Mass Dragnet Surveillance: We Are All Black Now
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On October 26, 2013 I had the pleasure and honor to host the Stop Watching Us Rally against NSA surveillance on the National Mall. It was an honor to have had an opportunity to speak truth to power on national TV and it was a pleasure to see a massive sea of white faces respond to the provocative assertion that ‘we are all black today.’ I told them that ‘equality has finally come to the shores of America: it is called surveillance and it is for everyone.’
The often ignored truth is that surveillance is nothing new for African Americans. From the times of slavery that made it illegal for the enslaved to congregate without a European American present, to the modern US intelligence agencies who have historically engaged in political repression, black people have always been closely monitored. Due to the peculiar institution of the white supremacist policies of the U.S. government, this repression and surveillance have disproportionally targeted people of color.
In 1971, activists burglarized an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania taking several dossiers that exposed the existence of COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram). They passed the material to news agencies, but many organizations initially refused to publish them. The information documented long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordering his agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the activities of the Civil Rights Movement, their leaders and other political movements.
COINTELPRO was a series of covert and often illegal acts conducted by the FBI aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations. These actions even included the constant surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What is surprising and should be most disturbing is that then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally approved the FBI’s request to expand its surveillance of Dr. King by tapping his phones, breaking into his home, office and hotel rooms to plant bugs for electronic monitoring. This was of course “justified” to determine if he was under the influence of communists.
While no link to communists was ever found, they did produce evidence of King’s extra-marital affairs. Following his own dictates of COINTELPRO’s mission, J. Edgar Hoover moved to exploit this information and had copies of those tapes sent to King’s wife and drafted a letter encouraging King to commit suicide to avoid national shame and humiliation before being exposed.
King refused and the tapes were never made public. The FBI realized that releasing the tapes might have backfired and embarrassed the Bureau itself. That did not end the surveillance of King, in fact it only intensified after his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. This resulted in the Bureau convening a meeting of department heads to “examine a complete analysis of the avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.”
It is important to point out that during the Church Committee Hearings that examined the COINTELPRO’s illegal activities, the FBI’s stated motivation was “protecting National Security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.” After perfecting the tactics used to pursue this agenda that included psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, including assassinations, these tactics were all effectively applied to the Black Panther Party and other organizations.
Ironically, it was the FBI’s own wiretaps that resulted in the late Black Panther Party leader Geronimo “Ji Jaga” Pratt being released from prison after serving 27 years for a murder he did not commit. The FBI surveillance of Geronimo documented he was 350 miles away from the scene of the crime when it occurred. However, CONTELPRO’s mandate was to “neutralize Geronimo as an effective BPP functionary” so the FBI purposely withheld this information at his trial. Geronimo’s attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, was later able to obtain his freedom when the tapes were finally released. After 27 years and 8 of those in solitary confinement, Geronimo eventually received $4.5 million as settlement for false imprisonment.
This is just a brief snap shot of the history of “surveillance” in the Black community. Dr. Cornel West has often used the term “Niggarization of America” to further describe how these tactics developed under COINTELPRO have now been extended to all Americans, regardless of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion or sexual orientation. Many people who accepted the virtues of surveillance when it targeted primarily Muslims, blacks or activists now understand how disturbing it is to be surveilled as enemies of the state themselves.
Equality has finally come to the shores of America in the form of surveillance. We are all in the same boat now and when the lights go out, we are all black.