Lessons from Cointelpro,
Given at the forum on FBI repression, othe speaker, Jess Sundin (whose house and anti-war office in Minneapolis were raided by the FBI on September 24, 2010)
by Pete Bohmer, Faculty in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College,
November 13, 2010
I have been asked to share my experiences and knowledge of government repression with you tonight not to scare you but so that we can deal with it and build stronger and more effective movements today for social and economic justice, locally, nationally and globally.
Before I get to my experiences a few general comments. We live in a society that is very unequal and growing more so, Officially, more than 40 million are below the official poverty line, and 15 million are officially unemployed. Another 12-15 million have given up looking or are working part-time and want to work fulltime. Unemployment rates for Blacks are twice that for whites. Millions have lost their homes, almost 50 million people have no health insurance. Access to quality and affordable higher education is being taken away. Even more criminal is the 2 million plus people the government has imprisoned, almost 1 million of whom are African-American and 400,000 are Latino/a. Globally, we see a similar trend with more of the income and wealth concentrated in a few hands, hunger and poverty rampant with less and less public services such as affordable education and healthcare being available. The environment is truly at risk.
Many of the gains that were won in the 1960’s in the U.S. such as the growing number of low income students, black, Latino/a, Asian-American but also working class whites in universities, the growth in college scholarships, reductions in police brutality, better health and safety on the job, medical care for retired people, reductions in poverty, civil rights, ending the U.S. war against Vietnam, did not come from great presidents but from people organizing and sitting in and demanding these changes and more. The response by those in power was to meet some of the demands, e.g., the end of legal discrimination but not the end of poverty, but also to repress and attack in different ways individuals and movements working for reformist and fundamental change in the society. This is not to say that we did not make some mistakes or that repression was the only cause of the decline of many of these movements but that it was a major factor. I also do not want to romanticize the 60’s and 70’s—there were many courageous people who accomplished a lot, but most people were not activists—needs are at least as pressing today for building movements that link the struggles against U.S. militarism and the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan with struggles for global justice, and for economic and social and racial justice and against cutbacks at home. By sharing knowledge we can make our groups, and movements much stronger today. Much organizing is already happening, more than we read about in the mainstream media, but we all have a responsibility to learn more about what is going on and act in ways small and big, individually and collectively to create a world based on meeting human needs rather than on serving the profits of the multinational corporations and their wealthy leaders.
Although we are told by the media and in schools that we have the right to protest, to organize, to speak up, these rights have been and will be violated by those in power, the police and the right-wing. I will come back after discussing some of my experiences on what is to be done?
Let me turn to my experience with the FBI and government repression.
1. I participated actively in the anti-war movement and student organizing and student movements in the Boston area in the late 1960’s. I spent 45 days in jail. I moved to San Diego in fall, 1970 to teach Economics at San Diego State University (SDSU). I was very active there against the Vietnam war, on and off campus, and in community organizing. Death threats, heavy surveillance and arrests on false charges began in spring 1971. Harassment escalated in the summer and fall of 1971—particularly after Republican Convention announced it would be in then President, Richard Nixon’s favorite city, San Diego in the summer of 1972.
2. The effort to fire me from my job as an assistant professor of economics at SDSU intensified in 1971-1972. The FBI visited my employer, San Diego State, there was complicity of Governor Ronald Reagan in openly political charges against me such as that I gave preference for admission into my classes of women and students of color. After three lengthy hearings that all ruled in my favor, and in spite of very large demonstrations supporting me, the State University system still fired me although I was voted best teacher by students at San Diego State University. Even the conservative, American Economics Association ruled it was a case of political discrimination but after a lengthy court case, California Supreme Court ruled that San Diego State U did not have to restore my faculty position.
