MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 21

International Socialist Review, January–February 2002

Annie Levin

Federal Bureau of Intimidation:
The FBI’s record of repression


From International Socialist Review, Issue 21, January–February 2002
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Annie Levin is a middle school teacher and a member of the International Socialist Organization in Boston.

The Constitution has been slain in the house of its friends. So far as colored people are concerned, the Constitution has been a stupendous sham, a rope of sand, a Dead Sea apple, fair without and foul within, keeping the promise to the eye and breaking it to the heart.
Frederick Douglass, 18861

ON DECEMBER 1, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that as part of the war against terrorism he wants the FBI to officially resume spying on political and religious organizations in the United States. In effect, Ashcroft hopes to revive the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). He smugly criticized “some who have sought to condemn us with faulty facts or without facts at all. Others have simply rushed to judgement, almost eagerly assuming the worst of their government before they’ve had a chance to understand it at its best.”2

Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller hope to revive the image of the FBI as heroic crime fighters against “evil.” But we must remember the FBI’s real history. For more than 70 years, the FBI has waged a violent, illegal, and unchecked war against movements for social change in the United States. The truth is that the FBI has never been about justice. It has never been about protecting the safety of ordinary people. It has never been about stopping terrorism but has actually perpetrated “state-sponsored terrorism” from its inception. It has used every war of the 20th century to expand its powers in the name of national security. There is no reason to believe that the FBI under Ashcroft or Mueller would function any differently.

Red Scare

Despite its claims to political neutrality (alongside its shiny image as mainly a crusader against organized crime), the FBI has, in reality, waged a decades-long war on three main “enemies”: activists struggling for Black freedom, the labor movement, and socialist movements.

The FBI was founded in an era of world war and revolution. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the U.S. population was seriously divided over whether the U.S. should intervene. Millions of people opposed the war, including the main left groups at the time, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Party of America–which together probably had more than 100,000 members. Large numbers of workers failed to report for the armed services. In one Pennsylvania town, 40 percent of the men who registered gave false addresses.3 Socialist Party meetings against the war drew thousands of people in towns across the country. Woodrow Wilson’s administration understood the twin dangers it faced: anti-war sentiment in the working class and, after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the spread of socialist ideas.

The First World War saw an unprecedented government intervention into the economy and an expanded government bureaucracy to gear production toward the war effort. Along with this came the centralization of political repression. In June 1917, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer created a special political section of the Justice Department, the “Radical Division,” and chose 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover to head it up. Their mission was to work with the Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB) to suppress dissent against the war and stop what they saw as a rising tide of Bolshevism. During and after the war these agents openly expressed their fears of workers’ revolution taking place in the United States. The MIB even had an operation called “War Plans White” that prepared for the scenario of an armed uprising by 1.5 million U.S. workers.4

Congress passed three pieces of legislation between 1917 and 1919 to suppress all forms of dissent. The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime punishable by a fine of $10,000 and 20 years in jail to attempt to “convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies...or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal to duty.”5 The Sedition Act of 1918, under the same penalties, made it illegal to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States ... or any language intended to ... encourage resistance to the United States.”6 The third piece of legislation, passed in 1918, decreed that “any alien who, at any time after entering the United States, is found to have been at the time of entry, or to have become thereafter, a member of any one of the classes of aliens”–anarchists, anyone who advocated revolution or assassinations of public officials–would be “taken into custody and deported.”7

The press, pulpit and business leaders bayed for blood against the left–especially against the IWW. The Tulsa World, an organ of the oil companies, sounded the tocsin: “The first step in whipping Germany is to strangle the IWWs. Kill them, just as you would kill any other kind of snake. Don’t scotch ’em, kill ’em dead. It is no time to waste money on trials and continuance and things like that. All that is necessary is the evidence and a firing squad.”8

