by Jeremy Miller
On the 12th of February, right in the middle of Black History Month, the bombshell new film “Judas and the Black Messiah” dropped. Chronicling the infiltration of FBI asset William O’Neal into the Chicago Black Panther Party and his eventual role in the assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton, the film brought screaming into relief the racially charged and murderously corrupt nature of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover.
Just three weeks later, on March 8, this historical gaze was reprised when the 50th anniversary of the Media Pennsylvania burglary was celebrated on the heavily syndicated news program, “Democracy Now!” This was a burglary of a small FBI field office by white leftists operating under the moniker “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.”
The result of their heist was a trove of classified documents detailing the targeting of discrete populations for surveillance and abuse, notable for its exposure of concentrated institutional anti-Blackness and the first glimpse the public ever had of the term COINTELPRO. Watching these two multi-media offerings was enough to get pretty riled up at the FBI, and yet the feeling was disembodied. These events were 50 years ago. A safe distance away.
My father was a Panther, rank and file, no one famous. I remember towards the end of his life, maybe about 15 years ago, there was an exhibition at one of the downtown museums on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. I invited him to meet me there, thinking that it would be some edifying experience for him to see the old photos and stroll down memory lane.
I’ll never forget the look on his face, or the quiet commentary that may or may not have been meant for me to hear. “So, we’re a museum piece now, huh?”
As much love and admiration as is generally put into curating the revolutionary past, and important as awareness of COINTELPRO is for anyone hoping to understand our current political moment, we cannot grant too much power to the spectacle. By trying to capture a moment in time we are transposed into the world of the ahistorical. Revolution becomes a character in a story and the FBI becomes merely the villain in the same tale.
An implicit narrative appears almost like subtitles on a screen, “Back when the FBI was bad …” By shuddering at the thought of the wicked J. Edgar Hoover, we inadvertently launder the FBI’s profile, and distract from both their current violence, as well as their prospective assaults.
In case and point, on March 2, right in between the release of “Judas and the Black Messiah” and the “Democracy Now!” program, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a three hour and 40 minute hearing interviewing FBI Director Christopher Wray, during which admissions were made that should startle anyone who either believes in the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution or desires to live in a place where perpetual surveillance by political police – read: secret police – is not the norm.
You would think there would be an outcry. And yet, other than some corporate news outlets exploiting this hearing to beat the dead horse of Jan. 6, or quoting “conservative” senators hoping to continue to revive the boogeyman of “Antifa,” there was almost no coverage of these brutal prospective incursions into our private lives by the most powerful domestic law enforcement agency. I will share a few highlights.
In response to questions by Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Director Wray replies:
“Social media companies play a huge role in helping us with that, but you often hear us say, ‘If you see something, say something.’ To me, the refinement would be, if Americans see something on social media that seems to have crossed that line, they need to say something.”
They could also contact state and local law enforcement. We all now work so closely together that I think we view a call to one as a call to us all.
Then it gets deeper. Sen. Sasse: “The example: So I’m a high school teacher or a high school principal, and some kid comes to me and says, ‘Hey, these kids have always seemed to be online bullies, but now it seems like the things they’re saying sound more violent.’ What do you tell them to do?”
Hon. Christopher A. Wray: “Contact your local FBI field office.”
Sen. Sasse: “So it is FBI, it’s not your local police department?”
Hon. Christopher A. Wray: “Well, I think they could also contact state and local law enforcement. We all now work so closely together that I think we view a call to one as a call to us all.”
But how, you might ask, will the FBI do all this new work? Director Wray continues: “At the FBI, happily, because we can all use some good news from time to time, last year and the year before we tripled the number of people – Americans across the country – applying to be special agents.
“So, when I took the job, it was around 11,000 or so a year of people applying to be special agents. In 2019, it was about 36,000, and then last year, even with the pandemic, it was even higher than that, and that’s the highest number of people applying to work at the FBI as special agents to put their lives on the line in about a decade.”
