On Oct. 26, 2013, I had the pleasure and honor to host the Stop Watching Us Rally against National Security Agency 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 black people in America. From the times of slavery that made it illegal for the enslaved to congregate without a white person present to the modern U.S. intelligence agencies that have historically engaged in political repression, black people have always been closely monitored.
In 1971, activists burglarized an FBI field office in Media, Pa., 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 longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordering his agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the activities of the civil rights movement and its leaders.
Many people who accepted the virtues of surveillance when it targeted primarily Muslims, black people, or activists now understand how disturbing it is to be surveilled as enemies of the state themselves.
COINTELPRO was a series of covert and often illegal projects 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. No such link was ever found, but they did produce evidence of King’s extramarital affairs.
Following his own dictates of COINTELPRO’s mission statement, J. Edgar Hoover moved to exploit this information and had copies of those tapes sent to King’s wife, and the FBI drafted a letter encouraging that King commit suicide to avoid national shame and humiliation before being exposed.
King refused and the tapes were never made public after determining that it may have backfired and equally have embarrassed the Bureau itself, but the surveillance only intensified after King’s 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.
Equality has finally come to the shores of America. It is called surveillance, and it is for everyone.
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, COINTELPRO’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, eight of which were spent in solitary confinement, Geronimo “Ji Jaga” Pratt eventually received $4.5 million as settlement for false imprisonment.
This is just a brief snapshot 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, black people, 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.
A version of this article was originally published by the Daily Dot on Feb. 11, 2014.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)