Important Lesson on Political Piggery:

How FBI COINTELPRO Targeted Radical Groups

August 20, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


One feature of recent developments in the struggle against police murder in Ferguson and in the fight against the assaults on abortion rights has been the role of so-called "militants" who shamefully take up the role of police—declaring they are the ones to decide who can protest, where and when, and slandering communists and others as "outside agitators" and "provocateurs." As the statement "We Stand with the Defiant Ones" says: "You need to cut that COINTELPRO shit out and if you can't stand with the people when they stand up…then just get on home." In this light, it is important for people to learn about, or recall once again, what COINTELPRO was.

In the course of the 1960s and early 1970s the FBI—working closely with the "red squads" of local police departments—conducted a massive super-secret campaign to undermine political opposition through its COINTELPRO (short for counter-intelligence programs) operations. The program targeted groups and individuals who were generally resisting the U.S. government’s various and many crimes, in this country and around the world. It especially targeted those who opposed the oppression of Black people. A major focus of COINTELPRO was harassing, jailing, and outright murdering leaders in the Black Liberation movement, and one of their main targets was the Black Panther Party.

J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous long-time head of the FBI, said that he aimed to prevent “the rise of a Black messiah.” The FBI and other police agencies sent infiltrators into groups, recruited informers, broke into office of groups and homes of activists to gather information, and fomented antagonisms within and between different groups. They specialized in spreading personal rumors about people and making other ad hominem (personal) attacks.

This program of political piggery was not only extremely vicious but utterly illegal. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of people in the government knew about COINTELPRO for many years. But it only came to light in the early 1970s, after some activists managed to break into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and publicized the internal FBI documents that they obtained, including ones that mentioned COINTELPRO—which eventually led to widespread exposure about this secret political police operation. (The story of this break-in, the context of the times, and the big changes this contributed to is told in an important book that was published earlier this year—The Burglary, by Betty Medsger.)

One example of how COINTELPRO operated was the targeting of Malcolm X, who first became known to many people through the Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm came to increasingly disagree with, and eventually break with, the NOI, whose program was profoundly conservative. The NOI launched a campaign of vicious personal slander and threats against him, including Louis Farrakhan, who later became the head of NOI, directly saying that Malcolm was "worthy of death." In early 1965, his house, the location of which was publicly known, was firebombed, and his family barely escaped death. Finally, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated. On that day, the regular police suddenly left the scene—while at the same time, as it came out later, five FBI informants were in the room when Malcolm was gunned down and Malcolm's main bodyguard was an agent of the New York Police Department. To this day, the exact role of those running the campaign of slander against Malcolm and their relationship with COINTELPRO is unclear. But what is very clear is that the ruling class schemes to prevent the "rise" of Black leaders, while hiding their own role, was greatly aided by that campaign of slander and threats against Malcolm.

In 1968, FBI head Hoover called the Black Panther Party (BPP) the "greatest threat to the internal security of this country"—and he sent a secret order to his field agents saying that "recipient offices are instructed to submit imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP [Black Panther Party]." Given the orders from the top, FBI agents organized murderous armed assaults on Panther offices and leaders around the country. They attempted to infiltrate snitches into the Party. They framed Panther leaders and carried out "disinformation" campaigns. These included forging letters and starting rumors to create splits in the Panthers and other organizations, and disunity between revolutionaries and other sympathetic forces.

Within two months of Hoover's secret memo, agents of the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department had instigated members of the non-revolutionary "cultural nationalist" organization US (led by Ron Karenga) to assassinate two leaders of the L.A. Panthers—Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. When a new leader, 21-year-old Geronimo Pratt, stepped up to fill their shoes, Geronimo in turn was targeted to be "neutralized." He was wiretapped, targeted with surveillance and arrested constantly. Behind the scenes, police agents worked overtime to cook up some way of setting him up for prison or assassination. In 1970, Pratt was arrested and falsely charged with a murder that took place 400 miles away from where he actually was. He was railroaded—and ended up spending 27 years in prison.

Another BPP leader who was targeted by COINTELPRO was Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, who was inspiring all kinds of people to take up revolution. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago police led by the Cook County prosecutor, as part of a COINTELPRO operation, stormed into Hampton's apartment. They relied on a floor plan of the apartment provided by an FBI informant. Armed with shotguns, handguns and a .45 caliber machine gun, the police gunned their way through the apartment to the bedroom where he lay sleeping, having been drugged earlier by an informant. The police stood over him and shot two bullets into his brain at close range. After this murderous assault, in which the police fired nearly 100 bullets while being completely uninjured themselves, the authorities brazenly lied that the police were under heavy fire from the Panthers.

While the key focus was on Black revolutionary organizations and leaders, COINTELPRO was also directed at radical and revolutionary groups more generally. Among the targets of the FBI's dirty work was the Revolutionary Union, the forerunner of the Revolutionary Communist Party. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover himself noted that "The Revolutionary Union has been successful in attracting both high school and college activists." And the FBI extended its range far and wide, going after groups like the Quaker American Friends Service Committee, antiwar activists like Dr. Benjamin Spock, and artists like Leonard Bernstein. Jean Seberg, an actor who supported the Black Panther Party, was the target of an FBI campaign so vicious that it ultimately drove her to take her own life. The FBI threatened to reveal secrets about Martin Luther King's private life and sent a note to him saying "there is only one thing left for you to do"—essentially encouraging King to kill himself.

As a result of much exposure and struggle—and in an effort to stabilize the situation in the wake of the 1960s—the U.S. government put some official limits on this kind of FBI activity in the '70s. But the activity of the political police in the U.S. never stopped—and continues today.

The Revolution/ article "A Reflection on Piggery—Then and Now" makes an important point about the context of the times—the 1960s and early '70s—that COINTELPRO was in effect, which also has relevance today:

Black people in the U.S. were relentlessly defying the system in many different forms, taking mass political action and outright rebelling—and this won the sympathy and support from literally hundreds of millions of people all over the world. This put the U.S. ruling class on the political defensive and challenged their pose as the “great defenders of people’s rights.” If they had to openly crush this movement, they certainly would; and the hundreds of times that they directly used police, federal agencies, the National Guard and even the Army to go after people proves this. But they much preferred to conceal their role. Why? Because they were really worried about losing their democratic cover in the eyes of the world, as well as losing legitimacy within the U.S. To put it differently: one reason they need to use underhanded programs like COINTELPRO is precisely to keep people blinded to the fact that this democracy that they preach about is essentially a dictatorship of the capitalist-imperialist class.

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