Sunday, January 07, 2018

Public Service Announcement: Cointelpro 2.0

In the early 1990s, when I was in grad school, a young El Salvadoran revolutionary came to campus to talk about why she had joined the guerilla forces fighting to overthrow the repressive right wing government that had already killed more than 70,000 of her fellow citizens. One of the students in the audience raised her hand and said timidly, "I'm uncomfortable with the idea of using violence to create social change. How do you know when to pick up a gun?"

The young revolutionary didn't hesitate a moment as she replied matter of factly, "When they start shooting at you."

The audience laughed, but it is unlikely that any of them -- all being  young and White, as I recall -- were considering the possibility that their government, their military, their local and state law enforcement officers would boldly and unapologetically turn on them one day. Sitting there, thinking back to experiences I had twenty years before, I recalled seeing blood shed in just such confrontations in the streets of America. And I recalled the four students killed for demonstrating at Kent State in 1970. But when that happened, the shock ripples were palpable from coast to coast.

The deaths (even the blatantly public deaths) of People of Color, however, and most particularly Black people, haven't historically created the same reaction. And this is what I'm blogging about today.

Very few of us don't know that Africans -- maybe as many as a million of them -- died in the Middle Passage, as they lay chained in layers in the holds of sailing ships bringing them to the Western Hemisphere. Those who survived the trip were then summarily worked or beaten or tortured to death. Their lives and deaths for 350 years were so horrendous that scientific research now suggests that the physical, psychological, and emotional effects linger yet in Black Americans' DNA.

Given the spate of books and films on the topic of how the criminal "justice" system has been used to continue to control and exploit the African American population for the past 150 years since slavery was ostensibly abolished (see note below), it's difficult not to have at least noticed some aspect of this reality. Still, in a particularly poignant moment in his popular Netflix special, comedian Michael Che asks in bewilderment, "Can't Black lives...matter? Just...matter?" And the answer, if one pays any attention to the daily news, is no.

In 1971, the FBI was exposed for having spent fifteen years running an illegal counter-intelligence program intended to undermine and upend the efforts of any individual or organization J. Edgar Hoover considered a threat. They called it Cointelpro and it was aimed at anti-war organizers, women's rights groups, communists, socialists, and even the KKK. But its most rigorous -- and ruthless -- commitment was to crush anyone they saw as threatening the stranglehold White Supremacy has had on this country since its inception.

It would be impossible to estimate just how much of our nation's treasury got dedicated during that decade and a half to threaten, harass, bamboozle, infiltrate, incarcerate, and even cold-bloodedly murder Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and Native Americans, but it was the Black Americans who got attacked with the most consistent public and private vehemence. And many ordinary middle class "White" folks ate it with a spoon, convinced that they were being "protected" from the "threat of a Black planet" and that the need being touted for this proved once and for all that run amok Black people were the greatest threat to all things "American" -- meaning all things "White."

When Cointelpro was outed, there was a momentary pretense of umbrage among those who like to claim that the U.S. is the land of the free and the home of the brave, but when the FBI was ordered to cease and desist, it's hard to believe they took the order seriously. After all, there were still Black people everywhere and "White" people had no intention of sharing what they felt only they deserve. The Powers-That-Be could afford to tone things down a bit, seeing as half the leadership of Black activist groups were locked under the jail and much of the other half had been thrown under the bus one way or the other by co-option, terror, or age -- if they weren't already dead.

Still, the FBI, CIA, ICE, and DHS didn't stop kicking in doors and using the courts in new and inventive ways (on general principle, if nothing else). The unions were busted. The so-called "War on Drugs" turned out to be a war on the Black family. Jobs left the country, becoming so scarce that the decent paying ones required at least a Bachelor's degree (not to do the jobs, but to get one). Then, in 2008, the economy went completely south for pretty much everybody except the 1%, heralding an onslaught of poverty and homelessness not seen since the Great Depression.

While these developments were lethal to many in the U.S. -- some of whom had never dreamed they could ever find themselves in financial trouble -- Black folks were still disproportionately likely to be scraping the bottom of the barrel. The public school systems in most big cities had been turned into pipelines-to-prison just for them. Stop-and-frisk and other forms of racial profiling were ensuring a stream of future "convicted felons" who wouldn't be able to get a job anywhere but in prison. Social media served to organize resisters, but also served up a steady diet of videos showing Black men, women, and children being brutalized or even killed by cops at a mind numbing  pace without any repercussions. And that was before the 2016 election.

The upshot, of course, is that the souls of Black folks are calling for the right to defend themselves, a prerogative that would be considered perfectly reasonable anywhere else in the world under the same circumstances -- or even in the United States if it was anybody else. In a democracy where all citizens have the inalienable Constitutionally-protected right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (did I say "life"?), this should be a no-brainer. But not here, not now, and not for Africans in America.

It's not like Black folks weren't already angry. Any rational person has to wonder why Black people haven't long since slash-and-burned the entire U.S. from sea to shining sea. In fact, James Baldwin once wrote: "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." But in addition to everything else they're not allowed to do, Black people aren't allowed to express their anger in any way without running the risk of sacrificing their job, their well-being, or possibly even their lives.

