Federal Bureau of Intimidation
The FBl's record of repression
by Annie Zirin
International Socialist Review, January / February
"The Constitution has been slain in the house of its
friends. So far as colored people are concerned, the Constitution
has been a stupendous sham, a rope of sand, a Dead Sea apple,
fair without and foul within, keeping the promise to the eye and
breaking it to the heart."
Frederick Douglass, 1886
On December 1, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced
that as part of the war against terrorism he wants the FBI to
officially resume spying on political and religious organizations
in the United States. In effect, Ashcroft hopes to revive the
FBI's notorious Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). He
smugly criticized "some who have sought to condemn us with
faulty facts or without facts at all. Others have simply rushed
to judgment, almost eagerly assuming the worst of their government
before they've had a chance to understand it at its best."
Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller hope to revive the
image of the FBI as heroic crime fighters against "evil."
But we must remember the FBI's real history. For more than 70
years, the FBI has waged a violent, illegal, and unchecked war
against movements for social change in the United States. The
truth is that the FBI has never been about justice. It has never
been about protecting the safety of ordinary people. It has never
been about stopping terrorism but has actually perpetrated "state-sponsored
terrorism" from its inception. It has used every war of the
20th century to expand its powers in the name of national security.
There is no reason to believe that the FBI under Ashcroft or Mueller
would function any differently.
Despite its claims to political neutrality (alongside its
shiny image as mainly a crusader against organized crime), the
FBI has, in reality, waged a decades-long war on three main "enemies":
activists struggling for Black freedom, the labor movement, and
The FBI was founded in an era of world war and revolution.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, the U.S. population
was seriously divided over whether the U.S. should intervene.
Millions of people opposed the war, including the main left groups
at the time, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the
Socialist Party of America-which together probably had more than
100,000 members. Large numbers of workers failed to report for
the armed services. In one Pennsylvania town, 40 percent of the
men who registered gave false addresses. Socialist Party meetings
against the war drew thousands of people in towns across the country.
Woodrow Wilson's administration understood the twin dangers it
faced: anti-war sentiment in the working class and, after the
Russian Revolution in 1917, the spread of socialist ideas.
The First World War saw an unprecedented government intervention
into the economy and an expanded government bureaucracy to gear
production toward the war effort. Along with this came the centralization
of political repression. In June 1917, Attorney General A. Mitchell
Palmer created a special political section of the Justice Department,
the "Radical Division," and chose 24-year-old J. Edgar
Hoover to head it up. Their mission was to work with the Military
Intelligence Bureau (MIB) to suppress dissent against the war
and stop what they saw as a rising tide of Bolshevism. During
and after the war these agents openly expressed their fears of
workers' revolution taking place in the United States. The MIB
even had an operation called "War Plans White" that
prepared for the scenario of an armed uprising by 1.5 million
Congress passed three pieces of legislation between 1917 and
1919 to suppress all forms of dissent. The Espionage Act of 1917
made it a crime punishable by a fine of $10,000 and 20 years in
jail to attempt to "convey false reports or false statements
with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the
military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the
success of its enemies...or attempt to cause insubordination,
disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal to duty." The Sedition Act
of 1918, under the same penalties, made it illegal to "utter,
print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or
abusive language about the form of government of the United States...or
any language intended to...encourage resistance to the United
States." The third piece of legislation, passed in 1918,
decreed that "any alien who, at any time after entering the
United States, is found to have been at the time of entry, or
to have become thereafter, a member of any one of the classes
of aliens"-anarchists, anyone who advocated revolution or
assassinations of public officials-would be "taken into custody
The press, pulpit and business leaders bayed for blood against
the left-especially against the IWW. The Tulsa World, an organ
of the oil companies, sounded the tocsin: "The first step
in whipping Germany is to strangle the IWWs. Kill them, just as
you would kill any other kind of snake. Don't scotch 'em kill
'em dead. It is no time to waste money on trials and continuance
and things like that. All that is necessary is the evidence and
a firing squad.
