Thursday, June 06, 2013


Media Rants 

The J. Edgar Hoover era FBI Counter Intelligence Program (aka “COINTELPRO”), initiated in 1956 and allegedly ended in 1971, tried with much success to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" domestic political movements. COINTELPRO harassed mostly left leaning grassroots activists and prominent leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. (former FBI Domestic Intelligence Director William Sullivan said the Bureau had a “no holds barred” policy towards King when it came to methods of neutralization.). Tactics included surveillance, infiltration of organizations, “dirty tricks” designed to intimidate, and even assassination. In 1975 Senator Frank Church’s Oversight Committee exposed COINTELPRO style abuses throughout the US intelligence apparatus. The Bureau on its own website minimizes the Gestapo like nature of COINTELPRO and admits only that the program was “rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons.”  
Since the 1970s a range of activists have insisted that COINTELPRO never ended; in May the FBI’s naming of  Assata Shakur (formerly Joanne Chesimard) as a “domestic terrorist” and the first female “Most Wanted Terrorist” lends credence to those activists’ charges. Shakur’s attorney Lennox Hinds told the New York Times that “The attempt at this point by the New Jersey State Police to characterize her as a terrorist is designed to inflame the public who may be unfamiliar with the facts.”
What are the facts? In the 1960s Shakur joined the Black Panther Party and later the more revolutionary Black Liberation Army. From 1973-1976 the government failed to convict Shakur on a range of charges from kidnapping to bank robbery while holding her under torturous prison conditions. In 1977 an all-white jury found her guilty of the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in a May, 1973 New Jersey Turnpike shootout. The verdict occurred despite the fact that Sundiata Acoli (formerly Clark Squire) had already been convicted of firing the shots that killed Foerster, and in spite of there being no forensic evidence tying Shakur to the murder. In 1979 she escaped from prison with the help of BLA allies and eventually fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum. Her autobiography Assata is widely read in African-American Studies and other university programs. In Hip Hop culture she’s attained almost mythical status as a heroic freedom fighter. (She is the late Tupac Shakur’s step aunt.). 

Sixties radical Angela Davis, herself no stranger to COINTELPRO persecution, opined on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! program that the FBI’s placement of Shakur on the Most Wanted Terrorist list itself reflects the “logic of terrorism” because it is “designed to frighten young people, especially today, who would be involved in the kind of radical activism that might lead to change.”
Evidence for Davis’ position can be found in the fact that FBI’s renewed focus on Shakur occurred not long after the hip artist Common (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.) released “Open Letter Part II,” a rap that remixed Jay Z’s “Open Letter.” In his recording, Jay Z defends his recent trip to Cuba with lyrics that present a scathing critique of political hypocrisy. Common, who’d already gained notoriety in establishment circles for his year 2000 “A Song For Assata,” reworked “Open Letter” to say this: 
My man went to Cuba
Caught in a political triangle, Bermuda
The same way they said she was the shooter
Assata Shakur, they tried to execute her
I went to Cuba to see her
We should free her, like we should Mumia 
Assata Shakur in 1998 composed her own open letter, to Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba. American politicians at the time were calling on the Pope to demand the Cuban government extradite Shakur to the United States. She wrote to the Pope:
“I advocate self-determination for my people and for all oppressed inside the United States. I advocate an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism, and the elimination of political repression. If that is a crime, then I am totally guilty.” 
For those sensing the continued existence of COINTELPRO, it is Shakur’s message more than the events of May, 1973 that make her a terrorist. In announcing Shakur’s terrorist designation, FBI special agent Aaron Ford explicitly argued that her message was central to the Bureau’s interest: “Openly and freely in Cuba . . . She provides anti-U.S. government speeches espousing the Black Liberation Army message of revolution and terrorism.” 

Youth tempted by Common and others to see her as a freedom fighter now have to contend with the possibility that merely espousing what the Bureau may construe as Shakurian views could land them in a bureaucrat’s file or something worse. That IS frightening.

What is the mainstream media’s role in all of this? Virtually all of the reporting on the FBI’s Shakur initiative, in print and especially on television,  minimized or flat out ignored the COINTELPRO context that has to be part of any story dealing with African-American rebels. The Associated Press, which recently and rightly protested in harsh terms the government’s seizure of APjournalists’ phone records (a COINTELPRO style repression) in the name of “national security,”  curiously did noteven mention the history of FBI abuses in its reporting on Shakur.

American journalists should consider that silence on COINTELPRO is consent to it.