In one of many incidents of vigilante violence across the country, encouraged by politicians and the media, 11 IWW members organizing oil industry workers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were dragged from their cells (where they were serving time for “vagrancy”), beaten, tarred, and feathered by hooded members of the “Knights of Liberty.” Vigilante violence was supplemented with harsh legal action. In September 1917, the federal government conducted a series of raids across the country against IWW leaders and rank-and-file. Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood was arrested and tried along with 165 other defendants. Ninety-five were found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, and several leaders, including Haywood, were handed hefty fines and 20-year prison sentences. Thirty-three were sentenced to 10 years, 35 others to five years. The IWW was driven underground by the repression. Eugene Debs, Kate Richards O’Hare, and other socialist leaders were also sent to prison for opposing the war. So too were anarchist leaders Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. According to the 1919 Socialist Party executive committee report:

Hundreds of comrades were arrested and an era of persecution set in, [and] “Patriotic” societies organized a White terror in many parts of the country. Locals and branches were destroyed, party members were boycotted, and in some states they were the victims of mobs. Our press was largely destroyed and the few publications that survived were deprived of their mailing privileges. Government spies dogged the heels of party members and in some of the larger cities our headquarters were raided by government officials. Some were sacked by mobs.9

But the wartime repression did not crush the labor movement. When the war ended, a wave of class struggle engulfed the United States. One writer describes 1919 as “one of those dramatic years, like 1968, filled with unrest, protest, and the clashing of social and political forces, when, for a short moment, the future of the nation seemed to hang in the balance.”10 The end of the war threw the economy into chaos. Hundreds of thousands of veterans lost their jobs. Even conservative union leaders were calling for nationalization of the railroads and the mines. Four million workers, one-quarter of the workforce, went on strike in 1919.

Big Business went on a counteroffensive with a national campaign of its own, promoting the “open shop”11 as “100 percent Americanism” and denouncing all trade unionism as “Bolshevism.” They turned to the government to help them wage their war on the labor movement. The First World War had left in place an expanded intelligence operation that was capable of carrying out repression on a national scale. The stage was set for a joint campaign between business and the government to crush the working-class upsurge.

Palmer Raids

In June 1919, Attorney General Palmer requested and received $500,000 from Congress to “fight radicalism.” His pretext was a series of eight bombings across the country‹including one in the front of Palmer’s house earlier that month–that had killed one nightwatchman. Without any evidence, the New York Times immediately concluded that the bombings were “plainly of Bolshevik or IWW origin”–though neither of these organizations advocated or practiced such tactics. To ensure that Congress would give him the money, Palmer claimed that another plot would be carried out on July 4. “We have received so many notices and got so much information that it has almost come to be accepted as fact that on a certain day, which we have been advised of, there will be another [attempt] to rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop.”12

On November 7, 1919, the General Intelligence Division (GID, forerunner to the FBI) launched the first of the infamous Palmer Raids. GID agents raided offices in 12 cities of an organization called the Union of Russian Workers. They arrested 650 people without warrants. By December 21, Palmer had arranged for 242 of these “radical aliens” to be deported to the USSR without so much as a trial. This proved to be only a dress rehearsal. On January 2, 1920, in one terrible day, the GID raided radical organizations in 30 cities. They arrested somewhere between five and ten thousand people. Not a single search or arrest warrant was ever issued. Thousands of members of the newly formed Communist Party (CP) were arrested. According to one account,

The massive arrests completely overwhelmed detention facilities in many areas. In Detroit, eight hundred persons were detained for up to six days in a dark, windowless narrow corridor in the city’s federal building. They had access to one toilet and were denied food for twenty four hours ... Many of those arrested were beaten or threatened while in detention; in some cases, persons coming to visit or bail out those arrested were themselves arrested on suspicion of being communists. Palmer explained such persons were “practically the same as a person found in an active meeting of the [CP].13

Further raids and deportations only ended by the order of a U.S. district judge in June. But the damage had already been done:

The more lasting significance of the red scare ... was its devastation of all the organizations that had been built up so laboriously for 20 years which were capable of providing leadership for any sort of radical political or labor movement–the Socialist Party of America, the IWW, the CP ... [And the] general climate of repression that prevailed throughout the twenties made it very difficult for rebuilding to occur.14

