Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 19
In 1957 the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched its counterintelligence program, known colloquially as COINTELPRO, with the aim of destroying so-called ‘dissident’ groups.
In August 1967, a memo from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover explained how civil rights organisations were to be the focus of a new wave of counterintelligence endeavour.
FBI agents were tasked with finding enthusiastic and imaginative ways to ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralise’ the activities of groups the Bureau describes as “black nationalist, hate groups” - examples of which included: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and the Nation of Islam (NOI).
The Black Panther Party would go on to become the centre of attention for COINTELPRO from 1969, with Hoover describing the Panthers as:
“The greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
The Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program, published in 1967, issued a set of demands ranging from full employment, decent housing, education, an end to police brutality, justice and peace.
In response, the FBI used a range of tactics to neutralise these ‘dissenters’ - here are three of them:
Fostering violence in the black community
Despite claims within the FBI that counterintelligence tactics were used to prevent violence, COINTELPRO was clearly intended to foster violence.
The FBI made considerable efforts to try and promote violence between the Black Panther Party and other militant organisations.
One example was the FBI attempts to intensify animosity between the Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago street gang.
In one instance, the FBI sent an anonymous letter to Rangers informing them that the Chicago Panthers had ‘a hit out’ on their leader. The intent being to coax the Rangers into violent recrimination against the Panthers.
Tactics like these proved effective.
A subsequent governmental report on the crimes of US intelligence agencies like the FBI commented on these tactics, saying:
“It is deplorable that officials of the United States government should engage in the activities described… equally disturbing is the pride which those officials took in claiming credit for the bloodshed that occurred.”
Limiting support for the Panthers
The FBI’s program to neutralise the Black Panther Party included attempts to deter individuals and groups from supporting the Panthers. When that could not be accomplished, agents engaged in covert action against any potential supporters.
One of the Bureau’s prime targets was the Black Panther Party’s ‘Free Breakfast for Children’ program. Churches that permitted the Panthers to use their facilities for this program were targeted, with many churches pulling back following Bureau pressure.
In one instance, the San Francisco COINTELPRO office secured the eviction of one Black Panther who lived in a public housing project by informing the Housing Authority that the apartment was being used to provide free food for black children.
Controlling Panther-related media
The FBI’s program to destroy the Black Panther Party included concerted efforts to muzzle Black Panther publications to prevent Panther members, and persons sympathetic to their aims, from expressing their views. It also encouraged the mass media to report stories unfavourable to the Panthers.
In May 1970, FBI headquarters ordered the Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New Haven, New York, San Diego and San Francisco field offices to bring forward proposals on how best to cripple the BPP newspaper, The Black Panther.
On another occasion, in February 1969, the FBI joined forces with the Chicago police department to prevent the local Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, from appearing on a television talk show by arresting him prior to his appearance.
In one memo written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, it was explained to FBI agents that the
“Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the Black Panther Party and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.”