Whoever imagines our first black president and his first black attorney general had little or nothing to do with naming Assata Shakur its “most wanted terrorist” list is deep in denial and delusion. “Terrorist,” as my colleague Glen Ford points out, has never been anything but a political label, applied by the authorities for their own political purposes. The international legal angle as well, with Assata Shakur receiving political asylum from the Cuban government the last 30 years, also makes her placement on that list something that Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama absolutely had to carefully consider and approve.
A lot has changed in the forty years since Assata Shakur was wounded and captured in New Jersey. The press conference announcing her capture was doubtless headed up by white police and district attorneys. Back then, black faces were pretty scarce in the top ranks of cops and prosecutors anywhere, and J. Edgar Hoover had only recently left the FBI. Last week’s announcement of the $2 million bounty on Assata’s head was anchored by a high ranking black cop, and of course, there are black faces in the offices of president and US Attorney General. People who call themselves progressives, do call that “progress,” don’t they?
The premiere federal initiative for political policing was something called COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was a secret “counterintelligence,” as in “counter-intelligent” and/or evil multiplied by stupid federal program which for 25 years labeled thousands of civic organizations, churches, labor unions, and grassroots movements as threats to “national security.” Federal agents secretly coordinated local police and media assets in hundreds of campaigns to discredit and destroy those organizations, utilizing illegal surveillance, agents provocateur and media slander. Individual leaders and participants were harassed, falsely prosecuted and imprisoned, and sometimes murdered. COINTELPRO’s existence only came to light as a result of US Senate select committee chaired by Senator Frank Church hearings in 1975.
The good news about COINTELPRO was first, that the government of those days wasn’t bold enough, that it felt too hemmed in and prevented by the American people from openly targeting political dissidents for assassination and murder, and second, that it eventually did come to light. Government officials even had to pay token damages in a handful of cases, such as the murder of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, and publicly claim their official misconduct had ended.
Forty years later though, we live in the era of secret kidnappings, regular torture, ghost prisons and executive branch murder by drones or special ops teams. Today the federal Department of Homeland Security funds counter-terrorism fusion centers which openly disseminate the kind of inflammatory and fanciful disinformation to local police and security contractors about those the government wants targeted that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents had to come around and whisper in their ears. Now that is progress.
Forty years and change ago, the whole constellation of African American leadership wrapped its arms around the segments of the black movement that came under vicious police assault. I was a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago in 1969 and 70, and we never had as many friends as we did when our offices were riddled with gunfire or our members murdered by police. Back then, when everyone from the Urban League and the NAACP to Operation Breadbasket and the Afro-American Patrolman’s League stood up for us. Those who’ve viewed the recently released documentary Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners can see the same phenomenon of four decades ago, with Rev. Ralph David Abernathy wrapping his arms around “our sister Angela Davis” when she was accused of murder in the deaths of a judge and others in California.
It’s been a week now since the $2 million dollar bounty and “most wanted terrorist” announcement. In that time, not a single nationally noted African American “leader” has raised his or her voice. Not Ben Jealous. Not a single black mayor or member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Not Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and certainly not the presidential lap dog Al Sharpton. Sharpton has worn wires for the FBI more than once, and is credibly accused of trying to get close to people who were rumored to be close to Assata Shakur in the 1980s. Those people wisely avoided Rev. Al.
Such is the pressure of subservient conformity among the black political class that not a single African American politician, religious leader, or personage of national note has opened his or her mouth in Assata Shakur’s defense, with the solitary exception of Angela Davis, once a political prisoner and fugitive in the days before the word “terrorist” had been coined. Lockstep conformity like this is hard to shake. In their 45 minutes in an otherwise excellent Democracy Now show mostly devoted to Assata Shakur’s case, neither Shakur’s attorney Lennox Hinds nor Angela Davis could bring themselves even to hint that the president and attorney general were responsible for branding her as the nation’s “most wanted terrorist.”
Four decades have seen the flowering of elite affirmative action in the military, corporate America and in American political life. Our black political class never tires of holding their own illustrious careers up as “the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.” But the fact is that US corporations couldn’t do business in Africa without black faces. The US couldn’t give military aid and training for a quarter century to 52 out of 54 African governments, arming all sides of every civil and international conflict in the most war torn regions of the planet, without black diplomats, black admirals and black generals. It couldn’t deploy the world’s most massive prison and police state without hundreds of thousands of black prison guards and police, some in the most senior positions and many more in line behind them.
All these are the fruits of what passes for social and racial “progress” in these United States.