Even after the Red Scare ended, the U.S. continued to deport thousands of radicals. By 1921, 35 states had antiradical statutes on the books. More than 30 states had “red flag” laws that made it illegal to carry a revolutionary banner. In 1922, the FBI and police raided the national convention of the CP and arrested 20 leaders on charges of “criminal syndicalism.” The effect on the fledgling Communist Party was devastating. In 1919, before the Palmer Raids, the CP had 27,341 members. By April 1920, they were reduced to 8,223 members.15

To state officials, the GID had proved its usefulness. One historian writes, “The Radical Division played a decisive role in shaping the Red Scare by establishing a huge archive on radical activists and organizations, collecting and analyzing thousands of radical publications, investigating a number of major strikes and riots ... and publicizing the radical danger through a carefully conducted propaganda campaign.”16

In 1924, the GID was expanded and renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI. Hoover became its director, a position he would hold until his death in 1972. The FBI’s side in the class struggle was clearly shown in its first major case: the brutal repression of the 1926ñ28 textile strikes on the East Coast and in North Carolina.

The FBI also cultivated relationships with vigilante groups that could be called upon to provide the muscle to break up strikes, carry out raids, even lynchings. For example, the FBI played a key role in the development of the far-right American Legions. The Legions was the main veterans’ organization after the First World War. For most veterans, it was a social group; but at its core were tens of thousands of members committed to doing street battle with “reds.” The Legions had been founded by officers›as a conscious attempt to rein in angry soldiers who, it was feared, would come home from the war with their head full of Bolshevik ideas. Fifty-five percent of its founding members were upper-class officers. Wealthy U.S. industrialists put up the financial backing for the Legions, including $100,000 from J.P. Morgan.17

It was not inevitable that the Legions would emerge as the main representative of veterans. There was also a left-wing veterans organization called World War Veterans (WWV) whose program called for jobs and land for veterans, nationalization of the railroads, and the right to collective bargaining. The FBI intervened decisively to push the WWV off the stage, spying on its leaders, and assisting the Legions in carrying out vigilante attacks on WWV meetings.18

In fact, the bombings that prompted the Palmer Raids were never solved. They were used as a pretext to suppress dissent.

J. Edgar Hoover

Hoover used the Palmer Raids to establish his credentials as the foremost crusader against communism, which he considered “the most evil, monstrous conspiracy against man since time began.”19

Those who make excuses for the FBI’s crimes have often blamed Hoover for its “excesses.” This argument portrays Hoover as an egomaniacal genius, more powerful than any president, and completely out of control. Hoover certainly wielded an enormous amount of power. He kept files on various high-level officials throughout his career–”dirt” that could be used if anyone tried to move against him. Memos in the COINTELPRO files reveal that the director had a personal hand in designing and overseeing the FBI’s most destructive operations.

But though he may have operated with a great deal of autonomy, Hoover was not leading some rogue operation. The FBI’s own files show that his work was approved of by every administration he served, Democrat and Republican. In 1954, the Congressional Doolittle Committee reported, “As long as [anti-communism] remains national policy, an important requirement is an aggressive, covert, psychological, political, and paramilitary organization more effective, more unique and if necessary, more ruthless than that employed by the enemy. No one should be permitted to stand in the way of the prompt, efficient, and secure establishment of this mission.”20

As for Congress, they controlled the purse strings for the FBI and chose to keep the funds flowing. In all his years in charge, Hoover never got less money in his budget than he requested, and several times, they gave him more. And there was no Congressional oversight of the FBI until the scandals of the 1970s. Perhaps the other branches of government turned a blind eye to his activities because it was easier that way to keep their own hands clean. The fact remains that Hoover never carried out an operation that opposed the policies or interests of any administration he served.

