose in the United States.
The violence enacted by the state against the Panthers set the stage for increased intensity of class warfare that would ensue throughout the decade. After proving effective in destroying the last remnants of the Panthers, Socialist and Black Liberation groups, COINTELPRO was officially disbanded. But the use of its tools and the motivations behind they’re use are still practiced by the capitalist ruling class to this very day. With the recent state sanctioned murder of Michael Forest Reinoehl, a self described Antifascist. The arrests of protest leaders within the Black Lives Matters movement, specifically with four members of the Party of Socialism and Liberation, the attempted arrest of New York City based Warriors in the Garden leader Derrick Ingram, and the crackdown on the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. These events are not isolated, as there are hundreds of state sponsored events of violence against left groups that have spiked since May.
In the contemporary struggle for civil rights, the working class saw how the adaptation of tactics used by COINTELPRO in the sixties, was used against anti-fascists in Portland, Oregon. In Portland, the government has waged a “soft counter insurgency” according to the words of “Red”, a leader in From The Heart PMW. Red is one of the many anti-fascists fighting the Federal Government and local fascist street gangs in Portland. He describes the counter-insurgency as soft. It is “soft” because the local government has sent in liberal-centrist organizers that tried to demoralize those in the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone. CHAZ is a protester held region of some blocks in downtown Seattle. The constant chants of “This is not an Autonomous Zone!”, coupled with no clear leadership caused confusion and the lack of desire to keep going on with maintaining the physical hold of territory. This is a demonstration of breaking down a group from the inside by exacerbating internal contradictions. In this case the contradictions were the lack of ideological unity and command structure. This tactic worked in dismantling the CHAZ. However, a “hot” counter insurgency was waged weeks later to clean up hold-outs and peaceful protesters from Seattle, and several cities across the United States (Backpacking America). During this time period the US Marshals and National Guard were memorably deployed to Portland, and New York City. During this period of time protesters were grabbed and thrown into unmarked vans to be interrogated, and protest organizers were followed to their homes and routinely harassed or arrested (The Independent, 2020).
Specifically the harassment of Derrick Ingram sounded alarms around the country that the government was going to war with its own people. After a BLM protest, located in New York City this past June, Derrick was accused of assaulting a police officer by yelling in his ear with a megaphone. This prompted the NYPD to send dozens of officers to surround his apartment and the neighboring buildings rooftops. There was no warrant for his arrest, and they would not clearly identify why they were outside of his apartment, “Ingram says he asked police again for the warrant. He says the officer told him he didn’t have a warrant but that he had probable cause. Ingram says he declined to open the door without a warrant.” (Romine). This type of harassment for organizing a protest and responding to an alleged incident is not a proportional response and very typical of COINTELPRO. This incident falls under the use of fabricating charges, psychological warfare, and illegal violence. The charges Derrick was accused of could not be backed up with evidence making it fabricated. The placing of police officers around his entire apartment building to where everywhere he looked a police officer was visible, is psychological warfare. Finally, the use of illegal violence. This can be levied against the NYPD as they had snipers pointing into Derrick’s apartment.
A similar response was levied against organizers in the Party of Socialism and Liberation’s Denver Chapter. On September 17th, the Denver Chapter of the Party of Socialism and Liberation had four of its members arrested on trumped up charges. One claim was that the four cadre kidnapped eighteen police officers and planned a riot. These claims, which prompted a militant and coordinated arrest of the four party organizers, showed that the anti-racist organizing was proving effective in challenging the construction of racism in Denver. The rally they had planned was to demand justice for the assasination of Elijah McClain, who the Aurora Police strangled to death for “looking suspicious” (Liberation Staff).
This response to the actions of the Panthers, the protest Ingram helped organize, the actions of the PSL, and Seattle Anti-Fascists, show these groups possess the ability to effectively challenge the class enforced racist policies of the US. These groups all seek to destroy the construction of racism, and thus unify the working class around combatting the inefficiencies of capitalism. This is why the government is in reaction against them. The state is currently controlled by the capitalist dictatorship, and it uses the FBI and other forms of secret police to ensure ideological unity within America. In 1974 Edward Miller stated, “Revolutions always start in a small way…Economic conditions are bad; the credibility of the government is low…these are things the homegrown revolutionary is monitoring….We must be able to find out what stage the revolution is in.” (Newton, p. 339). This is why the police often violently interfere, or bend the law backwards to justify the use of violence against organizations currently operating in America.