Enter Cointelpro 2.0: the creation of the "Black Identity Extremist." Introduced by the FBI (remember them from their earlier version of Cointelpro?), the B.I.E. is the latest incarnation of the Big Black Scary Man that has ostensibly raped and pillaged and robbed and murdered his way through White homes and neighborhoods ever since he was dragged here in chains from the Motherland. Forget that most homicides of White people are committed by (wait for it) other White people. Forget that virtually all domestic terrorists are White men. Forget that virtually all serial killers are White men. And judging from the number of White Nationalists that have been rampaging the streets and churches since the current administration took office, forget that White Identity Extremists are being given a free rein. But the FBI would have us believe that every Black person who's tired of White Supremacy is ready to kill a cop. If Black anger resulted in aggression against the police, there wouldn't be a badge left standing. It doesn't.

The FBI knows perfectly well that it's Black people that are dying, not cops. According to Newsweek magazine and multiple other sources, nearly twice as many law enforcement officers committed suicide in 2016 (108) as were killed in the line of duty by gunshot-driven homicide (62, if you don't count the two who were accidentally shot by other cops). And of the 59 suspects arrested for those deaths, 3 out of 4 were (wait for it again) White men. Only 15 of the 59 accused of killing a cop by gunfire in 2016 were Black (and we can't necessarily assume they did the crime), yet we're to believe that this pathetic little statistic indicates an epidemic of murderous rage looming out of Black men like a dark cloud over all police.

In other words, out of 74.5 million African Americans, 15 were ever even accused of shooting a police officer in the entire year of 2016. Hardly an epidemic. In the District of Columbia, for example, where 51% of the population is Black, precisely 3 police officers died in the line of duty that year: one accidentally shot by another officer, one as a result of residual health issues related to 9-11, and one while answering a call over a domestic dispute.

Nevertheless, the FBI is screaming that angry, anti-White, police-hating Black Identity Extremists are such a grave threat against police personnel that, once the B.I.E. label is applied to a person, they lose all their Constitutional rights. But if the FBI intends to lock up every angry Black man, there are not going to be enough cells to cover the need.

Consider the case of Rakem Balogun. This brother is angry, no doubt. He's tired of watching his people killed by the police on the evening news without provocation and with no repercussions. He's tired of getting out of bed in the morning wondering which of his neighbors, friends, or family members may randomly die today at the hands of the police. He's not acting aggressively, but he is talking about Black people defending themselves. And he's not by a long shot the first.


[Read a statement released by the Rakem Balogun Defense Committee here. Learn more about the Guerrilla Mainframe mandate and program here.]

John Brown -- a White man hung in 1859 after he raided the armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia --  was convinced that the only way White Supremacy could be unseated was through violence. His ill-fated raid included both Black and White men, including several of his own sons.

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (published in 1845), Douglass describes a brutal process by which a "slave-breaker" did, in fact, break his spirit as a young man by beating him repeatedly. But the point Douglass makes ultimately is that, after he could take no more, after his spirit was broken, he returned the favor by ruthlessly beating the "slave-breaker," who couldn't even tell anybody because his professional reputation would then have been ruined. "Power concedes nothing without a demand," Douglass wrote. "It never has and it never will."

When he was eleven years old, Robert F. Williams saw Senator Jesse Helms' grandfather (who was at the time a police officer) beating and dragging a Black woman in the street in Monroe, North Carolina. When he grew up and returned from active duty in the military, Williams organized a local chapter of the NRA, calling it the Black Armed Guard, a direct response to threats against civil rights activists in Monroe, a town of 12,000, more than half of whom were members of the KKK. His example and his book, Negroes With Guns, published in 1962 with input from his wife, Mabel, subsequently inspired the establishment of similar efforts by such groups as the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana, the Mississippi Freedom Movement, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in California.

Indeed, as we consider this history, it must be noted that Africans did not force their way onto the North American continent. Their contributions to the establishment and success of the United States as a nation cannot realistically be claimed to have been outdone by any other group. And those contributions in large part were made without acknowledgement, appreciation, or generally speaking, any financial benefit. Quite to the contrary. Those contributions have been met, time and again, with thievery, condescension, disrespect, and yes, even violence, often violence by the state that has been allowed over the past five centuries to employ whatever means it deems necessary to keep Black U.S. citizens in their place. To assume this can continue to be done indefinitely without any attempt on the parts of those citizens to defend themselves is to ignore history in order to claim that this country is anything other than a class-driven racial apartheid.

It must also be noted that, as this panorama of oppression and even genocide plays out before us at this point in our cultural evolution, there are other U.S. citizens, as well, who support Black American claims to the rights and protections of full citizenship in the land of their birth. This is not simply a racial issue. It is one of human rights and decency. This has been presented to U.S. citizens who have been taught to believe they are "White" as a zero sum game wherein only certain players should win. But it is a shameful act to oppress others, however indirectly one can imagine this occurring. Concentration camp guards are equally culpable for the nightmare in which they participate even if they didn't build and don't run the camp. And looking the other direction is a conscious act, not an excuse for lack of responsibility. As Howard Zinn told us, "You can't be neutral on a moving train."

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! fame knows this. Do you?

Note: Check Netflix for lots of well-produced documentaries on particular cases or the criminal justice system in general. One of the best and most comprehensive is "13th". Books include, among others, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War until World War IIby Douglas Blackmon, and The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrery Haas.

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