Film Review: The Forbidden Subject
The COINTELPRO Disruption Of Radical Social Movements And The Undermining Of Democracy
COINTELPRO 101, produced by Freedom Archives. Available to order through: https://co.clickandpledge.com/advanced/default.aspx?wid=33028
I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 13 and realized at that moment that I needed to be an activist for social justice, and particularly in the cause of Black Freedom. I was almost simultaneously moved and inspired by the politics of the Black Panther Party, a radical organization formed in 1966 that best seemed to represent the politics that Malcolm X advanced at the end of his life.
Though I never joined the Panthers I was in their circle. And it was on one occasion that I visited the Mount Vernon, New York offices of the local Panther chapter and stumbled across something that was called The Black Panther Coloring Book. The book was targeted at young children and, among other things, it showed children shooting police (the police were drawn as pigs with police uniforms). Though I had no great love for the police I was very much taken aback by this, especially since this was supposed to be a children’s book. Years later I found out that the book had not been produced by the Panthers: it was produced by provocateurs as part of what came to be known as the COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) operation that the US government designed to, among other things, destroy the Panthers. It was, however, made to look as if it had been produced by the Panthers and was, as a result, distributed by and within the Panther Party.
Although many of us who came of age during the late 1960s/early 1970s became familiar with COINTELPRO, later generations have, at best, only a vague sense of the project. It is for this reason that COINTELPRO 101, a brilliant film by The Freedom Archives, is so very important. COINTELPRO 101 fills in blanks that many people have when it comes to the history of progressive social movements. It also dispels many myths.
COINTELPRO was not originally designed to be used against people of color but was part of a larger effort to squash left-wing and left-leaning movements, particularly the Communist Party. Yet, beginning in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), then led by J. Edgar Hoover, saw in rising social movements among people of color a potential danger to the status quo. The bull’s eye was, as a result, shifted.
One thing that makes COINTELPRO 101 unique is that when identifying social movements that were targeted by the US government it does not begin with the Black Freedom Movement, which is usually where the discussion of COINTELPRO commences. Instead, and very appropriately, it starts with the Puerto Rican independence movement. Many people on the mainland have not a clue about Puerto Rican politics, let alone the independence movement that actually dates back to the late 19th century. Yet Hoover and others saw in this movement a dire threat and went about targeting this movement.
It is important for readers under 50 to understand the nature of COINTELPRO. It was not a project aimed at gathering information, though certainly that was part of it. It was a pro-active project aimed at destroying individuals and organizations. The film takes us through various targets. In addition to the Puerto Rican independence movement, COINTELPRO was most well known for having been used against the Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and also white student radicals, such as those in the original Students for a Democratic Society. The tactics ranged. They included the use of rumor-mongering and defamation (which is something that all progressives should guard against), blackmail, entrapment and murder. Activists were sometimes tricked into illegal acts that they would have otherwise shunned by individuals who later turned out to be police agents. In one of the most egregious cases, Illinois Panther leader Fred Hampton was drugged and then murdered by attacking Chicago Police in one of these operations.
I not only learned new information from COINTELPRO 101 but I also found my blood boiling. There are individuals who, as the film documents, remain in prison to this day due to repression that was connected with COINTELPRO. Not only that, despite the revelations concerning COINTELPRO that surfaced in the 1970s, no one from the federal government ever went to jail for participating in, let alone designing, this notorious program.
COINTELPRO 101 is not only a film to see, but it is one that would be very useful as a ‘trigger’ for a discussion. You cannot watch this film and then remain silent. You immediately want to discuss what was just addressed and think about the implications for today.
During the late 1960s/early 1970s, many progressive and radical activists were accused of being paranoid when we suggested that there were, in fact, government undercover and provocateurish operations that were aimed against our various movements. Our claims were often dismissed with no serious inquiry. History had the last laugh. While it may have been the case that some people were paranoid, it also turns out that we were right. Or, to put it another way, even if some were paranoid it did not mean that someone else was out to get us.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com, Visiting Scholar at CUNY Graduate Center, Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.” He can be reached at email@example.com.