In one of many incidents of vigilante violence across the
country, encouraged by politicians and the media, 11 IWW members
organizing oil industry workers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were dragged
from their cells (where they were serving time for "vagrancy"),
beaten, tarred, and feathered by hooded members of the "Knights
of Liberty." Vigilante violence was supplemented with harsh
legal action. In September 1917, the federal government conducted
a series of raids across the country against IWW leaders and rank-and-file.
Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood was arrested and tried along with
165 other defendants. Ninety-five were found guilty of violating
the Espionage Act, and several leaders, including Haywood, were
handed hefty fines and 20-year prison sentences. Thirty-three
were sentenced to 10 years, 35 others to five years. The IWW was
driven underground by the repression. Eugene Debs, Kate Richards
O'Hare, and other socialist leaders were also sent to prison for
opposing the war. So too were anarchist leaders Alexander Berkman
and Emma Goldman. According to the 1919 Socialist Party executive
Hundreds of comrades were arrested and an era of persecution
set in, [and] "Patriotic" societies organized a White
terror in many parts of the country. Locals and branches were
destroyed, party members were boycotted, and in some states they
were the victims of mobs. Our press was largely destroyed and
the few publications that survived were deprived of their mailing
privileges. Government spies dogged the heels of party members
and in some of the larger cities our headquarters were raided
by government officials. Some were sacked by mobs.
But the wartime repression did not crush the labor movement.
When the war ended, a wave of class struggle engulfed the United
States. One writer describes 1919 as "one of those dramatic
years, like 1968, filled with unrest, protest, and the clashing
of social and political forces, when, for a short moment, the
future of the nation seemed to hang in the balance." The
end of the war threw the economy into chaos. Hundreds of thousands
of veterans lost their jobs. Even conservative union leaders were
calling for nationalization of the railroads and the mines. Four
million workers, one-quarter of the workforce, went on strike
Big Business went on a counteroffensive with a national campaign
of its own, promoting the "open shop" as " 100
percent Americanism" and denouncing all trade unionism as
"Bolshevism." They turned to the government to help
them wage their war on the labor movement. The First World War
had left in place an expanded intelligence operation that was
capable of carrying out repression on a national scale. The stage
was set for a joint campaign between business and the government
to crush the working-class upsurge.
In June 1919, Attorney General Palmer requested and received
$500,000 from Congress to "fight radicalism." His pretext
was a series of eight bombings across the country-including one
in the front of Palmer's house earlier that month-that had killed
one night-watchman. Without any evidence, the New York Times immediately
concluded that the bombings were "plainly of Bolshevik or
IWW origin"-though neither of these organizations advocated
or practiced such tactics. To ensure that Congress would give
him the money, Palmer claimed that another plot would be carried
out on July 4. "We have received so many notices and got
so much information that it has almost come to be accepted as
fact that on a certain day, which we have been advised of, there
will be another [attempt] to rise up and destroy the government
at one fell swoop.
On November 7, 1919, the General Intelligence Division (GID,
forerunner to the FBI) launched the first of the infamous Palmer
Raids. GID agents raided offices in 12 cities of an organization
called the Union of Russian Workers. They arrested 650 people
without warrants. By December 21, Palmer had arranged for 242
of these "radical aliens" to be deported to the USSR
without so much as a trial. This proved to be only a dress rehearsal.
On January 2, 1920, in one terrible day, the GID raided radical
organizations in 30 cities. They arrested somewhere between five
and ten thousand people. Not a single search or arrest warrant
was ever issued. Thousands of members of the newly formed Communist
Party (CP) were arrested. According to one account,
The massive arrests completely overwhelmed detention facilities
in many areas. In Detroit, eight hundred persons were detained
for up to six days in a dark, windowless narrow corridor in the
city's federal building. They had access to one toilet and were
denied food for twenty four hours.... Many of those arrested were
beaten or threatened while in detention, in some cases, persons
coming to visit or bail out those arrested were themselves arrested
on suspicion of being communists. Palmer explained such persons
were "practically the same as a person found in an active
meeting of the [CP].
