Lessons of the People's Struggles:
The FBI and the Feds—Not Friends but Vicious Enemies

November 4, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


In these intense times when people are beginning to stand up and refuse to go along with the wanton police murder of Black and Latino youth, the torture of thousands in the prisons where millions are warehoused, and the attacks on the fundamental rights of women to control their own bodies and decide when and if to have children, people are looking around to see who are their allies and who can be relied on to help the people's struggles. In a time when many of the reactionary attacks coming down on the people are coming from the assertion of "state's rights" and from local police and courts, some people look to the federal government and its various agencies such as the Justice Department, including even the FBI, as the recourse of last resort to get some relief from the most blatant fascist laws and other attacks coming down on the people.

But this is a dangerous illusion and there are bitter lessons from the history of the people's struggle—from the civil rights movement to the righteous movements and uprisings of the '60s to more recent history—that expose the reality behind claims that the FBI is protecting the rights of the people supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

During the civil rights movement there were many cases where people who were fighting for basic rights for Black people to attend all-white universities, sit next to white people on buses, vote, and integrate other public facilities looked to the federal government and the FBI to enforce federal laws that supposedly guaranteed these rights. But what was the essence and real nature of the role the FBI played in all this? It is a history lesson written in blood and one that we cannot afford to ignore. The FBI targeting of Martin Luther King has been well documented by historians. He was spied on in the most intimate and personal ways. Even though he was a major proponent of non-violence in the civil rights movement and of keeping the struggle well within the bounds of the system and one of U.S. rulers' best hopes in trying to keep the struggle from boiling over, the FBI still treated him as a potential threat.

This alone should be a lesson as to the FBI's true nature.

But let's also look at an individual white woman, one of many who went to the South to help secure voting rights, Viola Liuzzo. Viola lived in Michigan, but was moved to go to Selma, Alabama, in response to calls issued by civil rights leaders after police brutally attacked a civil rights march—there she was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, shot in the head as she was courageously transporting other activists to safe locations.

Black people throughout the South suffered under brutal Jim Crow segregation, enforced by the police and the KKK. In Selma, only 150 Black people were registered to vote out of a Black population of 30,000. The documentary Home of the Brave (2004) points out that the FBI, the federal agency supposedly protecting those seeking to enforce the federal laws against discrimination, had 1,000 pages in its files on the victim, Viola Liuzzo—three times the size of their file on the KKK at the height of the civil rights movement.

There was an FBI informant in the car that carried the murderers of Viola, one Gary Thomas Rowe. Yet, even with this, the other three men responsible for her murder were tried and acquitted at the state level and given a short sentence on federal retrial. It was not until the 1970s, that it was revealed that the FBI informant had actually played a larger role in the Klan overall and in the killing of Liuzzo. It turned out that Gary Rowe "had been present at just about every violent act committed by the KKK," according to Viola's daughter. The FBI had told him to engage in violent acts. And it came out that Rowe was most likely the person who actually pulled the trigger killing Viola. Adding insult to injury, the FBI documents obtained by the family also revealed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had personally and deliberately engineered a vicious smear campaign against Viola in the wake of her murder.

This too should be a lesson as to the FBI's true nature.

Then as the Black liberation struggle burst onto the political stage in the mid-'60s, especially with the emergence of the Black Panther Party, the FBI unleashed its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO for short) and set out to destroy this movement. All manner of brutal and underhanded tactics were employed by the FBI in what has become a well-documented and sordid history: murdering the people's leaders like Chicago Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, setting people up for long imprisonment, slandering the leaders and the movements, trying to fracture and turn people against each other over political differences. The same counterintelligence operations were unleashed against the radical student and anti-war movement in the 1960s, revolutionaries who emerged during the '60s of all nationalities; the Native American struggles like Wounded Knee; and later to those who opposed to U.S.-propped up dictators in El Salvador and Nicaragua. All of this has been well-documented through efforts of many investigators, writers, and journalists to expose the real truth of the role the FBI has played.

And for those who want to kid themselves that that was Hoover's FBI and that today is different, consider one of many, many cases like that of Scott Crow, a self-described anarchist who has been arrested a dozen times in anti-corporate, animal rights, and other protests but never convicted of anything more serious than trespassing. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained 440 pages from his FBI files. Although large sections were blacked out, the documents revealed that Crow had been labeled a "domestic terrorist" and that the FBI has been carrying out intense surveillance on him since 2001. Agents snooped on his phone calls and email; infiltrated groups he was involved in; searched through his trash; asked the IRS to monitor his tax returns; set up a video surveillance camera across from his house, and so on. This is hardly an isolated case. The New York Times wrote that Crow is "among dozens of political activists across the country known to have come under scrutiny from the FBI's increased counterterrorism operations since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Other targets of bureau surveillance... have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska." Since these operations are being carried out in secret, there's no way for the public to know just how many such outrageous actions the FBI has actually carried out.

