Cointelpro: How the US Government Dissected Dissent 1956–1977

In Rage Against the Machine’s, “Wake Up,” Zack de la Rocha reads a 1968 FBI memo: “Through counter-intelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential trouble-makers and neutralize them.” If you ever wondered what that was about, this is the story of that counter-intelligence program.

History books teach us that Civil Rights legislation marked the end of structural racism in America. A lovely conclusion, unfortunately diluted by rose-colored glasses.

In 1971, a cab driver, a day care provider, and two professors stole 1,000 documents from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. They called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, and their discovery would lead to undeniable proof of covert government operations to subvert civil rights groups.

From 1956–1977, the FBI operated a secret program of political oppression called Cointelpro to discredit and disband organizations, communities, and leaders deemed a threat to America by J. Edgar Hoover. Their targets included Martin Luther King, Jr., the American Indian Movement, Women’s Liberation Leaders, and the Black Panther Party.

Notice anything similar? Targets tended to be women and people of color, those opposed to the war in Vietnam, and people with the power to mobilize and organize the poor. Out of the 295 cases opened by Cointelpro, only two identified white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan as threats.

In their own words:

“The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or 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.”

This document was later amended to remove “black nationalist,” but thanks to the Citizens’ Commission, that paperwork still survives.

Who Did Cointelpro Target?

Women Activists

Women organizers were often monitored by the FBI in an effort to isolate and scare them into submission. But women like Audley Moore, a lifelong activist since the Great Depression, happily criticized her captors and did not cower when brought in for interrogation. In fact she ended the interview by declaring that “she did not wish to be interviewed again.”

Ericka Huggins, member of the Black Panther Party, described the FBI placing informants, “not just in our kitchens and living rooms…but in our beds as well.” Undeterred, women organizers, especially women of color, continued to risk freedom and safety for their communities.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The FBI tapped Dr. King’s phones, blackmailed him with recordings of his extramarital affair, and even sent fake letters from the black community suggesting that he kill himself.

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is…You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” Read the full, unredacted letter from the FBI here.

Dr. King was the embodiment of Cointelpro’s mission to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”

The American Indian Movement (AIM)

AIM had the power to organize for self-sovereignty, especially when it came to removing corrupt US government-backed tribal leaders, making them ripe targets for Cointelpro tactics.

The FBI sought “arrest . . . on every possible charge, until they can no longer make bail,” against AIM. Leonard Peltier was accused and wrongly convicted for the murder of two FBI agents by an all-white jury. Even the judge believed evidence was “improperly withheld from the defense” (United States v. Peltier). Peltier is still serving two life sentences today.

Other members of AIM were dragged through long trials for petty, minor charges often thrown out in the end, successfully bankrupting the organization for defending them.

The Black Panther Party

The FBI used local police and justice officials to raid Black Panther party homes with little to no evidence, often arresting key leaders with implanted evidence. Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a Black Panther leader, was jailed for 27 years before a California court dismissed the charges. He passed away in 2011. There are still 19 Black Panther members incarcerated today.

Chairman Fred Hampton was the outspoken revolutionary and chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Hampton professed education over everything and started the Rainbow Coalition, uniting with poor whites in Chicago to fight against poverty. On December 4, 1969, Chicago police at the behest of the FBI raided Hampton’s building with submachine guns and shotguns. They killed Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, while Hampton slept next to his 8 ½-month pregnant girlfriend.

What can Cointelpro teach us about today?

How can we carry on the legacy of those who fought against Cointelpro and lost? Their sacrifice lives on in our power to identify and resist efforts to 
divide us.

Defamation is Distraction

It’s unavoidable to witness a tradition of government-sponsored infiltration and violence. Cointelpro teaches us to question efforts by the media and government to discredit the outspoken or those that might rally a movement. Look beyond moral attacks on a person or group’s character to understand their message. Is Edward Snowden a traitor? Is Emma Gonzalez simply a communist? Is Patrisse Cullors a terrorist to be feared?

At the same turn, we should be outraged by those co-opting people and movements, once they’ve been neutralized in the public eye. In 2017, the FBI tweeted this homage to Dr. King:

The Future is Leaderless

Because state-sponsored violence so easily destroys individuals, we no longer have the luxury of looking up to a uniting voice. No presidential candidate, no congressperson is the “somebody” we’ve been waiting for. Movements around the world like #BlackLivesMatter or the Gulabi Gang begin with individuals doing the work to contribute in whatever way they know how.

Divide, Conquer, Control

The Civil Rights movement and the targets of Cointelpro stirred up a larger, more frightening issue — class inequality. Just like the Young Patriots and the Black Panther Party came together to fight poverty, so too can we find more in common with each other than those with unyielding power. Remain cautious of attempts to divide us through anger, ignorance, and pride.