Did you know that from 1956 to 1971 the FBI conducted a program designed to foment conflict within revolutionary movements, as well as broader movements for reform—conflicts which not only crippled these movements, but served as a cover to carry out frame-ups and even outright murder of revolutionary fighters and activists?
Did you know that they sent undercover people into these movements specifically to create or magnify conflicts? Did you know that they relied on unsubstantiated gossip and often inventions, as well as forged documents as part of their arsenal?
All this came to light in 1971, when some brave and heroic people appropriated the files revealing this program in a nighttime operation to go into an FBI office and bring these criminal activities by the government to light. As a result, many people in the movements of the time and even beyond, in broader society, adopted different standards for settling inevitable conflicts over politics and ideology in a principled way, and preventing the police, FBI and other government agencies from spreading slanders, fomenting conflicts and endangering the lives of people active in the struggle for justice.
Now, decades later, a new generation is way too unaware either of the FBI activities or the protocols widely adopted. We can see the results of this in the current vicious and very dangerous slander campaign that has been launched against Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, the Revcoms, Bob Avakian and Sunsara Taylor.
We urge people to read and spread the article below, and to insist on principled discussion and debate over disagreements and to oppose the dangerous campaign of lies, disinformation and distortion that has now erupted.
COINTELPRO was launched by the FBI in secret in 1956 in the context of the rising civil rights movement, and operations were later “signed on” to by the Kennedy administration. Its reach was broad and vicious. The FBI, working in sync with local police “Red Squads” (political police) wrote leaflets fomenting conflicts between different groups. They sent anonymous letters warning parents and school administrators of what their children and students were supposedly doing. They conducted police surveillance and repression against antiwar coffee houses opening near military bases. And those the FBI identified as leaders, in particular, were marked for “neutralization” by the FBI, a euphemism for being framed up on serious criminal charges or killed.
One of the earliest, ugliest and most grievous FBI operations was against Malcolm X. We recently covered this, and we are including it here as a companion to this article.
Going After Martin Luther King Through Personal Slander and Harassment
One element in COINTELPRO attacks on the civil rights movement was the dissemination by the FBI of allegations about Martin Luther King’s sex life that had nothing to do with the struggle for civil rights, or debates within that movement or in society as a whole. The FBI bugged King’s bedroom(!) and then, directly or posing as “concerned individuals” sent supposed taped “evidence” to media outlets and others, including colleges where King was invited to speak, demanding he be disinvited. They even sent such a tape to his wife, Coretta Scott King, in the hope of causing anguish and breaking up the marriage.
The FBI also circulated allegations that King’s movement had organizational and financial connections to communists, playing on anti-communist prejudices, to push (and provide an excuse for) white liberals and what the FBI identified as “the responsible Negro community” to stay away from the civil rights movement at a time when civil rights activists were being brutally attacked and murdered by police and the KKK, and as a cover for massive surveillance of the civil rights movement. Whether or not the authorities were directly involved in King’s murder in Memphis in 1968 as his family and close associates have insisted, the COINTELPRO operation created conditions that facilitated his assassination and was continued for a year after his death.
Going After the Panthers: Fomenting Conflicts to Murder Leadership
A major objective and focus of COINTELPRO was isolating and setting up the most revolutionary forces at the time, especially the Black Panther Party (BPP), for attack. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in a secret memo, wrote to offices calling for “imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP.” (Emphasis added.)
As they did with Malcolm X (see the accompanying article), the FBI often focused on setting up others to do the actual dirty work. To take one notorious example, the FBI forged a letter, supposedly from someone in the community, to Jeff Fort, the leader of the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang at the time, claiming that the Black Panther Party was getting ready to move on him. In this case, in the climate of the times when there was both a broad culture of being alert to moves by the authorities to forge accusations to set people up, and when there was broad respect for the Panthers and the revolution, Fort decided the threatening letter was not credible. This letter was part of a larger COINTELPRO operation that set into motion events that led to the assassination of Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police and the FBI in 1969.
In another COINTELPRO operation, the LA office of the FBI came up with a plan to forge a letter claiming the US Organization (United Slaves), which had been attacking the Panthers, believed that the BPP had a contract out to kill their leader. The LA FBI office wrote that the objective was for “this counterintelligence measure [to] result in an ‘US’ and BPP vendetta.” The operation was part of what led to the terrible murder of Black Panther leaders John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter by US members in Los Angeles.
Again, there were real issues to resolve, questions to investigate, and debates to struggle out among those struggling for a different and better world in different ways, coming from different outlooks at the time, as now. The pattern and practice of COINTELPRO was to exploit these contradictions to twist them into vicious, destructive personal attacks, with an aim of disintegrating the movements for social change and an edge of isolating and setting up the most radical and revolutionary forces and leaders for what COINTELPRO documents euphemistically referred to as “neutralization.”
Conclusion: don’t fall for—and don’t tolerate—the kinds of behavior that mimic what the FBI has used to destroy social movements. Call it out.
Identifying and Going After Bob Avakian Early On
In his memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, Bob Avakian (BA), who emerged as a revolutionary in the 1960s and today is leading the movement for revolution, talks about how he was a target for surveillance. At a demonstration, he was approached by the head of the Berkeley police “red squad” and told that he and the Revolutionary Union (the RU, which BA played a central role in founding) were under surveillance.
BA has written about being in Chicago for the New Politics Convention and going back to his car and finding a guy who was “obviously from the Chicago red squad or the FBI” in a car behind his car “writing things down.” A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) discovery revealed that the House of Representatives did a “whole report and investigation on the RU.” Another FOIA inquiry also showed that BA was under surveillance in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago, and that the FBI had made a diagram of the inside of his house, “indicating through which windows someone could see different things going on inside the house.” This was a similar type of diagram to that used by the FBI and the Chicago cops that enabled them to assassinate Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party.
The book The COINTELPRO Papers, by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall contains a vast collection of original FBI memos and reports including documentation for the incidents described in this article. It is available as an online PDF.
This article draws on installments of the American Crime series at revcoms.us: American Crime Case #41: COINTELPRO—The FBI Targets the New Left, 1964-1971 and American Crime Case #42: COINTELPRO—The FBI Targets the Black Freedom Struggle, 1956-1971.
An important letter drawing lessons for today from the COINTELPRO operation against Malcolm X: A Reflection on Piggery—Then and Now.