5 stars for importance
In his introduction, Huey P Newton reminds us that the USA is founded on grand ideals of democracy which cannot be realised while ‘clevages’ of race and class structure society and the ruling class fears genuinely democratic institutions. The Founding Fathers’ idealism excluded African Americans, Native Americas and women, but the ideal of democracy is infectious, and struggle for inclusion inevitable. The order has been vigorously maintained through many means, more subtle after industrialisation & urbanisation, but always by the ultimate threat of violence. In the 60s, social control employed infiltration, misinformation and harassment, as detailed in this study. Newton asserts that such repression of certain groups restricts the freedoms of the entire society.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) was singled out among many dissident groups for destruction by the state. US Attorney General John Mitchell stated that the Justice Department would “wipe out the Black Panther Party by the end of 1969 [that year]”. (They were referred to as a ‘Black extremist group’, which, considering their actual activities and ideas, suggests that valuing Black life is extremism.)
Newton provides some context:
Early C20th. In 1908, the Bureau of Investigation was created. Social control over dissidence was ruthlessly maintained, with police killing protesters, rounding up socialists and anarchists, bribing witnesses. Newton notes the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, apparently for being anarchists. There were deportations of radicals, raids, arrest of union organizers and activists. After the Palmer raids in 1919 every major city police department set up an Intelligence division. In 1936 the bureau became the FBI.
In 1938 Congress set up a Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and Propaganda and in 1941 the Alien Registration Act (Smith Act) made it a crime to teach the ‘duty, desirability or propriety’ of overthrowing the government by violence. Registration of radicals and the use of wire tapping (listening to phone calls) and mail covering (reading and copying people’s letters) became widespread. After WWII, the deportation of radicals and ‘undesirable’ ‘aliens’ increased. Communist Party leaders were convicted under the Smith Act. This was the era of the McCarthy witch-hunts.
The repression of Black USians protesting and organising for rights followed similar, often more violent lines to that of white American/European communists. Newton begins his recap of this by reminding us that
African slaves were first brought to America in 1616. These slaves and their descendants fiercely resisted their oppression, and for this resistance they have suffered beatings, torture, castration, lynching, and other forms of violence
Newton thus grounds Black resistance and US state suppression in an extensive, unbroken history starting from slavery.
The BPP was formed in 1966, originally with Black nationalist aims. Newton names their socialist ideology revolutionary intercommunalism, meant to be flexible and dynamic, and used as a pragmatic interpretive framework. The Party’s ideas changed over time. Its central strategy was building ‘survival’ community service programs, intended to directly assist and foster solidarity among the Black community. They urged self-defense against poor medical care, unemployment, slum housing, under-representation in politics and other oppressions, and they set up and organised decentralised co-operative local infrastructure to do this.
Another tactic was ‘police patrols’ – members listened in to police radio comms and rushed to the scene of arrests, book of law in hand, to inform citizens of their constitutional rights, carrying weapons as was their right under law. This ‘turned the imagery of the police against them’, exposing police lawlessness. The response was a bill to repeal the law that allowed citizens to carry and display weapons, which was passed, but a BPP protest delegation of armed black men created a striking image, photographs of which increased BPP popularity among young Black people as well as government hostility and White fear.
During WWII “[state] vigilance and caution grew into xenophobia and distrust of anyone who veered noticeably from the political mainstream” and this continued through the Cold War period. In 1968 the BPP was put on Nixon’s ‘White House Enemies List’
The FBI was… aware of and disturbed by the Panthers’ efforts to build community institutions. The one survival program that seemed most laudatory – providing free breakfasts to children – was pinpointed by J. Edgar Hoover as the ‘real long range threat to American society’
The bureau decided to use the cover of a crusade against criminals and terrorists for secret police operations to destroy political resistance; they would fight ‘crime’ instead of ideology. They searched for evidence that businesses contributing to the BPP in the bay area were being extorted, to no avail. They then tried to use narcotics law. In 1973 a well-funded and resourced Drug Enforcement Agency was created with the authority to request wire taps and no-knock warrants. Its former CIA staff were expert at planting phoney evidence and distributing misinformation.
In 1967 the FBI created COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program to ‘expose, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralise the activities of the black nationalists’. 79% of COINTELPRO’s documented actions targetted the BPP; the program cost $100 million to US taxpayers. In 1976, for example, it allocated over $7 million to pay off informants and provocateurs. Many of its actions were intended to cause the death of BPP members, loss of membership and community support, draining of revenues and discrediting of Party programs and leaders.
Attempts to discredit (and confuse) Newton are documented: they are utterly insidious. Fake letters to individuals and newspapers accuse him of betrayal, while the FBI was of course able to pull strings to make such reports appear plausible. Newton was subjected to illegal telephone and microphone surveillance at his flat after his release from prison (when his conviction for manslaughter was overturned) on Hoover’s orders. The bureau then concocted and distributed a report that Newton was living in a plush penthouse and misusing Party funds – they even created a fake bank account in his name. Extensive harassment took place at his home.
Illinois BPP leader Fred Hampton whose chapter was highly active in delivering community health and welfare programs and pressuring negligent landlords to repair heating systems, and who was an energetic organiser fired with optimism and commitment, was targeted with the use of an informer and agent provocateur William O’Neal, who enabled Hampton’s bloody assassination by armed police.
A split between Eldridge Cleaver and Newton was engineered through misinformation. The bureau also sent misinformation to other Black activist groups, aiming to promote violence and conflict between them and the BPP, with mixed results.
The programs providing free hot breakfasts to children all over the USA was undermined by the FBI, who created a fake comic supposedly distributed at the breakfasts, showing police caricatured as pigs, with violent messages, and circulated it in the media and to businesses who were supporting the breakfast programs. The also plotted to halt distribution of the Party’s paper, which had a large circulation. They planned to use tax law, inducing tax authorities planned discriminatory activities based on political orientation of institutions. Newton’s private and the Party’s financial affairs were gone over meticulously, but the expensive investigation found no evidence for criminal charges
The FBI justified its actions, predictably, saying that it was protecting the American people. (Who is the American people? Do American children need to be protected from free breakfasts?) The tax authority was slightly more apologetic. The CIA, which had engaged in similar activities to the FBI, responded to revelations about its unlawful activities by destroying records and pressing for a charter to legitimize such activities in future.
The controls and apparatus necessary for the restriction of associational expression – investigations, files, informers, constant surveillance – are incompatible with a free society. [Such] [r]estriction is likely to become, in practice, an effort to suppress a whole social and political movement. History and experience warn us that such attempts are usually futile and merely tend to obscure the real grievances which society must, if it is to survive, face squarely and solve. – Thomas I Emerson
The Senate Select Committee which investigated to COINTELPRO scandal insisted on legal controls ‘to ensure that domestic intelligence activity does not itself undermine the democratic systems it is intended to protect’ but the subsequent long-running wrangles over intelligence reform produced bills that actually authorized COINTELPRO techniques and made no provision for citizens seeking redress.
I’m only too aware that my summary of the book reflects my own interests and limited understanding. I urgently recommend reading the study itself.