In the early 1970’s, in spite of repression, there was a strong movement against the Vietnam War, with a growing involvement of active duty and ex-military, and a strong Chicano movement both on campuses such as the local Mechas, the UFW and in the barrios, groups such as the Brown Berets and others. There was also strong Black movement at SD State with many ex-prisoners, who had been politicized in prison playing an important role. There was a San Diego based movement that I was part of, planning protests for the August 1972 scheduled Republican convention. We were planning massive non-violent direct action plus a lot of educating about struggles throughout the world. Because of this organizing, Nixon eventually moved the convention to Miami—he claimed it wasn’t because of the planned protests although that was the reason—those in power will never admit that resistance and protest can lead to victories for those protesting but it does. Remember this when you question whether active protest and resistance is futile.
All of the tactics that became identified as Cointelpro, were used against us. I will focus on what happened to me but I was part of a larger movement who faced these attacks. For example, all of what I am talking about also happened to the Brown Berets, a Chicano group that was national and had a chapter in San Diego that was committed to Chicano rights and self-determination. In my case, it involved coordination between the FBI, Nixon’s Watergate team who broke into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in D.C., San Diego police and sheriffs and a fascist group funded and closely working with the San Diego FBI office.
A few words about CoIntelpro before I come back to my story. It is short for counterintelligence program. Cointlepro was/is a program coordinated by the FBI to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” individuals and groups. It supposedly started in 1968 and ended in April 1971 after it was exposed through people liberating FBI files in Media, PA Although Cointelpro officially ended in 1971, it has continued although in a somewhat less extreme form without the name up to September 11th 2001. Since then we are going backwards towards more police powers, infiltration and framing of activists. Much of the Patriot Act and the increased power being given to the FBI is the legalization of Cointel pro like tactics, whose primary target today is the Arab American and Muslim Community but it also providing weapons to be used against all those working for social change such at its raids in Chicago and Minneapolis against Jess Sundin.
A common tactic was calling people before a grand jury for supposed knowledge of a crime and then asking them to name the meetings they attended, other attendees, discussions etc. If people refused to testify, they were given immunity and if they continued to refuse to give names snitch, they were given contempt of court and often had to serve for the length of the grand jury—sometimes a year or even longer. They seem to be once again repeating this repressive tactic. It is important that people do not talk and do not cooperate with these grand jury fishing expeditions. They want to destroy our solidarity. We need to support our comrades called before grand juries.
Brian Glick, in his excellent pamphlet, “War at Home” on Cointelpro, focuses on four methods used against U.S. activists. I will give a few examples from my own experience.
1. Infiltrate groups—Although no group I worked in San Diego planned or carried out any violent actions, and many groups were purely educational; 20 people I knew in these groups turned out to be police or FBI agents or informers, many worked for both. They worked hard to cause divisions among individuals and groups. Some but not all were provocateurs.
2. Psychological warfare—the FBI visited my employer, SDSU to get me fired, they visited landlords where I lived to get us evicted. They opened my mail, and monitored my checking accounts. We got anonymous phone calls about people being agents who I am sure weren’t.
3. Harassment through legal system—many, many arrests. I usually beat the charges but a lot of time and energy was spent defending myself. An example, where I didn’t beat the charges but was innocent was where I got sentenced for obstructing a train with Vietnam war supplies with a friend and fellow activist, Pete Mahone to 90 days in Chino state prison in 1972 on the false testimony of four undercover police sheriffs who had infiltrated various progressive groups.
4. State sponsored violence—FBI sponsored groups did firebombings, slashed tires of my cars, continual death threats, put out a wanted poster on me distributed in San Diego in 1971. The Secret Army Organization or (SAO) a group financed from FBI funds and led by an FBI informant, shot into a collective I lived in with the bullet permanently injuring a member of the collective, Paula Tharp in January 1972.
Howard Barry Godfrey, a well-paid FBI informant and head of the Secret Army Organization (SAO) admitted almost a year later in court to driving the car the night of the shooting but claimed another SAO member did the actual shooting. After the shooting into my house, other FBI agents in San Diego covered up the crime and hid the evidence such as the gun used in the shooting. The head of the FBI in LA, working with SD FBI, at this time was Richard W. Held who has been involved in the cases against many activists and political prisoners such as Judi Bari, Leonard Peltier and Geronimo Pratt.