The war against Black liberation

From its inception, the FBI viciously targeted any movement that fought for Black freedom, no matter how moderate. Just after the U.S. entered the First World War, the Military Intelligence Bureau opened its first file on “Negro Subversion” and banned the NAACP newspaper, The Crisis, from all military bases.21 One FBI agent in Oklahoma complained in an MIB report that the Black press “was sprinkled with such well known Communistic phrases as ‘Civil Liberties,’ ‘Inalienable Rights,’ and ‘Freedom of Speech and of the Press.’”22

During the Cold War, the Bureau targeted high-profile figures who spoke out for socialism and Black liberation. W.E.B. DuBois recalled in his autobiography:

The secret police swarmed in my neighborhood asking about my visitors. My mail was tampered with or withheld. Negro papers were warned not to carry my writings nor mention prominently my name. Colleges ceased to invite my lectures. From being a person whom every Negro in the nation knew by name at leastÖ[there has been an erasure of] my past or present existence.23

Even more tragic was the case of Paul Robeson, the famous Black actor, singer, and socialist, who was one of the few people called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Robeson publicly denounced HUAC and defended his left-wing politics. His son, Paul Robeson Jr., believes that FBI harassment drove his father into the mental collapse that eventually claimed his life. When Robeson’s files were opened under the Freedom of Information Act, his family learned that the FBI used a psychological profile of Robeson to develop their COINTELPRO plan on him.24 Robeson Jr. writes,

From the files I received, it was obvious that there were agents who did nothing but follow every public event of my father, or even of me ... It took on a life of its own ... Over time, even for someone as powerful and with as many resources as my dad had ... the attrition got to him.25

The civil rights movement

The emerging civil rights movement in the South became the next focus of FBI operations. From 1946ñ60, the FBI operated 3,000 wiretaps and 800 bugs on the NAACP.26 In 1957, FBI supervisor J.G. Kelly sent a memo to the FBI’s Atlanta office that Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC ) was “a likely target for communist infiltration ... In view of the stated purpose of the organization you should remain alert for public source information concerning it in connection with the racial situation.”27

There is a myth that during the civil rights era, the federal government only intervened on the side of the protesters against the Southern racist establishment. But as civil rights leader (now Congressman) John L. Lewis described:

Many of us tended to look to the federal government as a sympathetic referee in our struggle for civil rights. We became disillusioned. In the midst of our effort to desegregate Albany ... the Department of Justice served indictments against peaceful picketers. Yet they never indicted those who were preventing us from exercising our constitutional rights ... That sent a message. It incurred great fear and misgivings on the part of those we were trying to organize. And we had the strange feeling it had been sanctioned at the very highest level of government, that it was a political decision.

On a great many occasions [the FBI] catered to the local officials and seemed partisan toward existing segregationist customs. J. Edgar Hoover saw our movement as a conspiracy. We assumed he was watching us. Instead of the FBI spending their time finding the bombers, the midnight assassins, the brutal racists who denied us our rights, they were out looking for “Communist” influence in the civil rights movement.28

The FBI tried to discredit and destroy Martin Luther King. In 1963, Assistant Director William C. Sullivan wrote to Hoover,

We must mark [MLK] now, if we have not before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security ... It may be unrealistic to limit [counterintelligence] to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees.29

In 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized round-the-clock surveillance of the SCLC office and King’s home.30 When the COINTELPRO files were later opened, they contained memos describing an insane plot to try to coerce King into committing suicide. After King won the Nobel Prize, the FBI sent him an anonymous letter and an audiotape that supposedly proved King’s involvement with prostitutes. The letter (now known to have been written by FBI internal security supervisor Seymor F. Phillips) told King that the tape would be released to the media unless he killed himself. It read, in part, “King there is only one thing left for you. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do [it] ... You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”31 King chose not to comply, and the plot was foiled.

