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On Video: J. Edgar Hoover vs. the people


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"I'm a cynical person," says filmmaker Denis Mueller, "but it was much worse than I thought." He learned about the systematic program of disinformation and repression launched against radical black groups in the late 1960s in the process of making a film.

COINTELPRO--an acronym for "counter-intelligence program"--was a multipronged offensive launched by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI against those he perceived as enemies of the American way of life. Begun in 1956 as a campaign to destroy the Communist Party, COINTELPRO was vastly expanded in the following decade and came to target chiefly the black and student movements. In the spring of 1968, Hoover told his agents that, with reference to the black movement, their main goals were to prevent both "the coalition of militant black nationalist groups" and "the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement."

The term "black nationalist" should not be taken too literally here. By this time the FBI had already harassed Martin Luther King Jr., by no stretch of the imagination a black nationalist, for several years. (The FBI, confident of its ability to discredit King, had even--incredible as it seems--picked his successor, a man they wanted to groom to take his place as an inspiration to the black masses. Although rather obscure at the time, the person selected has become somewhat better known since: Samuel R. Pierce Jr., aka "Silent Sam," Reagan's Secretary of HUD.) And although the FBI did pay attention to nationalist and separatist groups like the Black Muslims, the bulk of their COINTELPRO resources were directed against the Black Panther Party, which far from being separatist went out of its way to make alliances with white radicals in what they regarded as a common struggle against the American power structure.

Nor should the "counter-intelligence" part of COINTELPRO's title be taken at face value. Rather than intelligence gathering, the operation primarily involved aggressive attempts to discredit, disrupt, and decimate the target organizations. As Hoover put it, the program's purpose was to "prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability" and to stop their "long-range growth . . . especially among black youth." To these ends, the FBI not only employed surveillance, eavesdropping, and a network of informants but also agents provocateurs--agents who adopted an ultraradical cover in order to provoke illegal actions so that participants could be arrested. COINTELPRO also released a fog of rumors and poison-pen letters designed to spread disinformation, alienate supporters, and instigate splits and conflicts within organizations.

One instance of their methods can be seen in the case of actress Jean Seberg, a Black Panther supporter and financial contributor. In 1970, when Seberg was pregnant, the FBI began circulating rumors that the father was a prominent Panther. The item was printed, first by a Los Angeles gossip columnist, later by other newspapers, and finally by Newsweek. Seberg attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills; she survived but the baby was born prematurely and died two days later. Seberg, never really recovering from these events and the press harassment that preceded and followed them, finally killed herself in 1979. These events are fairly well known, but equally vicious attacks (or worse) were made on hundreds, possibly thousands, of others, less well-known, who were involved in the struggle for black liberation in America.

The campaign against the Black Panthers was easily the most brutal and intense of the entire COINTELPRO operation. The FBI attempted to break up the marriages of members; got landlords to evict Panther-connected tenants; tried to foster discord between the Panthers and the organizations that supported them (especially the Students for a Democratic Society); disseminated false and derogatory information about the Panthers to the press; and targeted churches that allowed the Panthers to use their facilities for the free Breakfast for Children program. But such tactics were only the beginning. Informants, forged letters, and anonymous phone calls were used to suggest, falsely, that certain Panthers were police informers; other groups were induced to attack the Panthers physically; and local police were furnished with information (some of it bogus) and encouraged to harass and raid Panther homes and offices.

The campaign was not limited to the FBI. When Nixon became president in 1969, a Special Panther Unit was created in the Justice Department, and the head of its Civil Rights Division characterized the Panthers as "a bunch of hoodlums" and said: "We've got to get them." Matters escalated in the ensuing months: police raided--and often destroyed--Panther offices across the country, and shoot-outs between police and Panthers became more common. The culmination was here in Chicago, when on December 4, 1969, police raided the apartment of Fred Hampton, Illinois chairman of the Panthers, killing Hampton and Peoria leader Mark Clark in their beds and seriously wounding four other occupants. Whereas in earlier incidents the contradictory claims of police and Panthers as to who had shot first had been hard for outsiders to judge, in this case the authorities carelessly left the premises unguarded after the raid. Surviving Panthers were able to show that, despite police claims that they had been fired upon, at least 99 percent of the shots had come from police weapons. Hampton's bodyguard, an FBI informant, had provided a floor plan of the apartment that included the precise location of Hampton's bed.

These are the sorts of things that made filmmaker Mueller say that government repression was much worse than he'd thought. Much of what he discovered can be found in the video on the subject that he and Deb Ellis have just finished. Ironically, American (In)justice didn't begin as a documentary about COINTELPRO but about the rise of black militancy in the 60s. As Mueller and Ellis proceeded with interviews, however, they found their subjects pointing to the program of repression unleashed against militant blacks, and decided that this should be their subject.

American (In)justice does not ignore black radicalism. There are recent interviews with former Panther and present Chicago alderman Bobby Rush, Sun-Times columnist Lu Palmer, Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael), Representative Pete McCloskey, and attorneys Jeff Haas and Flint Taylor from the Peoples Law Office (which sued the state after Hampton's murder). Mixed in with such contemporary voices is some riveting older footage: scenes from the civil-rights struggle and the urban rebellions as well as of some famous figures, not just Martin Luther King but Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P. Newton in action--talking, that is, and agitating.

And when we see Hampton talking, we see the power of the man, and perhaps begin to understand why the state felt it had to murder him. "We got to defend ourselves," he says (not that he ever had a chance to do so). "In plain proletarian workers' language, it takes two to tango. As soon as these motherfuckers go, we go."

The Panthers realized what they were up against--at least to some extent. "We knew at the time there was a conspiracy," says Kathleen Cleaver, Eldridge's wife and the party's former Minister of Information. "We just had no idea how sophisticated the plan . . . was, or the collaboration between the various agencies." COINTELPRO was officially terminated in 1971. Has it been replaced by even more sophisticated programs? That repressive surveillance still exists is shown by recent revelations of a campaign against the anti-intervention group CISPES, among other things. But will we look back in ten years and think we didn't know the half of it?

American (In)justice will premiere Sunday, December 10, at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, 5:30 and 7:30. Tickets $12 ($6 for the unemployed). For further information call 384-8827.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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