Further raids and deportations only ended by the order of
a U.S. district judge in June. But the damage had already been
The more lasting significance of the red scare. . .was its
devastation of all the organizations that had been built up so
laboriously for 20 years which were capable of providing leadership
for any sort of radical political or labor movement-the Socialist
Party of America, the IWW, the CP.... [And the] general climate
of repression that prevailed throughout the twenties made it very
difficult for rebuilding to occur.
Even after the Red Scare ended, the U.S. continued to deport
thousands of radicals. By 1921, 35 states had antiradical statutes
on the books. More than 30 states had "red flag" laws
that made it illegal to carry a revolutionary banner. In 1922,
the FBI and police raided the national convention of the CP and
arrested 20 leaders on charges of "criminal syndicalism."
The effect on the fledgling Communist Party was devastating. In
1919, before the Palmer Raids, the CP had 27,341 members. By April
1920, they were reduced to 8,223 members.
To state officials, the GID had proved its usefulness. One
historian writes, "The Radical Division played a decisive
role in shaping the Red Scare by establishing a huge archive on
radical activists and organizations, collecting and analyzing
thousands of radical publications, investigating a number of major
strikes and riots...and publicizing the radical danger through
a carefully conducted propaganda campaign.''
In 1924, the GID was expanded and renamed the Federal Bureau
of Investigation, the FBI. Hoover became its director, a position
he would hold until his death in 1972. The FBI's side in the class
struggle was clearly shown in its first major case: the brutal
repression of the 1926-28 textile strikes on the East Coast and
in North Carolina.
The FBI also cultivated relationships with vigilante groups
that could be called upon to provide the muscle to break up strikes,
carry out raids, even Iynchings. For example, the FBI played a
key role in the development of the far-right American Legions.
The Legions was the main veterans' organization after the First
World War. For most veterans, it was a social group; but at its
core were tens of thousands of members committed to doing street
battle with "reds." The Legions had been founded by
officers as a conscious attempt to rein in angry soldiers who,
it was feared, would come home from the war with their head full
of Bolshevik ideas. Fifty-five percent of its founding members
were upper-class officers. Wealthy U.S. industrialists put up
the financial backing for the Legions, including $ 100,000 from
It was not inevitable that the Legions would emerge as the
main representative of veterans. There was also a left-wing veterans
organization called World War Veterans (WWV) whose program called
for jobs and land for veterans, nationalization of the railroads,
and the right to collective bargaining. The FBI intervened decisively
to push the WWV off the stage, spying on its leaders, and assisting
the Legions in carrying out vigilante attacks on WWV meetings.
In fact, the bombings that prompted the Palmer Raids were
never solved. They were used as a pretext to suppress dissent.
J. Edgar Hoover
Hoover used the Palmer Raids to establish his credentials
as the foremost crusader against communism, which he considered
"the most evil, monstrous conspiracy against man since time
Those who make excuses for the FBI's crimes have often blamed
Hoover for its "excesses." This argument portrays Hoover
as an egomaniacal genius, more powerful than any president, and
completely out of control. Hoover certainly wielded an enormous
amount of power. He kept files on various high-level officials
throughout his career-"dirt" that could be used if anyone
tried to move against him. Memos in the COINTELPRO files reveal
that the director had a personal hand in designing and overseeing
the FBI's most destructive operations.
But though he may have operated with a great deal of autonomy,
Hoover was not leading some rogue operation. The FBI's own files
show that his work was approved of by every administration he
served, Democrat and Republican. In 1954 the Congressional Doolittle
Committee reported, "As long as [anti-communism] remains
national policy, an important requirement is an aggressive, covert,
psychological, political, and paramilitary organization more effective,
more unique and if necessary, more ruthless than that employed
by the enemy. No one should be permitted to stand in the way of
the prompt, efficient, and secure establishment of this mission."
As for Congress, they controlled the purse strings for the
FBI and chose to keep the funds flowing. In all his years in charge,
Hoover never got less money in his budget than he requested, and
several times, they gave him more. And there was no Congressional
oversight of the FBI until the scandals of the 1970s. Perhaps
the other branches of government turned a blind eye to his activities
because it was easier that way to keep their own hands clean.