This too should be a lesson as to the FBI's true nature.

There are also bitter lessons from the struggle to defend abortion rights about the actual role of the FBI. In 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian, a doctor committed to providing abortions as part of offering all-around reproductive health care for women, was brutally murdered by an anti-abortion assassin in his Amherst, New York, home. A day later, 250 people attended a pro-choice night time vigil for Dr. Slepian outside his Amherst clinic.

Two well-known and respected activists in the Cleveland area who have been involved for years in the struggle for reproductive rights joined the vigil with a beautiful banner that said, "We Won't Go Back, Defend the Right to Abortion." Little did these two men know at the time that, almost a month later, they would be targeted and persecuted by the FBI, becoming the subjects of a nationwide manhunt and FBI-instigated smear campaign which painted them as possibly linked to the murder of Dr. Slepian. While the FBI was busy terrorizing the pro-choice activists, the actual assassin escaped the U.S. and was being handed a "reasonable doubt" defense since the FBI pursued the pro-choice activists for the murder. (James Kopp was later extradited and pleaded guilty.)

At a press conference held outside the FBI's offices in Cleveland, one of the targeted activists raised his questions for the FBI: "Why did you pick out two activists who support women's right to abortion? Why are you pretending you didn't know that? Didn't you look in the files that you keep on us (and probably everyone else out here today)? Why has only our names surfaced from your hundreds of interviews? And if in fact, you are trying to find the attackers of abortion doctors, why haven't you solved ONE case in the five years of these attacks which have resulted in the injury of four doctors and the killing of Dr. Slepian?"

Step back and look at what has happened in all the years that this assault on abortion has been taking place. While federal law says that abortion is legal, it has not only been stigmatized in the realm of public opinion, but doctors have been murdered and clinics and patients relentlessly attacked. The anti-abortion fanatics in the street are courted and welcomed in the highest offices of the land and in the state legislatures and have only continued to get stronger including through their spasms of violence against the clinics and providers, while the very right to abortion is in a complete state of emergency. The murderers of doctors and attackers of clinics escape the country or hide in the mountains for months and longer... the networks of those who support and protect them go untouched.

This case and this history once again show that nothing good can come from the involvement of government agencies like the FBI in solving the problems of the people.

Ask yourself: is the mission of the FBI/justice department to protect the rights of the people? And what has been the actual practice of the FBI in relation to the struggles of the people?

The reality is that the system that exists in the U.S. is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie—the class of exploiters and oppressors who control the economy and the state (the military, police, courts, and laws), and who sit atop a whole worldwide empire. When these capitalist rulers feel their system and their interests are seriously threatened, their state openly uses extreme violence against political opposition—as in the 1960s when soldiers fired at Black people rising up in the inner cities as well as on anti-war protesters on campuses, and the FBI/police assassinated Black Panthers, among other actions. It is very heavy and serious that in the last decade, even though there have not been a lot of major upsurges rocking society, the rulers have been openly trampling on and rewriting what are supposed to be basic Constitutional rights—such as the ban on "unreasonable searches"—to fortify their repressive machinery.

Relying on the FBI to protect people's rights is akin to asking the Mafia for protection after they have created a situation in the first place where wave after wave of violence is unleashed to intimidate and terrorize people who are exercising their basic rights... relying on the agents of repression is a dangerous and deadly illusion... one which can easily turn on the very people who were supposedly being protected and instead became unwitting or unwilling victims. And even if the effect is not immediate... everything the FBI learns as a result can and likely will be used against those who are resisting and fighting on the side of the people.

But there are other lessons to learn from history as well. Such as when the Black Panther Party offices were under literal attack by local police forces, they called on the people to defend them—and people came from the community and the campuses to put their bodies on the line. Day after day people physically surrounded their offices to protect them from murderous assault. Today as the people rally in defense of the victims of police murder or stand up against the brutal stop-and-frisk reign of terror or take a stand in the face of the relentless attacks against women's right to abortions, we need a movement with that kind of determination and spirit—as well as a clear understanding of who are the friends and who are the enemies of the people's struggles.

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