by Jayson Hawkins
Despite the fact that the rights to free speech and the petitioning of the government for redress of grievances are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the American government has a long history of treating dissenters and progressive activists like criminals. Dissent was actually criminalized during World War I, and even after that practice was abandoned, federal and local police still frequently infiltrated activist groups with informants and agent provocateurs as if those activists were organized crime syndicates.
The most infamous of these operations was dubbed COINTELPRO by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which ran the operation from 1956 to 1971. The operation was exposed when stolen FBI files were passed to the media and Congress and a full-scale investigation was launched.
What that investigation uncovered was a large-scale effort to infiltrate civil rights and anti-war groups, incite people in those groups to violence, and then conduct waves of arrests related to that violence. The scope of the FBI operations is staggering. An FBI informant helped assemble time bombs and wire them to an Army truck. Thirteen members of the Black Panther Party were arrested for a conspiracy to blow up the Statue of Liberty after an FBI informant provided them with dynamite. Another FBI mole helped the Weather Underground bomb a school in Cincinnati. Some provocateurs went further. An FBI asset burned down a building at the University of Alabama, then blamed the act on protesters, 150 of whom were arrested.
After COINTELPRO became public, the FBI announced it was halting all similar operations, but it unclear whether infiltration tactics were ever abandoned by the Bureau. At the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, state police posed as carpenters helping protesters build floats, then falsely claimed the protesters were plotting violence. The mass arrests that followed led to no convictions, but the city of Philadelphia lost millions in subsequent lawsuits.
The federal government got back into the infiltration business after 9/11. Investigation by journalists uncovered the disturbing fact that 150 people were indicted for terror plots that were created by the FBI in sting operations. In contrast, only five actual terror plots were discovered by the Bureau. Trevor Aaronson, one of the investigating journalists, observed that “the FBI is much better at creating terrorists than it is at catching terrorists.”
In response to racial justice protests over the last several years, the FBI invented something they call “Black Identity Extremism.” The Bureau’s active attempts at conjuring this movement have been decried by many as harkening back to the days of COINTELPRO. A statement by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives says this new stage of FBI provocation “resurrects the historically negative legacy of African American civil rights leaders who were unconstitutionally targeted and attacked.”
It is unclear what role, if any, infiltration by police has had in the degeneration of peaceful racial justice protests into riots and looting in recent months. One takeaway noted by many observers was the initial escalation of violence by police with tear gas-and rubber bullets that was then followed by looting and destruction in many cases. While police can in no way be blamed for all the violence, the history of American law enforcement inciting social activists should not be forgotten.
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