The fact remains that Hoover never carried out an operation that
opposed the policies or interests of any administration he served.
The war against Black liberation
From its inception, the FBI viciously targeted any movement
that fought for Black freedom, no matter how moderate. Just after
the U.S. entered the First World War, the Military Intelligence
Bureau opened its first file on "Negro Subversion" and
banned the NAACP newspaper, The Crisis, from all military bases.
One FBI agent in Oklahoma complained in an MIB report that the
Black press "was sprinkled with such well known Communistic
phrases as 'Civil Liberties,' 'Inalienable Rights,' and 'Freedom
of Speech and of the Press."
During the Cold War, the Bureau targeted high-profile figures
who spoke out for socialism and Black liberation. W.E.B. DuBois
recalled in his autobiography:
The secret police swarmed in my neighborhood asking about
my visitors. My mail was tampered with or withheld. Negro papers
were warned not to carry my writings nor mention prominently my
name. Colleges ceased to invite my lectures. From being a person
whom every Negro in the nation knew by name at least. .. [there
has been an erasure of] my past or present existence.
Even more tragic was the case of Paul Robeson, the famous
Black actor, singer, and socialist, who was one of the few people
called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Robeson publicly denounced HUAC and defended his left-wing politics.
His son, Paul Robeson Jr., believes that FBI harassment drove
his father into the mental collapse that eventually claimed his
life. When Robeson's files were opened under the Freedom of Information
Act, his family learned that the FBI used a psychological profile
of Robeson to develop their COINTELPRO plan on him. Robeson Jr.
From the files I received, it was obvious that there were
agents who did nothing but follow every public event of my father,
or even of me.... It took on a life of its own.... Over rime,
even for someone as powerful and with as many resources as my
dad had...the attrition got to him.
The civil rights movement
The emerging civil rights movement in the South became the
next focus of FBI operations. From 1946-60, the FBI operated 3,000
wiretaps and 800 bugs on the NAACP. In 1957, FBI supervisor J.G.
Kelly sent a memo to the FBI's Atlanta office that Martin Luther
King's Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC ) was "a
likely target for communist infiltration.... In view of the stated
purpose of the organization you should remain alert for public
source information concerning it in connection with the racial
There is a myth that during the civil rights era, the federal
government only intervened on the side of the protesters against
the Southern racist establishment. But as civil rights leader
(now Congressman) John L. Lewis described:
Many of us tended to look to the federal government as a sympathetic
referee in our struggle for civil rights. We became disillusioned.
In the midst of our effort to desegregate Albany. . . the Department
of Justice served indictments against peaceful picketers. Yet
they never indicted those who were preventing us from exercising
our constitutional rights.... That sent a message. It incurred
great fear and misgivings on the part of those we were trying
to organize. And we had the strange feeling it had been sanctioned
at the very highest level of government, that it was a political
On a great many occasions [the FBI] catered to the local officials
and seemed partisan toward existing segregationist customs. J.
Edgar Hoover...saw our movement as a conspiracy We assumed he
was watching us. Instead of the FBI spending their time finding
the bombers, the midnight assassins, the brutal racists who denied
us our rights, they were out looking for "Communist"
influence in the civil rights movement
The FBI tried to discredit and destroy Martin Luther King.
In 1963, Assistant Director William C. Sullivan wrote to Hoover,
"We must mark [MLK] now, if we have not before, as the
most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint
of communism, the Negro, and national security.... It may be unrealistic
to limit [counterintelligence] to legalistic proofs that would
stand up in court or before Congressional Committees."
In 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized round-the-clock
surveillance of the SCLC office and King's home. When the COINTELPRO
files were later opened, they contained memos describing an insane
plot to try to coerce King into committing suicide. After King
won the Nobel Prize, the FBI sent him an anonymous letter and
an audiotape that supposedly proved King's involvement with prostitutes.