In 1961, Freedom Riders rode Greyhound buses through the South to integrate the bus system. Walter Bergman, a white Freedom Rider who was 60 years old at the time, was on a bus that was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan beat the activists with broken bottles while local police stood outside the bus and watched. The attack paralyzed Bergman–he was never able to walk again. In 1977, Bergman filed suit against the FBI for his injuries and won his claim. In the course of the trial it was revealed that one of the Klansmen in the attack had actually been an undercover FBI agent. The agent had informed the FBI in advance about the ambush. Not only did the FBI decide to do nothing, but the agent took part in the beatings.32

Black Power

When the civil rights movement moved North to confront systematic racism and poverty, many of its leaders developed revolutionary politics. The FBI shifted its focus accordingly. The Detroit and Newark rebellions of 1967 spurred Hoover to launch a COINTELPRO operation against Black nationalism. In a memo dated August 25, 1967, Hoover instructed FBI field offices that

[t]he purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.33

Hoover followed up with a more detailed agenda on March 4, 1968. He enumerated the goals for the new covert action:

1. Prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups.... An effective coalition of black nationalist groups might be the first step towardÖthe beginning of a true black revolution.

2. Prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a “messiah.” He is martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammed all aspire to this position.34

Stokely Carmichael, the revolutionary Black nationalist who first raised the slogan “Black Power,” described what his life was like under the new COINTELPRO:

There was constant harassment. Constant. [My wife was] cut out of jobs everywhere. The FBI would sit in front of my house in their car ... They followed me twenty-four hours a day. And they didn’t even hide it.

They even harrassed his mother. “They would call her up around three o’clock in the morning: ëHave you heard from him recently?’ Or ëWe got him.’ Or ëHe’s going to be killed.’ Each time they’d say they were someone else, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Black Panther Party. I told her, ‘Listen, don’t worry. It’s the FBI. Just ask them where their mama is.’”35

By 1967, Hoover had zeroed in on the organization that he felt posed the greatest threat to the American establishment. the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). Hoover was horrified by the Panther’s embrace of revolutionary politics, their advocacy of armed self-defense against the police, their willingness to make alliances with other groups on the left, and above all, the mass support the Panthers were winning from Black people across the country. Destroying the Panthers root and branch became Hoover’s obsession and the FBI’s primary occupation after 1967. On September 8, 1968, Hoover told the New York Times that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest [single] threat to the internal security of the country.”36 Of the FBI’s 295 admitted COINTELPRO operations against Black nationalists, 233 were against the Panthers.37

The memos launching COINTELPRO operations against the Black Panther Party verge on hysteria. One from Assistant Director Sullivan to Hoover warned, “The extremist BPP of Oakland California is rapidly expanding. It is the most violence-prone organization of all the extremist groups now operating in the United StatesÖ. It therefore is essential that we not only accelerate our investigations of this organization and increase our informants in the organization but that we take actionÖto disrupt the group.”38

The FBI used every method in its arsenal against the Panthers to disrupt them. One memo to Sullivan proposed “suggestionsÖto create factionalism between not only the national leaders but also local leaders, step to neutralize all organizational efforts of the BPP as well as create suspicion amongst the leaders as to each others’ sources of finances, suspicion concerning their respective spouses, and suspicion as to who may be cooperating with law enforcement.”39

And when these methods failed to “neutralize” the Panthers, the Bureau stepped up the intensity of the war:

From April to December 1969, police raided Panther headquarters in San Francisco, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Denver, San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, including four separate raids in Chicago, two in San Diego, two in Los Angeles ... [348 Panthers were arrested during the whole year] ... [D]uring a raid in Sacramento in June 1969, in search of an alleged sniper who was never found, police sprayed the building with teargas, shot up the walls, broke typewriters, and destroyed bulk food the Panthers were distributing free to ghetto childrenÖ. During raids on the Panther’s headquarters in Philadelphia in September 1970, police ransacked the office, ripped out plumbing, chopped up and carted away furniture. Six Panthers were lead into the street, placed against a wall and stripped as Police Chief [later mayor] Frank Rizzo boasted to newsmen, “Imagine the big Black Panthers with their pants down.”40

In 1969, the FBI organized the murder of two leading Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, in Chicago. At 4 a.m. on the morning of December 9, a SWAT team of Chicago police armed with submachine guns charged into Hampton’s apartment. The police carried no bullhorns, spotlights, or teargas. They broke down the door and quickly fired more than 90 bullets through the apartment. The Panthers in the apartment got off only one shot, into the ceiling.