OK, so more people want to be spies, but that costs money, right? Here’s the director: “And I think we are making progress, but it all, as you referenced, requires resources. So there’s a data analytics piece, because the volume is so significant that we need to get better at being able to analyze the data that we have to do it in a timely way, to separate the wheat from the chaff. And that requires both tools, analytical tools – and we’ve had requests for those in the budgets the last couple of years – but also people, data analysts, who can devote their time to that who have the experience.”
And what’s a law enforcement budget request without Sen. Lindsey “Good Ol’ Days of Segregation” Graham to run it to the end-zone?
Sen. Graham: “So here’s my challenge to you. Sit down and put pen to paper, and think big, not small. What do you need that you don’t have in terms of agents and resources? And put it to paper. I’m on the Appropriations Committee with Sen. Durbin. Many of us here are. I think we’ve gotten an opportunity here to plus you up.”
And before we leave Good Ol’ Boy Graham, let’s not forget how much fun it would be to have a “domestic terrorism organization” list!
We’ve had lots of people, as heartbreaking as it must be, turn in family members.
Hon. Christopher A. Wray: “Well, there is, as you may know, Senator, under federal law, under US law, there is no list of domestic terrorism organizations the same way there is for foreign terrorist organizations.”
Sen. Graham: “Well, let’s think about that in the next 47 seconds. Oathkeepers, are they a domestic terrorist organization?”
Hon. Christopher A. Wray: “Again, as with Proud Boys, we have individuals who associate themselves with that group who are domestic terrorists.”
Sen. Graham: “Was Antifa a domestic terrorist organization? Same thing, same answer?”
Hon. Christopher A. Wray: “Same answer.”
Sen. Graham: “So why don’t we think about how to gather better information and expose some of these groups. If they were on a list, would it make it easier for you?”
But regular people wouldn’t just, you know, spy on each other would they?
Hon. Christopher A. Wray: “And the good news, if there’s any good news in this, is that we are seeing that happen more and more in this country. We’ve had lots of people, as heartbreaking as it must be, turn in family members when they see this transformation because they know that having us or our partners intercede may not only prevent that person from committing an attack against an innocent American, but also may in some instances, result in that person being off-ramped to get help as opposed to potentially being killed by law enforcement or incarcerated or something else.”
When the director of the FBI encouraged students to denounce each other and family members to turn each other in, when he entertained the creation of lists of “domestic terrorists” such as “Antifa,” and even candidly discussed how these initiatives could be funded, rolled out and staffed – there was silence.
On March 18, while speaking to NPR, Director Wray opined regarding the recent Atlanta shooting, “It does not appear that the motive was racially motivated.” This commentary was instantly circulated globally, inspiring countless polemics about the “obvious” racial motivations of the killings. People are still talking about it nearly a week later.
Yet two weeks prior, when the director of the FBI encouraged students to denounce each other and family members to turn each other in, when he entertained the creation of lists of “domestic terrorists” such as “Antifa,” and even candidly discussed how these initiatives could be funded, rolled out and staffed – there was silence.
We, as a public, have effectively determined that a government official giving less than desired acknowledgement of our identification with the victims of a violent crime is a more significant imposition than the active planning and implementation of a level of surveillance that rivals the SS and the Stasi, or the backhanded threat that if we don’t denounce family members they might be murdered by police. In the immortal words of Kwame Ture, “Give me an ever lovin’ break!”
I’m not saying don’t watch the movie. I’m not saying don’t watch “Democracy Now!” What I am saying is: Lose the distance and surrender the safety. Only then can you hear the cries of those who came before us, those who have seen the FBI’s true face.
I hear them. To me it sounds like they’re saying, “Get Free. Do it now.” In the name of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and many, many others: All Power to the People.
Jeremy Miller is co-director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation, part of the POOR Magazine family, organizer with the Black Alliance for Peace and a graduate of San Francisco State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.