The letter (now known to have been written by FBI internal security
supervisor Seymor F. Phillips) told King that the tape would be
released to the media unless he killed himself. It read, in part,
"King there is only one thing left for you. You know what
it is. You have just 34 days in which to do [it].... You better
take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared
to the nation."' King chose not to comply, and the plot was
In 1961, Freedom Riders rode Greyhound buses through the South
to integrate the bus system. Walter Bergman, a white Freedom Rider
who was 60 years old at the time, was on a bus that was ambushed
by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan beat the activists with broken bottles
while local police stood outside the bus and watched. The attack
paralyzed Bergman-he was never able to walk again. In 1977, Bergman
filed suit against the FBI for his injuries and won his claim.
In the course of the trial it was revealed that one of the Klansmen
in the attack had actually been an undercover FBI agent. The agent
had informed the FBI in advance about the ambush. Not only did
the FBI decide to do nothing, but the agent took part in the beatings.
When the civil rights movement moved North to confront systematic
racism and poverty, many of its leaders developed revolutionary
politics. The FBI shifted its focus accordingly. The Detroit and
Newark rebellions of 19G7 spurred Hoover to launch a COINTELPRO
operation against Black nationalism. In a memo dated August 25,
1967, Hoover instructed FBI field offices that
[t]he purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is
to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize
the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and
groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters,
and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.
Hoover followed up with a more detailed agenda on March 4,
1968. He enumerated the goals for the new covert action:
1. Prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups....
An effective coalition of black nationalist groups might be the
first step toward...the beginning of a true black revolution.
2. Prevent the rise of a "messiah" who could unify,
and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm
X might have been such a "messiah." He is martyr of
the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and
Elijah Muhammed all aspire to this position.
Stokely Carmichael, the revolutionary Black nationalist who
first raised the slogan "Black Power," described what
his life was like under the new COINTELPRO:
There was constant harassment. Constant. [My wife was] cut
out of jobs everywhere. The FBI would sit in front of my house
in their car.... They followed me twenty-four hours a day And
they didn't even hide it.
They even harassed his mother. "They would call her up
around three o'clock in the morning: 'Have you heard from him
recently?' Or 'We got him.' Or 'He's going to be killed.' Each
time they'd say they were someone else, from the Ku Klux Klan
to the Black Panther Party. I told her, 'Listen, don't worry.
It's the FBI. Just ask them where their mama is."
By 1967, Hoover had zeroed in on the organization that he
felt posed the greatest threat to the American establishment.
the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). Hoover was horrified
by the Panther's embrace of revolutionary politics, their advocacy
of armed self-defense against the police, their willingness to
make alliances with other groups on the left, and above all, the
mass support the Panthers were winning from Black people across
the country. Destroying the Panthers root and branch became Hoover's
obsession and the FBI's primary occupation after 1967. On September
8, 1968, Hoover told the New York Times that the Black Panther
Party was "the greatest [single] threat to the internal security
of the country." Of the FBI's 295 admitted COINTELPRO operations
against Black nationalists, 233 were against the Panthers.
The memos launching COINTELPRO operations against the Black
Panther Party verge on hysteria. One from Assistant Director Sullivan
to Hoover warned, "The extremist BPP of Oakland California
is rapidly expanding. It is the most violence-prone organization
of all the extremist groups now operating in the United States....
It therefore is essential that we not only accelerate our investigations
of this organization and increase our informants in the organization
but that we take action. ..to disrupt the group."