Flint Taylor, the attorney for the survivors of the raid, describes the horror he found when he walked through the apartment the next day:

If I wanted to point to one thing that had the greatest effect on my development, on my commitment to social justice, being in that apartment those eighteen hours would be it. To see the horrible violence that had been inflicted was incredible. The Panthers did an astute political thing. They organized tours of the apartment. There were lines around the block waiting to go inÖ. I remember an older Black woman shaking her head saying, “It ain’t nothing but a northern lynching.”41

In 1976, the mothers of the victims filed a civil rights suit against the FBI. The COINTELPRO files released during the trial showed that the FBI had an informant named William O’Neal in the Chicago Panthers. O’Neal was a trusted friend of Hampton and chief of security in the Chicago chapter. Taylor described, “He was the classic provocateur under COINTELPRO, always suggesting far-out violent schemes. He turned out to be the Judas who helped set up Fred Hampton’s murder.”42

O’Neal fed information to FBI agent Roy Mitchell, who worked closely with the Chicago Police Department’s Gang Intelligence Unit, the squad that dealt specifically with Black organizations. Days before the raid, O’Neal gave Mitchell a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment that indicated where Hampton and his fiancÈe Akua Ajeri (who was eight months pregnant with their child at the time of the raid) usually slept. Also in the files was a memo from the Chicago FBI to Hoover, taking credit for the success of the operation and asking for a bonus for O’Neal. The bonus was quickly paid out. Taylor also believes that there is strong evidence that O’Neal drugged Hampton on the day of the raid. Hampton’s autopsy showed a large amount of secobarbital in his system, despite the fact that he was militantly against drugs. Hampton was shot in the head in his bed. He never even woke up. In 1982, after many appeals, the courts finally awarded survivors of the raid $1.85 million in damages. But to this day, no police or FBI agents have ever been indicted for these ruthless murders.43

No article could possible chronicle all of the FBI’s abuses against the Panthers. But even a short list reveals the ferocity of the FBI’s war:

An earlier memo from Hoover dated November 29, 1968, celebrated the “tangible results” of this particular strategy:

Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continue to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program. In view of the recent killing of BPP member Sylvester Bell, a new cartoon is being considered in the hopes that it will assist in the continuance of the rift between BPP and US.46

Even celebrities and white supporters of the Panthers felt the wrath of the FBI. When actress Jean Seberg, a Panther supporter, was four months pregnant the FBI planted the story in the press that she was pregnant, not by her husband, but by Black Panther Romaine Gary. Seberg was emotionally unstable, which the FBI knew, and after the false story came out, she attempted suicide and miscarried. Years later, in 1979, on the anniversary of her miscarriage, she successfully committed suicide.47 (Her husband sued the FBI and won monetary compensation, but again, no FBI agent was ever indicted.)

Then there were the dozens of Panthers who were framed by the FBI or local police for crimes of which they were clearly innocent. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the frame-ups of Panthers Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and H. Rap Brown inspired mass movements for their freedom. Geronimo Pratt, who was sent to prison for life in the early 1970s on the basis of the perjured testimony of an FBI informant, was finally freed in 1997. Perhaps the last victim of COINTELPRO operations against the BPP is Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been on Pennsylvania’s death row since 1983, a political prisoner of the racists who run the state of Pennsylvania.

Will the FBI always win?

There are many activists who believe that any movement we build will be infiltrated and destroyed by the FBI. How can a movement be built that can withstand the FBI’s dirty tricks? The periods of American radicalism when the left was the most rooted in the working class, when it involved the largest numbers of people, were those when they were able to withstand repression. The periods when the left was isolated from the vast majority of workers or failed to overcome racism and division in its own ranks were those when the left became the most vulnerable. While the blame for all state repression must rest squarely with the brutality of the state itself, we must look critically at some of the strategies that have made activists vulnerable to infiltration.

Turn briefly to the period of the greatest class struggle in U.S. history, the era of the Great Depression, when tens of thousands of U.S. workers were members of the Communist Party, millions more were influenced by radical politics, and this core in the working-class movement provided the basis for the organization of 5 million industrial workers into the CIO unions. The left was a formidable force. Unlike the socialist movement after the First World War, the socialists recognized in the 1930s the importance of overcoming racism and built integrated unions, taking away from the bosses one of their key weapons.