After the shooting, threats and harassment continued. After the Secret Army Organization began threatening liberals as well as radicals and bombed a pornography theater where some police were present, the San Diego police demanded that the FBI reveal their informants in the SAO and the SAO were arrested in the summer of 1972 on numerous charges. Government lawyers hired by the FBI claimed various privileges such as not having to reveal much of the behavior because of security concerns. The full FBI involvement in this attempted murder didn’t come out although one FBI agent was forced to resign. Godfrey, the FBI informant and provocateur in the Secret Army Organization (SAO) didn’t go to prison although two other members of the SAO did.
What is the relevance of this past history?
1. First Cointelpro supposedly ended in April 1971 but everything that was part of Cointel continued against me many years past, e.g., phone taps and opening my mail, FBI and red squads of police departments visiting employers and potential employers, Most of this has been revealed through Freedom of Information Act requests. FBI criminality has continued against other groups and individuals such as the American Indian Movement, La Raza Unida Party in Texas, CISPES, Judi Bari and Earth First and radical environmentalists protesters against the Democratic and Republican National Convention, and many others, So we cannot accept their claim that Cointelpro ended in April, 1971, it continues today without that name. Look at the situation in Minneapolis and Chicago.
2. Key repression has been and continues to be most fierce against Black, Chicano and other movements of color. The FBI targeted Cesar Chavez and the UFW although it was a totally non-violent and pacifist movement. Although not as murderous and common, repression is also used against whites who challenge this oppressive global capitalist system. COINTELPRO and the police agencies have attacked most directly the black liberation movement, and also the Chicano, Puerto Rican and American Indian movement but it does not stop there. All of us who stand up for justice and in solidarity become the enemy to those who run this country. In building movements for liberation, it is absolutely necessary that we support our sisters and brothers who have been victims of political repression, that we support in ways small and big political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal., Leonard Peltier and others less well known. Free all Political Prisoners.
3. To weaken this repressive apparatus, we should learn it is an opportunity to educate many people about the limited nature of U.S. democracy. Cointelpro type behavior by the government requires secrecy because it so clearly violates the rhetoric of democracy and civil rights. It is analogous to the secrecy that the WTO, IMF, World Bank and multinational corporations require in order to impose their economic violence on people around the world Let us intensify the pressure and expose these international organizations as well as the repressive apparatus at home and sponsored by the U.S abroad. The most vicious current government attacks are in the U.S. organized torture centers in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, and are on immigrants, mainly Muslim and/or Arab and Arab American who are often held in secret with no rights, beaten, deported with no evidence whatsoever. Anti-communism was used as the excuse to justify much of the repression in the 1950’s to 1970’s, so was calling someone a Black or Chicano militant, today the word terrorist is being used in the same way. Don’t fall for these slanders, check out the evidence. The government and the media can and do lie, not all the time but be skeptical when you hear charges against someone such as that they are terrorists or support terrorism or hear a movement slandered. The labels, anarchism and anarchist, are used falsely to belittle movements and/or individuals as mindlessly violent who aim to create chaos and disorder and destruction.
Learn about the Patriot Act, protest against it, prevent its extension, demand it be repealed, and support those who are being detained and deported. Get Evergreen State College to come out against the Patriot Act, it and say they will not cooperate with the federal government in spying on and harassing students, staff and faculty. I teach political economy at Evergreen. Two years ago here as a response to police brutality off and on campus, much of it to protesters involved in trying to stop military supplies going to Iraq, students fought back. Sadly the university administration collaborated with law enforcement to identify students. Let us not let this happen again.
4. Some guidelines from experience.
a. Infiltration will happen—if we are paranoid about people joining our groups, those in power win. We remain small and isolated. I often got anonymous phone calls about people who I was told were police agents who I am sure weren’t. If people act suspiciously, a trusted person in the group can check into the person’s background.
b. Psychological warfare—try to build principled unity, don’t believe everything you hear or read—check out rumors, limit gossip.
c. Legal system—don’t talk to the FBI or police or to a grand jury investing political activists. Develop relations with movement lawyers, such as from the National Lawyers Guild, who will defend and advise you. Build support through petitions, through broad coalitions. Try to get favorable stories in the media
d. Dealing with right-wing violence— Make public harassment by the right wing; have duplicates of your records and files. Limit their break-ins. Support each other. Work with mainstream groups to oppose them.