The FBI used every method in its arsenal against the Panthers
to disrupt them. One memo to Sullivan proposed "suggestions...to
create factionalism between not only the national leaders but
also local leaders, step to neutralize all organizational efforts
of the BPP as well as create suspicion amongst the leaders as
to each others' sources of finances, suspicion concerning their
respective spouses, and suspicion as to who may be cooperating
with law enforcement.", And when these methods failed to
"neutralize" the Panthers, the Bureau stepped up the
intensity of the war:
From April to December 1969, police raided Panther headquarters
in San Francisco, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Denver,
San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, including four separate
raids in Chicago, two in San Diego, two in Los Angeles.... [348
Panthers were arrested during the whole year] .... [D]uring a
raid in Sacramento ill June 1969, in search of an alleged sniper
who was never found, police sprayed the building with tear gas,
shot up the walls, broke typewriters, and destroyed bulk food
the Panthers were distributing free to ghetto children.... During
raids on the Panthers headquarters in Philadelphia in September
1970, police ransacked the office, ripped out plumbing, chopped
up and carted away furniture. Six Panthers were lead into the
street, placed against a wall and stripped as Police Chief [later
mayor; Frank Rizzo boasted to newsmen, ''lmagine the big Black
Panthers with their pants down. .,
In 1969, the FBI organized the murder of two leading Panthers,
Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, in Chicago. At 4 A.M. on 3-he morning
of December 9, a SWAT team of Chicago police armed with submachine
guns charged into Hampton's apartment. The police carried no bullhorns,
spotlights, or tear gas. They broke down the door and quickly
fired more than 90 bullets through the apartment. The Panthers
in the apartment got off only one shot, into the ceiling.
Flint Taylor, the attorney for the survivors of the raid,
describes the horror he found when he walked through the apartment
the next day:
If I wanted to point to one thing that had the greatest effect
on my development, on my commitment to social justice, being in
that apartment those eighteen hours would be it. To see the horrible
violence that had been inflicted was incredible. The Panthers
did an astute political thing. They organized tours of the apartment.
There were lines around the block waiting to go in.... I remember
an older Black woman shaking her head saying, "It ain't nothing
but a northern Iynching."
In 1976, the mothers of the victims filed a civil rights suit
against the FBI. The COINTELPRO files released during the trial
showed that the FBI had an informant named William O'Neal in the
Chicago Panthers. O'Neal was a trusted friend of Hampton and chief
of security in the Chicago chapter. Taylor described, "He
was the classic provocateur under COINTELPRO, always suggesting
far-out violent schemes. He turned out to be the Judas who helped
set up Fred Hampton's murder"
O'Neal fed information to FBI agent Roy Mitchell, who worked
closely with the Chicago Police Department's Gang Intelligence
Unit, the squad that dealt specifically with Black organizations.
Days before the raid, O'Neal gave Mitchell a detailed floor plan
of Hampton's apartment that indicated where Hampton and his fiancee
Akna Ajeri (who was eight months pregnant with their child at
the time of the raid) usually slept. Also in the files was a memo
from the Chicago FBI to Hoover, taking credit for the success
of the operation and asking for a bonus for O'Neal. The bonus
was quickly paid out. Taylor also believes that there is strong
evidence that O'Neal drugged Hampton on the day of the raid. Hampton's
autopsy showed a large amount of secobarbital in his system, despite
the fact that he was militantly against drugs. Hampton was shot
in the head in his bed. He never even woke up. In 1982, after
many appeals, the courts finally awarded survivors of the raid
$1.85 million in damages. But to this day, no police or FBI agents
have ever been indicted for these ruthless murders.
No article could possible chronicle all of the FBI's abuses
against the Panthers. But even a short list reveals the ferocity
of the FBI's war:
* April 6, 1968: 17-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton was shot
in the back by police officers in Oakland after he and another
leading Panther, Eldridge Cleaver, had already given themselves
up for arrest. Later that night at San Quentin hospital, a prison
guard threw the injured Cleaver down a flight of stairs.
* January 17, 1969: Members of cultural nationalist group,
United Slaves, killed two leading Panthers, Bunchy Carter and
Jon Huggins, on the UCLA campus. The shooting was the climax of
an intense COINTELPRO against both groups that planted evidence
and used infiltrators to push the two organizations into a war
with each other.
An earlier memo from Hoover dated November 29, 1968, celebrated
the "tangible results" of this particular strategy:
Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continue
to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although
no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing
to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount
of the unrest is directly attributable to this program. In view
of the recent killing of BPP member Sylvester Bell, a new cartoon
is being considered in the hopes that it will assist in the continuance
of the rift between BPP and US.