The Black Lives Matter Movement as a whole has been targeted by government repression. Every organization that is able to effectively bring the movement’s goals closer to completion, can be assumed to have infiltrators, have its organizers surveilled and protest participants illegally detained, and the ideology of the movement and its organizations slandered and demonized in the media. Part of the government repression of the 60’s was calling a civil rights organization or movement “communist” to justify to the House Un-American Activities Committee, that it was necessary to begin surveillance and begin arrests.
In 2020, not much has changed. Calling Black Lives Matter and its participant organizations the vaguely termed “ANTIFA” or Marxist Leninist in ideology is justification enough for repressive crackdowns with vast public support and achieving the goal of discrediting the ideology of Communism, and the goals of Black Lives Matter. This scapegoating is done to preserve the dictatorship of capitalism in the United States whenever workers in the country begin to undue racial contradictions, and unite on the streets, and workplaces. The Federal Government often makes watered down adaptations of mutual aid efforts or revolutionary demands in empty reforms. This is done to remove the impact of revolutionary organizations or unions. When this is done, the hope is that the organizations have to re-organize and waste time and resources to meet new needs of the community.
COINTELPRO tactics are only applied to groups that have the potential to succeed in uniting a multi-racial working class. The main reason COINTELPRO was so successful was because the Federal Government listened to these organizations and their leadership when they talked. The American ruling class understands the goals and ideology of these groups, and the contradictions that characterize them, leading them to exploit them as weaknesses. Everytime a major leftist organization splits, or ceases to exist it is the fault of membership not being able to deal with internal contradictions. The US government saw this pattern and simply accelerated the progression. That is why operational security, membership processes, and discipline are key features in the modern struggle for Civil Rights and Socialism.
The New Left and Black Lives Matter Movement both share the same experience in resisting government intimidation and severe repression. These organizations only see this repression when they are successful in resisting racism or capitalism. The need for racial division to maintain class violence against our nation’s proletariat is essential in preserving the American capitalist class’s survival. Because the BLM Movement was able to unite workers of various ethnicities and races while exposing class antagonisms and its intersection with race, the government had to suppress the movement. BLM has been effective in pressuring the state into panic. Thus, the state began waging varying levels of counter-insurgency against its participants. This is why we went from occupying police stations and cities, to voting for Joe Biden in November. Outright militancy, to passive reformism. The infiltration, discrediting of tactics, and smear campaigns in the media made the horizontal leadership of BLM crumble. The leadership and rank and file, thanks to government interference, decided to shift the struggle from material action to a battle of optics and “respectability”. The revolutionary characteristics of the movement were eliminated, and replaced with the liberal democratic reformist politics of the Capitalist Class.
COINTELPRO is still alive and well. The second Black Lives Matter Movement has been co-opted by the government, and has lost all effectiveness. This is because there is no centralized leadership that is self-critical and analytical. The movement has failed to look at the treatment of the panthers, and put it in comparison with themselves. The movement is also failing to view the struggle in primarily material terms. This is why the contradictions between Socialist groups and non-socialist organizations within the movement are being exploited by the government. To divide material analysis and classify it as problematic or not necessary to racial justice, divorces race from reality. It prevents class consciousness and true intersectional analysis from occurring. Thus, a revolution cannot occur and the nation’s bourgeois is secured. Therefore the same anti-communist mentality is still being excersiced with the same intensity and vigor that was used against the New Left in the 1960’s to the social movements of today.
Staff, L. (2020, September 21). Progressive and socialist organizations condemn attack on Denver anti-racist leaders. Liberation News. Retrieved from https://www.liberationnews.org/progressive-and-socialist-organizations-condemn-attack-on-denver-anti-racist-leaders/
Romine, T. (2020, August 9). Activist who police tried to arrest Friday shares his experience in standoff [Derrick Ingram Police Harassment]. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/09/us/new-york-black
Backpacking America “Episode 46: BLM and the Counterinsurgency” June 29, 2020
Newton, H. P., Hilliard, D., Weise, D., & Brown, E. (2019). The Huey P. Newton reader. New York, New York: Seven Stories Press.
The Independent, 2020. Black Lives Matter Protester Pulled Into Unmarked Van By New York Police. [video] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbIQ7ULyloY> [Accessed 29 July 2020].