Muhammad Kenyatta, president of the Black Economic Development Conference in Philadelphia, on March 23, 1971, with copies of records stolen from the FBI office in Media, PA (Photo: Warren Winterbottom/AP)
On March 8, 1971 a brave group of people revealed the extent of FBI spying, harassment and even the killings of US citizens. More than 50 years later we would do well to remember the significance of their actions.
“Every field office was required to establish a ‘Racial Squad’ to coordinate coverage of what the bureau labeled ‘racial matters.’ ‘Ghetto Informers’ were a subset of the group the bureau called ‘Racial Informants.’ - The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI
On March 8, 1971 a group of 8 activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and removed every document they could find. Calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, they knew there was FBI infiltration and disruption of the antiwar movement and they were looking for proof to present to the public. They discovered far more than they anticipated.
The burglars had all been politically active and some participated in the theft of records from draft board offices. After planning for months they successfully removed documents, copied them and began sending them to newspapers and to politicians who had liberal reputations. But the New York Times and Los Angeles Times turned them over to the FBI. So did senator George McGovern and Congressional Black Caucus member Parren Mitchell. But the Washington Post did not and began publishing the stolen material. Other newspapers followed after the Post took the lead.
One year after the burglary NBC reporter Carl Stern came across one of the stolen documents with the word COINTELPRO written on it but without an explanation of its meaning. He filed what became the first successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and in 1973 he was able to report on the existence of the infamous Counter Intelligence Program.
J. Edgar Hoover began COINTELPRO in 1956 intending to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black nationalists". By 1971, the FBI had killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago. They had instigated disputes between the Black Panther Party and US Organization which resulted in the deaths of people like Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins in Los Angeles and three more men in San Diego. FBI informants perjured themselves to send Geronimo Pratt to jail for 27 years.
The date March 8 is significant and should be celebrated for obvious reasons. It should also be remembered because the right wing has been ascendant in the intervening 50 years. The political duopoly is now a conservative monolith made up of far right republicans and center right democrats. Sometimes the democrats’ conservatism isn’t even very centrist.
The shift has created great confusion, and people who think of themselves as leftists recommend obedience to the covertly right wing Democratic Party and even counsel making alliances with the self-proclaimed right. The burglars of 1971 made common cause with others in liberation movements and acted on their belief that the state’s crimes had to be exposed.
That era is now nearly forgotten, after a decades-long plan to disappear what at the time were very common radical politics. Millions of people protested against war, and many white people like the FBI burglars were true comrades who should not be described with the amorphous and now unserious term of “ally.”
Acknowledging their actions is very important given that the U.S. is far more conservative now, in the throes of a neoliberal plutocracy, dangerous imperialism, and amnesia about what radical movements accomplished. Fifty-two years after the burglary the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. The New York Times printed the Pentagon Papers but now says nothing when proof of the Biden administration terror attack on the Nord Stream pipeline is revealed. Even if a group could successfully steal FBI documents today, there would probably be no major newspaper willing to touch the story.
The discovery of COINTELPRO resulted in cosmetic change and a public relations effort to give the appearance that intelligence agencies would be controlled by congress. A committee chaired by Senator Frank Church made headlines, but allowed the FBI to submit heavily redacted documents, some of which remain classified.
The FBI is still infiltrating Black led organizations, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden live in exile. Julian Assange is fighting extradition to the U.S. Some political prisoners remain jailed after many decades. Black people are the main victims of FBI entrapment.
These setbacks are reasons to remember the victories of the past. The burglars all managed to avoid arrest and cut off contact with one another for years in order to prevent one weak link from exposing them all, and they revealed their identities only after the statute of limitations of their crime had passed. The commitment and discipline they exhibited are examples of how movement people ought to act and are lessons that must be remembered today.
Instead of believing in left/right alliances, leftists should be building the kind of organizations that can garner wide support and withstand attack. Existing organizations must be defended and solidarity must be the order of the day.
The movement of the 1960s and 1970s were attacked and ultimately destroyed because they were successful at mobilizing millions of people to fight for liberation, and to end police terror and wars. Surely we can accomplish some of what radical groups and individuals accomplished 50 years ago. We don’t really have a choice though. The system that has been cultivated for the last 50 years is one which we cannot survive.
Margaret Kimberley is the author of Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents. You can support her work on Patreon and also find it on the Twitter and Telegram platforms. She can be reached via email at margaret.kimberley(at)blackagendareport.com.