Even celebrities and white supporters of the Panthers felt
the wrath of the FBI. When actress Jean Seberg, a Panther supporter,
was four months pregnant the FBI planted the story in the press
that she was pregnant, not by her husband, but by Black Panther
Romaine Gary. Seberg was emotionally unstable, which the FBI knew,
and after the false story came out she attempted suicide and miscarried.
Years later, in 1979, on the anniversary of her miscarriage, she
successfully committed suicide. (Her husband sued the FBI and
won monetary compensation, but again, no FBI agent was ever indicted.)
Then there were the dozens of Panthers who were framed by
the FBI or local police for crimes of which they were clearly
innocent. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the frame-ups of Panthers
Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and H. Rap Brown inspired mass movements
for their freedom. Geronimo Pratt, who was sent to prison for
life in the early 1970s on the basis of the perjured testimony
of an FBI informant, was finally freed in 1997. Perhaps the last
victim of COINTELPRO operations against the BPP is Mumia Abu-Jamal,
who has been on Pennsylvania's death row since 1983, a political
prisoner of the racists who run the state of Pennsylvania.
Will the FBI always win?
There are many activists who believe that any movement we
build will be infiltrated and destroyed by the FBI. How can a
movement be built that can withstand the FBI's dirty tricks? The
periods of American radicalism when the left was the most rooted
in the working class, when it involved the largest numbers of
people, were those when they were able to withstand repression.
The periods when the left was isolated from the vast majority
of workers or failed to overcome racism and division in its own
ranks were those when the left became the most vulnerable. While
the blame for all state repression must rest squarely with the
brutality of the state itself, we must look critically at some
of the strategies that have made activists vulnerable to infiltration.
Turn briefly to the period of the greatest class struggle
in U.S. history, the era of the Great Depression, when tens of
thousands of U.S. workers were members of the Communist Party,
millions more were influenced by radical politics, and this core
in the working-class movement provided the basis for the organization
of 5 million industrial workers into the CIO unions. The left
was a formidable force. Unlike the socialist movement after the
First World War, the socialists recognized in the 1930s the importance
of overcoming racism and built integrated unions, taking away
from the bosses one of their key weapons.
The corporations and the government did eventually lash back
against socialists and communists, and against labor as a whole-but
it is significant that they did not begin their witchhunt in the
early 1930s, when the struggle was rising and winning victories.
Why didn't McCarthyism's witch-hunt against communists begin right
away in 1934, when workers shut down three major cities with general
strikes? Or in 1936 or 1937, when autoworkers occupied the factories
and won their unions?
The backlash did not begin until after the labor movement
experienced setbacks. The CIO leadership began to put the brakes
on the independent action of rank-and-file workers (the sit-down
strikes in particular), the very strategies that had won so many
victories. Labor's string of victorious struggles was dealt a
serious blow with the failure of the Steel Workers Organizing
Committee to organize the steel industry in the way that they
had successfully done in auto. Labor suffered a major attack on
Memorial Day, 1937, when police attacked a peaceful demonstration
of steelworkers and their families in Chicago, killing 10 and
injuring hundreds more.
These defeats opened the door for the government to intervene
against the workers. The following year, in May 1938, the reactionary
Texas Democrat, Congressman Martin Dies, formed the House Un-American
Activities Committee, initially billed as a seven-month campaign
to investigate communist "propaganda" in the CIO and
the New Deal. (Congress continued to renew HUAC every year until
it became a permanent committee in 1945.) In 1939, President Roosevelt
and his Labor Secretary Francis Perkins launched an investigation
into the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB had been
created as part of the New Deal to arbitrate disputes between
capital and labor. Now FDR and Perkins were saying that the NLRB
was too "biased" toward labor. Hoover, backed by the
administration, launched a purge of the "disloyal" elements
in the NLRB. By the mid-1940s, its decisions were much less friendly
This was another victory for the reaction, but still, in 1939,
even the Dies Committee could not simply go for the Communist
Party right away. The CP reached its height in membership at the
end of the 1930s. It had too much support in the working class
and too much of a foothold in the unions to be crushed. It could
not, at this point, be isolated from the rest of society. So its
force had to be chipped away at from other angles.
