Surveillance Versus Black Power

Surveillance Versus Black Power


COINTELPRO, standing for Counterintelligence Program, was an FBI conspiracy that was designed originally in 1956 in an effort to hinder the Communist Party of the United States. This program expanded to include other “radical” groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party and the Black Panther Party and it lasted until 1971. Many argue that it was the Black Panther Party or Black Power Movement that was the most singled out. In FBI documents, it says that one of the purposes of the program was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black nationalists” (PBS).

There are 295 documented actions that the FBI took under COINTELPRO against Black Power Groups, 233 of those were against the Black Panther Party. This program included legal harassment, intimidation, wiretapping, infiltration, smear campaigns, and blackmail against these groups and many of these actions were illegal. It was common for the Bureau to work with police to raid the Panthers and to conduct traffic stops for them as well.

In 1966 the program was responsible for the raid that killed Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton, who helped establish the Rainbow Coalition, and Mark Clark and this raid was backed up by disputed attempted murder charges. Documents later revealed that the FBI had a detailed floor plan of Fred Hampton’s apartment before the break in. The FBI was able to get this information because they had recruited William O’Neil to join the Black Panther Party in exchange for him not getting charged for burglary. He became a paid informant for the FBI as well as the Chicago Black Panther Party Chief of Security.

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Fred Hampton
william oneal
William O’neal

The FBI sought out to take away Martin Luther King Jr.’s power and credibility. They did not stop at wiretapping and photographic surveillance for King, they actively tried to take away his power. The FBI sent him multiple anonymous letters blackmailing him to commit suicide. They also sent King’s wife photographs of King with other women in an attempt to break up their marriage.

The Counterintelligence Program targeted the actress Jean Seberg for her role in donating money to the Black Panthers. The FBI followed and wiretapped her, but did not stop there. They spread news that the actress’ unborn baby was conceded from an affair with a member of the Black Panther Party. Seberg read the news and it caused her to attempt suicide, which killed her unborn baby. She continued to attempt suicide every year around the same time until she succeeded.

COINTELPRO did everything that it could to destroy black power groups. The FBI went as far as trying to incite violence in the cities. They built up tensions between the Black Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago street gang. They sent a anonymous letter to the head of the gang falsely saying that the leader of the Chicago Black Panthers had put a hit out on him. This letter was sent with intentions of the gang and the Panthers taking each other out. The Bureau claims that a purpose of COINTELPRO was to minimize violence, however there is clear evidence that it fueled violence.

COINTELPRO was not well known outside of the Bureau and was supposed to be kept a secret. It wasn’t until 1971 that the program was publically known about, and that was not the FBI willingly giving up that information. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a Bureau office in Pennsylvania and found many documents on COINTELPRO that they released to the news agencies.

The FBI was not the only group working against the Black Power Movement. The National Security Agency also was constantly spying on Civil Rights leaders and specifically focused on Martin Luther King Jr. Many people argue that their surveillance was also illegal because it violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures”. At the time that the NSA surveillance was discovered, Senator Walter Mondale said that the NSA “could be used by President ‘A’ in the future to spy upon the American people, to chill and interrupt political dissent.”

With the constant surveillance against the black community, there was sure to be pushback. Robert Williams, a NAACP member urged blacks to arm themselves in a 1962 book called “Negroes With Guns.” There was a saying in the Black Panthers that “the only good pig is a dead pig”, showing their hatred towards police and their willingness to fight back. In 1971, the year that it was becoming known that the government was to blame for much of the violence against the black power movement, the Black Liberation Army carried out multiple attacks against officers in New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Two African-Americans killed Officer James Greene on patrol. These two were members of the Black Liberation Army and went out of their way to kill Green. They also took his badge and service weapon to show the other members of the group.

The Government had set out to destroy the Black Power Movement and more specifically the Black Panthers with their unlawful surveillance. The FBI took surveillance to another level by spreading fake news, creating violence, and issuing death threats. It is understandable that there was much pushback from other side because they were being unlawfully targeted. This dilemma is similar to the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.

The memory of COINTELPRO and the response from Black Power groups follows many of Barbie Zelizer’s premises of collective memory. It is processual because this memory is something that has in a way continued until the present. We know from Edward Snowden that the government has been spying on citizens for years. Along with this, while COINTELPRO no longer exists, there are still targeted neighborhoods and people that police surveil and there is still unwarranted violence against police officers in response to it.  The memory is usable because the program should have been something that the government looked at and realized was not only morally wrong but also illegal in many ways. We do not know how much surveillance is currently going on because that information is classified for now, but it does still exist in some way and that is why african americans feel like they are being unwarrantedly targeted.

Henry Schwartz


Works Cited:

COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

“COINTELPRO.” FBI. FBI, 05 May 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

“COINTELPRO: Teaching the FBI’s War on the Black Freedom Movement.” COINTELPRO: Teaching the FBI’s War on the Black Freedom Movement. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

“How the FBI Conspired to Destroy the Black Panther Party.” In These Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Our Hidden History. “COINTELPRO: The FBI’s War on Black America” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 22 Nov 2016. Web. 20 April 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAz3JlMK714

“The History of Surveillance and the Black Community.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. N.p., 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

“Today, a softer response to police violence than in 1960s and ’70s.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.