The corporations and the government did eventually lash back against socialists and communists, and against labor as a whole–but it is significant that they did not begin their witchhunt in the early 1930s, when the struggle was rising and winning victories. Why didn’t McCarthyism’s witch-hunt against communists begin right away in 1934, when workers shut down three major cities with general strikes? Or in 1936 or 1937, when autoworkers occupied the factories and won their unions?

The backlash did not begin until after the labor movement experienced setbacks. The CIO leadership began to put the brakes on the independent action of rank- and-file workers (the sit-down strikes in particular), the very strategies that had won so many victories. Labor’s string of victorious struggles was dealt a serious blow with the failure of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to organize the steel industry in the way that they had successfully done in auto. Labor suffered a major attack on Memorial Day, 1937, when police attacked a peaceful demonstration of steelworkers and their families in Chicago, killing 10 and injuring hundreds more.

These defeats opened the door for the government to intervene against the workers. The following year, in May 1938, the reactionary Texas Democrat, Congressman Martin Dies, formed the House Un-American Activities Committee, initially billed as a seven-month campaign to investigate communist “propaganda” in the CIO and the New Deal. (Congress continued to renew HUAC every year until it became a permanent committee in 1945.) In 1939, President Roosevelt and his Labor Secretary Francis Perkins launched an investigation into the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB had been created as part of the New Deal to arbitrate disputes between capital and labor. Now FDR and Perkins were saying that the NLRB was too “biased” toward labor. Hoover, backed by the administration, launched a purge of the “disloyal” elements in the NLRB. By the mid-1940s, its decisions were much less friendly to labor.48

This was another victory for the reaction, but still, in 1939, even the Dies Committee could not simply go for the Communist Party right away. The CP reached its height in membership at the end of the 1930s. It had too much support in the working class and too much of a foothold in the unions to be crushed. It could not, at this point, be isolated from the rest of society. So its force had to be chipped away at from other angles.

This explains why the first socialists that the government went after were not Communist Party members, but members of the much smaller and more isolated Trotskyist group, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). On June 15, 1940, FDR signed the “Alien Registration Act,” also called the Smith Act. One of its provisions made it illegal to talk about overthrowing the government by “force and violence.” This was the first peacetime sedition act, something Hoover had been fighting for since the beginning of his career.49 The first to be indicted under the Smith Act were 29 SWP members. The Communist Party made a fatal error when they refused to defend the socialists or challenge the Smith Act. (If the CP had led a fight to repeal the Smith Act, perhaps labor would have been in a stronger position to stop the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act that was passed in 1947 under Truman–or to defend themselves when they came under attack.) It didn’t help the CP that they continued to support the very administration (Roosevelt’s) that was carrying out the attacks against their members, or that they burned bridges with other workers during the Second World War when they insisted that workers abide by FDR’s wartime “no strike pledge.”

It wasn’t until 1948, after the antiradical purges in the unions were well underway, that the government and the FBI felt themselves in a strong enough position to attack the CP head-on. The Justice Department indicted 12 CP leaders under the Smith Act. Two years later, the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 required the CP to register itself and all its “front groups” as “foreign agencies” and to label its publications “communist propaganda.” The 10-month trial that resulted in conviction was Hoover’s shining star, a prize he had been preparing for a decade. The FBI “had conceived of it, shaped it, and brought it to a successful conclusion.” It was the “centerpiece in the educational campaign to alert the rest of the nation to the dangers of communism.”50 This was the case that outlawed the CP and officially began the McCarthy era. In a 1948 memo to Hoover, the assistant director of the FBI said he hoped the trial would “result in a judicial precedent being set that the Communist Party as an organization is illegal” and thus make it possible for the FBI to go after “its individual members and close adherents or sympathizers.”51 The aim of suppressing the CP was to suppress all forms of struggle–to criminalize dissent. An important lesson of this period is that the working-class movement is only as strong as its left wing.