This explains why the first socialists that the government
went after were not Communist Party members, but members of the
much smaller and more isolated Trotskyist group, the Socialist
Workers Party (SWP). On June 15, 1940, FDR signed the "Alien
Registration Act," also called the Smith Act. One of its
provisions made it illegal to talk about overthrowing the government
by "force and violence." This was the first peacetime
sedition act, something Hoover had been fighting for since the
beginning of his career. The first to be indicted under the Smith
Act were 29 SWP members. The Communist Party made a fatal error
when they refused to defend the socialists or challenge the Smith
Act. (If the CP had led a fight to repeal the Smith Act, perhaps
labor would have been in a stronger position to stop the anti-labor
Taft-Hartley Act that was passed in 1947 under Truman-or to defend
themselves when they came under attack.) It didn't help the CP
that they continued to support the very administration (Roosevelt's)
that was carrying out the attacks against their members, or that
they burned bridges with other workers during the Second World
War when they insisted that workers abide by FDR's wartime "no
It wasn't until 1948, after the antiradical purges in the
unions were well underway, that the government and the FBI felt
themselves in a strong enough position to attack the CP head-on.
The Justice Department indicted 12 CP leaders under the Smith
Act. Two years later, the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950
required the CP to register itself and all its "front groups"
as "foreign agencies" and to label its publications
"communist propaganda." The 10-month trial that resulted
in conviction was Hoover's shining star, a prize he had been preparing
for a decade. The FBI "had conceived of it, shaped it, and
brought it to a successful conclusion." It was the "centerpiece
in the educational campaign to alert the rest of the nation to
the dangers of communism."', This was the case that outlawed
the CP and officially began the McCarthy era. In a 1948 memo to
Hoover, the assistant director of the FBI said he hoped the trial
would "result in a judicial precedent being set that the
Communist Party as an organization is illegal" and thus make
it possible for the FBI to go after "its individual members
and close adherents or sympathizers." The aim of suppressing
the CP was to suppress all forms of struggle-to criminalize dissent.
An important lesson of this period is that the working-class movement
is only as strong as its left wing.
"Nothing they did stopped us from organizing'' Stokely
Carmichael said about the FBI,
We saw them exactly for what they were, not the way television
presented them. We saw what cowards they were. We saw their racism,
their defense of segregated policies. When somebody's house was
burnt up, we knew who did it. The people always knew. At first,
we would present the facts to the FBI. But we learned that it
would endanger the local person who had seen it. The FBI office
was right next to the local police. They were chummy, chummy pals.
They were sharing information.... But nothing they did stopped
us from organizing.
As ruthless as the FBI has been, they have never been able
to crush the spirit of resistance in the United States. Part of
what drove Hoover crazy about "communism" (which is
what he labeled virtually every form of struggle for a better
world) was that it could seem to be thoroughly destroyed only
to rise again in a new generation of struggle. In spite of the
repression and dirty tricks of the 1920s, movements in the 1930s
built mass industrial unions; in spite of the McCarthyism of the
1950s, mass struggle won civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s;
in spite of COINTELPRO, the antiwar movement thrived and contributed
to the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam.
The activism of the 1960s also shows that the FBI is not invincible.
It can be beaten back. Jailed political prisoners like Geronimo
Pratt can be freed. In the wake of Watergate, when many Americans
felt that the U.S. was running a secret government, Congress was
finally forced to end COINTELPRO (at least officially). The Senate
Select Committee on Intelligence, which investigated FBI crimes,
concluded that the Bureau "which was charged by law with
investigating crimes and preventing criminal conduct, itself engaged
in lawless tactics and responded to deep-seated social problems
by fomenting violence and unrest." Activists also used the
Freedom of Information Act to open up thousands of FBI files and
win some major court victories against the FBI. Perhaps the ultimate
irony of J. Edgar Hoover's legacy was that when evidence of his
crimes became public, it only helped to deepen the radicalization
of the 1970s and the popular disillusionment with the government...
Annie Zirin is a middle school teacher and a member of the
International Socialist Organization in Boston.