The History of State Repression Against Radical Social Movements
In this episode of imixwhatilike! TRNN Journalist Jared Ball speaks with Former U.S. Political Prisoner Eddie Conway about his book The Greatest Threat: The Black Panthers and COINTELPRO.
JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
As we move into Black History Month, we wanted to sit down with our resident political prisoner and Black Panther Party producer and host here at the Real News, Marshall Eddie Conway, to talk a little bit about his life and work, and particularly about his book The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and the Counterintelligence Program.
Eddie, welcome back to the Real News.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having me.
BALL: So let’s talk about this in the context of Black History Month, again, which has just started here a little bit ago in February. Why is the focus on The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and the Counterintelligence Program so important?
CONWAY: Well, I think it’s important in light of the current events with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Black Radical Tradition Conference, and a host of other kind of black organizing and activities that’s currently sweeping across America. Young people, I believe has an interest now in what the Black Panther Party was, what happened to it, and why it happened.
And I think this book, The Greatest Threat, kind of gives an overview of what the Black Panther Party was. It also gives an understanding of how it was attacked and why it was attacked. And in addition it also highlights a number of people that end up either dead or in prison to become political prisoners, or in exile to become political refugees. And I think all of that’s relevant to our history today.
BALL: So let’s just quickly go back and talk a little bit about what was, or is, the Counterintelligence Program?
CONWAY: The Counterintelligence Program was, was a program operated by the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover, deemed in 1968 that the Black Panther Party was the greatest internal threat to America, and it mandated a group of people within the FBI to organize a counterintelligence program that would sabotage the Black Panther Party’s organizing, would sabotage their image, and it would either run them out of the country or jail them, legally or illegally. That program then had access to all the different police and law enforcement apparatuses throughout the United States from the state levels, the state police, the federal levels, internal revenue, all the way down to the local police departments that use informers, that use agent provocateurs. It even used a military personnel to spy on the Black Panther Party and then to engage in activities that Congress later determined was illegal to sabotage the operations in the various states that the Black Panther Party existed in.
BALL: I think it’s also important to note that as it was pointed out in the Freedom Archives documentary COINTELPRO 101, that everything that was done then that was illegal is now currently legal under the Patriot Act and other more modern changes to the law, and this whole notion of homeland security. So I would think that it’s an important lesson to learn, going back to the history that you experienced, given that all that was done to you illegally is now perfectly legal.
And of course, it wasn’t just to the Black Panther Party, right. It was–Hoover started his whole operation attacking Marcus Garvey, and then of course the COINTELPRO went against not only the Black Panthers, but the Native American movement, the Chicano movement, anarchists, socialists, communists, et cetera, creating exile, political imprisonment, and assassination. What–so when you talk about Black Lives Matter today, and other activists and other newly-formed efforts, what else might they want to consider as maybe preparation to deal with what you all had to deal with that was, again, illegal, but is now legal?
CONWAY: And I guess one of the points is, like, way past the Patriot Act, which was, came in after 9/11, now there’s something called a National Defense of America Act, which allows the president the power to make any citizen in America disappear without any legal recourse whatsoever, without any Constitutional rights and the Bill of Rights suspended, once a letter of recommendation is signed against an individual or a group. And that whole group can disappear, or that individual can disappear, and there’s no recourse whatsoever.
So people today probably need to be aware, especially now that surveillance is not only ever-present in terms of the telephone, the cameras, and computers and et cetera, but they, I think, today’s people need to be aware of something that we tend not to pay too much attention to, and that’s agent provocateurs. And in some cases not even agent provocateurs anymore. Undercover police that operates now with the mandate that it’s legal to go into groups and spy on groups. It’s legal, it’s no longer illegal. They can even encourage activities that used to be entrapment. Now it’s like, just finding out where a person’s intentions are.
There’s a number of cases across the country now, especially in the [inaud.] communities. But there’s also cases in terms of immigration, there’s cases in terms of the animal rights movement, there’s cases in terms of the environmentalist movement, where people have been actually framed up or coerced into saying this or that, and eventually locked up. And there’s a number of political prisoners from all of those movements, now in jail today. So people have to be careful how they organize and be careful who they organize with, and try to organize within the boundaries where they won’t allow agent provocateurs to encourage any kind of activities that might lead to their arrest.
BALL: So we were talking a little bit off-air, just as we were setting up to do this interview about this, this claim that the Panther Party was the greatest threat to national security in the United States. You have a quote in here from Dhoruba bin Wahad, former Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army member, talking about what actually caused the threat, that it wasn’t just the guns or the claims of violence, or even notions of socialist politics, but, but very simple day-to-day programs that you all were running in the community. Could you talk a little bit about this, this claim, again, why they would focus on the Panthers as the greatest threat.
CONWAY: Well, I think the threat was the ideology. I mean, this was the first probably national organization in the black community that espoused socialism with anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and we put programs in down on the ground with free breakfast programs, or free health clinics, or buses to the prison, or community control. And that showed how we could organize in a socialist way and take care of ourself and our community, and use those resources in a collective kind of way.
This idea and those programs resonated in other communities. In the Latino communities the Brown Berets sprung up. In the Puerto Rican community the Young Lords sprung up. In the Native American community the American Indian movement sprung up. In the white community, the White Panther Party and the Patriot Party sprung up. And then around the world at that time there was a Black Panther Party sprung up in Israel. There was a Black Panther Party sprung up in Australia. Black Panther Party sprung up in Africa. Black solidarity groups sprung up in Asia. And the proliferation of this ideology was what the government was in fear of, because it was not just a black radical movement leading to this, but working with Asians, brown people, white people, Native Americans, and so on. And this is what the government feared: the unity of all these people, and the recognition that they all had a common problem and a common foe.
BALL: Let me ask you in the few minutes we have left that, you know, we were also talking off-camera a little bit about the popular imagery related and symbolism related to the Black Panther Party. Specifically around some of the imagery in the Superbowl performance of Beyonce, and some of the way her dancers were dressed, with the afros and the berets and the bandoleer, and all–.
How do you respond to that? When you talk to young people who might see a snapshot of an image like that or a symbol like that, what is it that you would like them to know, or that you tell them about these symbols and how they relate to the actual party itself?
CONWAY: Well, the first thing is, I think, and this is the bottom line basic idea, it’s theory and practice. You know, you can look and sound like anybody, and people do look and sound like anybody, but the determination of what’s real and what’s not is the practice. You have to look and see what those people are actually doing. And if those people are just making money, or if those people are just entertaining people, or those people are just there as a misdirection, then you realize that they are not genuine revolutionaries, they’re not trying to change the conditions. They’re trying to make a living, and they’re trying to put people to sleep.
So I think it’s important to recognize theory and practice. Because if you say all of this, but you’re not doing anything, then that’s really the bottom line. You’re not doing anything.
BALL: Marshall Eddie Conway, thank you for joining us for this segment of the Real News, and talking with us a little bit about your book, The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and the COINTELPRO, or and COINTELPRO. And for being a greatest threat to talk about the greatest threat. Thank you very much.
CONWAY: Thanks for having me.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. Again, for all involved, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore, saying as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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