Black Identity Extremists: COINTELPRO 2017

View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they demonstrate, fists raised outside the New York City courthouse, New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)

On October 6, 2017 an FBI internal report identifying “Black Identity Extremists” (BIE) as a major threat to Law Enforcement Officers was leaked to the public by “Foreign Policy” magazine. The report chronicled six attacks on police officers between 2014 and 2016 and attributed the incident to a resurgence of individuals described as BIE. While purportedly about violence directed at cops, the report in fact seems politically motivated and directed at Black radical activists. The FBI defined BIE as “individuals who seek, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence, in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society and some do so in furtherance of establishing a separate black homeland or autonomous Black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.” Throughout the report, BIE are also described as potential affiliates of the Moorish Science Temple and those with “a perception” of racism against Black people, who feel disenfranchised and believe in an unjust criminal justice system. This inexact definition dismisses social science research chronicling the facticity of racial discrimination as perception. It also serves as an attack on entire Black nationalist intellectual tradition in the US under which many African Americans nonviolently sought separate development and self-determination while criticizing racism and inequality. The FBI’s BIE designation profiles and criminalizes Black activists who rally against police brutality and killings and labels their actions as “identity based.” At a time of growing extremism among white supremacist movements and domestic terrorist groups who are operating as racial identity groups, this is unconscionable.

The FBI’s differential treatment of “extremist groups” and targeting of radical Black activists is nothing new. Born in 1908, the FBI mission of law enforcement, national security and intelligence gathering reinforced the Jim Crow status quo. When racism and segregation was law, the FBI policed order. Blacks who challenged white political and economic domination were criminalized and surveilled, especially anti-imperialists, separatists, socialists and communists. J.Edgar Hoover, future FBI Director, cut his teeth on investigations of  Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and an advocate of separate Black economic development, self-determination and pride in African heritage in the 1920s.

The magnitude of the FBI’s actions did not come to light until the 1970s. In 1971 a group calling itself “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” burglarized FBI offices and unveiled COINTELPRO, the FBI’s covert campaign against Black Nationalists, New Leftists and KKK/White Hate groups. The documentation they provided attesting to illegal surveillance, infiltration, specious arrests and other nefarious tactics helped spur the formation of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, popularly known as the Church committee, in 1975.

The Church committee investigated over 40 years of intelligence abuses by government agencies and produced 14 detailed and damning reports. Their inquiry revealed that Black Nationalists bore the brunt of the FBI’s COINTELPRO’s campaign to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” Black leaders and organizations. The FBI contemplated 379 proposed actions against Black nationalist groups and individuals from 1967-1971. In contrast, there were 287 proposed actions aimed at KKK/White Hate groups and individuals between 1964-1971. Sorting Black activists into “Target Lists” under categories such as Rabble Rousers, Agitators, Key Activists, or Key Black Extremists was a key part of the FBI’s campaign. COINTELPRO resulted in raids and arrests of key Black leaders and caused organizations to crumble and relationships to fracture irreparably. The Church committee concluded that the ends did not justify the means–COINTELPRO was not a necessary evil to prevent violence or enforce laws. The committee pointed out that the FBI used “dangerous and unsavory techniques which gave rise to the risk of death and often disregarded the personal rights and dignity of its victims” and “accumulated massive information on lawful activity and law-abiding citizens for vaguely defined ‘pure intelligence’ and ‘preventive intelligence’ purposes related only remotely or not at all to law enforcement or the prevention of violence.

Black Community Survival Conference, March 30th, 1972, Free grocery distribution. Photo: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries.
Black Community Survival Conference, March 30th, 1972, Free grocery distribution (Photo: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries). 

These findings corroborated the first-hand accounts of activists on the frontlines of the liberation movements of the 1950s-70s.  The Black Panther Party’s (BPP) advocacy of self-defense, anti-imperialism and radical politics and successful free community social programs, made it a prime target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign. The Panthers faced raids, arrests, infiltration, and surveillance. The FBI undermined the BPP’s alliances, targeted its community programs, and fueled internal dissent. Panther member Regina Jennings described repression as so constant that it “changed whatever sense of normalcy the Panther environment ever had” leaving activists feeling like they were always “on the periphery of alarm.”1 Chillingly, the FBI was complicit in the murder of Chicago Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969.

Although the FBI claimed to have officially dismantled COINTELPRO in 1971, Black activists today who contend with militarized police departments steeped in global counterinsurgency tactics; private security firms like Tiger-Swan as well as the post-Patriot Act expansion of domestic surveillance under the guise of antiterrorism, read the recently leaked BIE report as cause for alarm. The report links heightening BIE sentiment to events such as the police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. While the FBI viewed Brown’s death as fodder for extremism, activists viewed it as motivation to organize. Brown’s death and other instances of police brutality against Black men and women galvanized activists to come together in a coalition of over 50 grassroots organization in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). M4BL’s platform details these organizations’ commitment to work towards ending state violence against Black communities; demand reparations, demilitarization and investment in education; and fight for economic justice, community control and political power. These overwhelmingly non-violent Black activists now face the threat of being labeled BIE by the FBI and targeted in a revived version of COINTELPRO.

In stark contrast, white extremists have escaped damning labels and scrutiny from the federal government. The House Homeland Security Committee has rebuffed three attempts over the past five years to hold “a hearing exclusively focused on the terror threat posed by right-wing extremists.

Activists are organizing to ensure that the FBI’s repression of Black radical protest is never repeated and the abuses of COINTELPRO laid bare by the Church Committee Report are never forgotten. They have begun to consider responses ranging from strengthening the legal support structures around movements; to targeting government officials and petitioning Congress; to fighting for media transparency. History is an essential part of their arsenal. Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI alleging illegal surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests. They chose to file in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the BPP in October 2016. One year later, the ACLU and the Center for Media Justice, led by activist Malkia A. Cyril filed Freedom of Information Act requests soliciting FBI documents related to the BIE campaign. Cyril has been a leading voice against this new wave of repression. She has seen COINTELPRO at work in her own family. Her mother,  Janet Cyril, was a member of the BPP and ran the free breakfast for children program in NY in the 1960s. The FBI visited her mother as late as 2005, a few weeks before her death. She warns us that: “this harassment, the kind of FBI harassment of Black activists didn’t end in 1969. It didn’t end when COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971. It is continuing today.

  1. Regina Jennings, “Why I Joined the Party: An Africana Womanist Reflection, in The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, edited by Charles E. Jones, (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998 ), 262.

Robyn C. Spencer

Robyn C. Spencer is an Associate Professor of History at Lehman College, City University of New York. She is the author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Duke University Press, 2016). Her second book project, To Build the World Anew: Black Liberation Politics and the Movement Against the Vietnam War, examines how working class African Americans’ anti-imperialist consciousness in the 1950s-1970s shaped their engagement with the movement against the Vietnam War. Follow her on Twitter @racewomanist.

Comments on “Black Identity Extremists: COINTELPRO 2017

  • I appreciate your writing very much. Your academically rigorous chronicling of the Black Panther Party’s inner dynamics and external challenges serves us all well. All of you at AAIHS make me bristle with pride. Y’all are my people!

    Reply
    • Thank you for the support. I’m happy to serve. It is essential that scholars with archival knowledge of Black liberation organizations use the tools of their trade to provide context for the long history of political repression. AAIHS provides a welcome home for rigorous scholarship and analysis on these and many other topics.

      Reply

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