E.g. Nazis in 2006 threatened my life and others in Olympia. We need to build broad coalitions for civil liberties and against white-supremacist groups.
Important to be aware of what the government has done and is doing today—but not to be paralyzed into inaction from fear. If the fear of repression frightens us and others into inaction, those in power have been successful. Our best defense is a good offense, to continue to speak up and acts in ways small and big and strategically to build alternatives and to fight the power.
In acting for justice do not be constrained by the law but consider the consequences of all possible actions, don’t try to get people to do what they don’t want to do. Be honest although details may have to be kept secret in direct action.
Build movement for justice that cross generations. Youth and students are key but so are older people who haven’t sold out—we can learn from each other. We didn’t do enough of this in the 1960’s and 1970’s, e.g. learning from those who faced repression during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s We need to build multi–generational movements and groups. Young people tend to be more courageous, more energetic. Students have played a huge role all over the world in liberation movements. Older people, veterans of movements, if they are not resting on their laurels as veterans and demanding to lead can make important contributions by sharing their experiences and knowledge . Age is one of the many divides we need to overcome.
I know I have talked about some events from 35-40 years ago but I would like to conclude by linking more closely the past to the present.
1. One of the reasons I faced repression was trying to build unity among different groups, community, campus, anti-war, women, Chicano, Black, worker, young, old, immigrant and non-immigrant, documented and undocumented workers. Challenge racism and racial inequality in whatever we do.
If we are going to build a decent humane society, we need to build coalitions, alliances, far stronger than we did in the 1960’s and 1970’s who name what we are facing as a destructive and exploitative global capitalist system We need to challenge all of the isms of racism, sexism, heterosexism as we work for a goal of a different society. We also need to learn about and develop a vision of what kind of society we would like to live in and share this knowledge with our friends, neighbors, family, fellow students, and many more. We should be courageous and bold but not be arrogant or act morally superior.
The more support we have, the more we reach out, the more difficult it is to isolate us and attack us.
2. The role of the law and the courts and police are set up and used to maintain this unjust and racist and patriarchal and imperialist economic system, true in the 1960’s and true today. Let us create a system where the dignity of all humans living in harmony with the environment are put at the center, where good food, adequate shelter, quality healthcare and education are rights for all, where militarism is ended will often mean breaking the law. Our goal is justice not legality. Voting and Obama and lobbying against tuition increases will not save us. Saying this does not mean proving how radical and militant we are by how many windows we break or rocks we throw at the police. These are tactics not strategies. We must consider what is effective, are we building a growing movement that can educate, organize and win rather than just expressing our anger at injustice, or trying to show how radical and macho we are.
3. Repression is very real and serious but we should not exaggerate its severity. It is worse in many other countries and people continue to resist injustice. So can we!
I think we can best honor those who have been murdered by our government and their agents , such as Fred Hampton of the BPP in Chicago in 1969, or Ruben Salazar killed during the Chicano moratorium in the protest against the Vietnam war in 1970 in LA, or the students at Kent and Jackson State in May, 1970, and thousands of others not by mourning but by organizing—by building movements that put into practice solidarity across borders that are inclusive in all the important ways—class, gender,, race, sexual orientation, language, immigrant and age; that resist boldly and courageously all forms of inequality and environmental degradation. We need to challenge and stop U.S. aggression abroad, and work together to overthrow this insane profit system where farm workers make $7 an hour and are poisoned by pesticides, and over 2 million are in prison; where immigrants are being scapegoated for the economic crisis, check out the racist anti-immigrant law 1070 in Arizona that other states are copying. Let us build a society based on cooperation, sustainability, where work is meaningful and production is organized around need and not greed, where global poverty is abolished, where the earth is cherished and not destroyed, and equality in all forms and democracy become reality and not rhetoric. It may sound like dreaming but it is more realistic than thinking that the U.S. capitalist society can continue the way it is going for hundreds of years into the future.
Thank you for listening. Power to the People!