COINTELPRO 101: A Review

COINTELPRO 101, the latest film release from The Freedom Archives, is nothing like the all-too-common soft, liberal documentary which tells of worse and distant horrors so as to lessen the pain or awareness of those still occurring. It is not a film that imposes a happy ending by suggesting that its subject is somehow past. It is a film that makes plain the fact that all of your problems of today, from war, to incarceration, to banking crises, joblessness and environmental catastrophe, still exist because movements to do away with them suffered and continue to suffer the greatest levels of repression from the most powerful state apparatus in world history. And worse still, as Black Panther Party veteran Kathleen Cleaver states unequivocally, unlike the official Counter Intelligence Program of previous decades, today’s version is perfectly legal.

COINTELPRO 101 is just that. It is an introduction to the often omitted history of the FBI’s illegal wars of terror waged against the full spectrum of radical Left movements in this country. The Counter Intelligence Program which emerged in the post-WWII era of international struggles for human rights and national liberation simply focused internally to the United States all that had been carried out against populations abroad. It turned so-called U.S. citizens in the 20th century into insurgent rebels to be dealt with as any foreign army or movement. Assassination, imprisonment, surveillance and encouraged internal strife were employed to forcibly dissolve these movements. But, as this film so skillfully demonstrates, this all was merely an extension of a continuing state project of enslavement, genocide, theft of land, culture and humanity that pre-dates even the official declaration of U.S. nationhood.

The film’s brilliance is not simply its nicely-styled aesthetic elements. They are there of course. Strong interviews, rarely seen clips, high quality audio and video production across the board with equally strong narration from Liz Derias. But it is the film’s ability to force new confrontation with the political reality of today, as much as with the past, that truly demonstrates its value. The simple point made by Geronimo Pratt is also its strongest; that COINTELPRO made official the illegality of politics, the “criminalization of positions” represented by its targets. COINTELPRO was the political and legal descendant of its ancestors, slavery and genocide, and is now itself an ancestor to the still-implemented policies of, for instance, the Patriot Act. This central theme of the film is its most important because it forces us to put in context the current and horrific state of peace, freedom and labor movements.

As CONTELPRO 101 makes vividly clear, “the Black misleadership class” described so often in the pages of Black Agenda Report is the result of having first destroyed the rightfully ascending Black leadership class of that time. This film helps re-establish lost cognition imposed by popular anti-histories which allow for so many to falsely assume that Obama is a natural progression from Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The film inserts stolen pages of history that result in an assumption that Native America went willingly to the reservations and then happily stayed there having never having attempted movements to protect whatever remaining autonomy they might have had. No one who sees this film can return to conventional and now popularly re-emerging arguments over immigration or human “illegality.” In fact, COINTELPRO 101 goes further than most histories of this phenomenon in reminding us of the threats posed by the Puerto Rican and Chicano independence movements. One can only imagine with a kind of hope what these discussions would sound like were they to take place in this film’s context of state repression and specifically the killing of Chicano movement activists like Ricardo Falcon. Indeed, would these arguments even exist without first the assault on these movements and their representatives?

CONTELPRO 101 is the latest in an increasingly long line of collected, preserved and produced media from The Freedom Archives which seeks to appropriately tell the stories of diverse but unified efforts toward liberation. It powerfully summarizes the continued need of those in power to suppress and, in their own words, “neutralize” movements and individuals so that more acceptable replacements can be developed and promoted. For if, as the film asserts, the continued imprisonment of people like American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier is a “symbol” to, through discouragement, protect the state from further similar activity, then what do popular, sanctioned, elected leaders of today represent?


The Evangelists of Social Media

The “evangelists of social media,” according to Malcolm Gladwell, want us to believe that the revolution we all want has simply been awaiting Twitter or Facebook accounts. And having now achieved them by the hundreds of thousands these evangelists would have us believe that success – political, economic or social – is inevitable. But all this persistent chatter about new media technology improving the world – and improving even radical political organization – is little more than a de facto public relations campaign. Somehow that which happens to increase the ability of the “superclass” to enrich itself and promote its interests can also, coincidentally, make possible the revolution that will overthrow them. Its pure propaganda, the effect of which is to help reduce our capacity to develop radical political movements.

There would seem, also coincidentally, more than a passing connection between the deplorable state of radical politics in this country and this rising mythology of “social media” leading us to a new organizational promised land. More than a few speakers and participants at the recent One Nation rally congratulated Facebook and Twitter users for helping to mobilize more people faster than at any other time in history. This is actually a popular theme among activists at most of their gatherings these days. But worse still was that these voices included NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Jealous. The statement was made as if this storied organization, whatever we may think of it, had never before been able to organize its members. As if the problem the NAACP has faced all these years was an inability to move so many so quickly. This praises speed at the expense of careful education and reasoning. Or was the NAACP’s involvement merely a hired response to an even more compromised labor movement?

Remember, Rosa Parks did not sit down that day as some random act of a tired worker. She did so because she had been trained to do so since she joined the NAACP in 1932. We discredit our struggle by dismissing acts of courage as simple accidents as opposed to the results of careful planning and strategy. The original March on Washington had at least as many participants as this One Nation silliness. The Million Man March, also in the pre-internet era, had 10 times more. Shoot, African people in this country have been fighting so long to develop powerful and threatening alternative methods of communication that as far back as 1775 John Adams, fearing the impending rebellions that came with reasoned, planned and strategic communication noted that “The Negroes have a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves.”

The speed of the internet is more than mitigated by the absence of thoughtfulness, intimate strategy and reasoned planning that most often accompanies it. If anything, we should consider this the intent of military technology imposed on us with the sleekest of public relations techniques. While it may at times make our lives easier it can also quickly give us any number of branded phenomena from tennis shoes to presidents, from movies to social movements. This in part is Gladwell’s point. The lunch counter takeovers that launched the modern civil rights movement occurred at the tail end of planning, strategy, training and all with a “military precision” from what he calls the “strong-tie” intimacy of ordered, hierarchical organization. On the other hand, the internet gives us weakly-tied lose bonds of “networks” which create mobs of uninformed, untrained, ill-prepared sheep perfect for illusion-development and propaganda dissemination but horrible for the oppressed engaged in political struggle.

Our use of the internet should be only to promote support for locally-based community media, from community, low-power and mixtape radio ventures to intimate in-person grassroots political organization. Gladwell was indeed correct, “the revolution won’t be tweeted” and neither will it be cheap, easy or come at the speed of a clicking mouse.


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