“Nothing they did stopped us from organizing”

Stokely Carmichael said about the FBI,

We saw them exactly for what they were, not the way television presented them. We saw what cowards they were. We saw their racism, their defense of segregated policies. When somebody’s house was burnt up, we knew who did it. The people always knew. At fi¸st, we would present the facts to the FBI. But we learned that it would endanger the local person who had seen it. The FBI office was right next to the local police. They were chummy, chummy pals. They were sharing informationŠ. But nothing they did stopped us from organizing.52

As ruthless as the FBI has been, they have never been able to crush the spirit of resistance in the United States. Part of what drove Hoover crazy about “communism” (which is what he labeled virtually every form of struggle for a better world) was that it could seem to be thoroughly destroyed only to rise again in a new generation of struggle. In spite of the repression and dirty tricks of the 1920s, movements in the 1930s built mass industrial unions; in spite of the McCarthyism of the 1950s, mass struggle won civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s; in spite of COINTELPRO, the antiwar movement thrived and contributed to the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam.

The activism of the 1960s also shows that the FBI is not invincible. It can be beaten back. Jailed political prisoners like Geronimo Pratt can be freed. In the wake of Watergate, when many Americans felt that the U.S. was running a secret government, Congress was finally forced to end COINTELPRO (at least officially). The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which investigated FBI crimes, concluded that the Bureau “which was charged by law with investigating crimes and preventing criminal conduct, itself engaged in lawless tactics and responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest.”53 Activists also used the Freedom of Information Act to open up thousands of FBI files and win some major court victories against the FBI. Perhaps the ultimate irony of J. Edgar Hoover’s legacy was that when evidence of his crimes became public, it only helped to deepen the radicalization of the 1970s and the popular disillusionment with the government.

The FBI can be fought successfully. But as socialists have always recognized, a society where a tiny minority controls all the wealth while billions live in poverty and oppression will always need force to protect its power. They will always need an army, a secret police, a prison system. The only way to win a world that is free from this repression is to fight for socialism.

* * *


1 Quoted in Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz, The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 119.

2 David Johnson and Don Van Natta, Jr., “Ashcroft weighs erasing FBI limits for surveillance,” New York Times, December 1, 2001.

3 James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 (Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1984), p. 136.

4 Regin Schmidt, Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States (Copenhagen: Museum of Tusculanum Press, 2000), p. 25.

5 Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919–1920 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 13-14.

6 Murray, p. 14.

7 Murray, p. 14.

8 Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 7: Labor and World War I, 1914–1918 (New York: Progress Publishers, 1987), p. 294.

9 Foner, pp. 317ñ318.

10 Schmidt, p. 24.

11 “Open shop” refers to a workplace in which workers are not required to be in a union.

12 Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), p. 77.

13 Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, (Boston: South End Press, 1990), p. 35.

14 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 35.

15 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 35.

16 Schmidt, p. 159.

17 Schmidt, p. 36.

18 Schmidt, p. 114.

19 Gentry, p. 81.

20 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 49.

21 Schultz, p. 125.

22 Schultz, p. 126.

23 Schultz, p. 131.

24 Schultz, p. 149.

25 Schultz, p. 146.

26 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 95.

27 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 95.

28 Schultz, p. 169.

29 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 96.

30 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 96.

31 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 99.

32 Schultz, p. 161.

33 Churchill and Vander Wall, p 108.

34 Excerpted from FBI documents in Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 108–10.

35 Schultz, p. 210.

36 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 123.

37 Schultz, p. 220.

38 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 124.

39 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 125.

40 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 142.

41 Schultz, p. 245.

42 Schultz, p. 242.

43 See Schultz, p. 218ñ249 for the whole story, including testimony by survivors of the raid.

44 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 126.

45 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 133.

46 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 133.

47 Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 184.

48 Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 93.

49 Schrecker, p. 97.

50 Schrecker, p. 203.

51 Schrecker, p. 191.

52 Schultz, p. 213.

53 Schultz, p. 219.

Last updated on 9 August 2022