This then, is the real function of corporate and elite affirmative action, and of the black political class itself. Whether it’s moving the corporate agenda of gentrification through the destruction of public housing, carrying out social security and Medicare cuts, or waging open war upon the unapproved segments of the African American movement for justice and liberation, black faces in high places have repeatedly proven themselves the more effective evil, able to blunt leftish opposition and carry out policies that white elites can only dream of without their help.
Assata Shakur is not a terrorist. She was shot with her hands in the air, and no residue from gunfire was detected on her hands or clothes or that would have been introduced as evidence at her trial. Her all white jury was instructed to convict her for simply being there, and they did just that. She was a political prisoner, and the only “crime” she can reasonably be accused of is escaping and living out her life the last three decades in Cuba. Government officials do admit that her “terrorist” activity consists of occasional writings and speeches which advocate radical change, and the example of her peaceful life and political asylum 90 miles from Florida.
If that’s all it takes to be a “terrorist,” many thousands of today’s yesterday’s and tomorrow’s black and non-black political activists inside the U.S. are “terrorists” as well. There’s a global war on terror, and now it openly includes the black liberation movement, basically everybody to the left of the established black political class. In the wake of this announcement, can there be any doubt that many more names are or will soon come up at the president’s “terror Tuesday” meetings, at which the White House boasts it considers who next to kidnap or murder? We’re all fair game now.
President Obama obviously hopes the label “terrorist” will scare present and future activists from learning what there is to know from the proud traditions of African American and other resistance to empire. He hopes to intimidate and frighten ordinary people, especially young people, into the same kind of conformity as their supposed “leaders.”
Back in 2007 and 2008, candidate Barack Obama confided to editorial boards and others a number of times that Ronald Reagan was his favorite president. We should have listened to him a lot more closely. It’s a safe guess now, that J. Edgar Hoover is his favorite cop.
Bruce A. Dixon can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.
Once again, it’s Black History Month in the United States. Since the inception of this celebration, its meaning has unfortunately been diminished as the myth of postracialism becomes gospel, even though it shares none of a gospel’s truths. In schools and libraries, well-meaning teachers and library workers create displays, bring in speakers, and teach lessons on the history of African-Americans. All too often, this means a look at the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., a discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation and maybe a lesson about Rosa Parks.
Only rarely, do students and library patrons get a look beyond these conventional topics that are usually taught in a manner that highlights white America’s tolerance and sense of fair play. This is why books like the recently released Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party are so important. They remove the pretense that the Black liberation movement in the United States was something everyone except the KKK and its allies supported. Books like this tell the truth. Blacks Against Empire does so concisely, engagingly and honestly.
Blacks Against Empire is a political history that is simultaneously objective and radical. Despite the efforts of historians to obfuscate and obliterate the party from history, describing it as a hate group and gun-obsessed when mentioning it at all, the fact is the Panthers legacy is unique and important to not only the history of Black America, but to the history of the entire United States. It is best described in the words of Mumia Abu Jamal: “we didn’t preach to the people, we worked with them. “The relationship between the primarily white New Left and Panthers is explored in a fair-minded and realistic manner, as is the relationship between the Panthers and other Third World revolutionary organizations both in the United States and around the world. The authors expand the narrative of the movement against the US war in Vietnam, showing clearly the early involvement of black organizations, especially that of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was this organization that actually began resisting the draft, months before the predominantly white antiwar movement. Furthermore, as the authors make clear, opposition to the US war in Vietnam was one of the Black Panthers’ fundamental positions.
Like most revolutionary organizations the Panthers struggled with issues of gender and sexuality. While the participation of men in the breakfast programs sensitized them to the realities of child-rearing and associated aspects of human life (think of the film Salt of the Earth, when the women replace men on the picket lines and the men take over household tasks forcing them to see the relationship of domestic tasks to the capitalist dynamic), the living situations of many Panthers reinforced traditional gender roles.
Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin Jr., the authors of Black Against Empire, have written a comprehensive and compelling history of the Black Panther Party. As close to complete as one text can possibly be, it is the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to read just one book about the Black Panthers. The book concludes with a chapter speculating as to why the Black Panthers developed when they did, why they commanded the support they did, and why their influence waned so quickly. Of course, the role of the government counterinsurgency program called COINTELPRO is discussed; the frameups, misinformation, jacketing and murders. In light of current concerns about domestic “terrorists”, one wonders if the Panthers would be considered drone assassination targets under the current Justice Department guidelines if they were around today? Other reasons provided by the authors for the Panthers’ demise borrow from the Italian Antonio Gramsci’s thoughts on revolutionary movements and end up asking more questions than they answer.
Back to Mumia Abu Jamal. One of the youngest Panthers in the nation, he continued his revolutionary activism and reportage long after the Black Panthers had become history. Indeed, his post-Panther trajectory could serve as a microcosm of many leftist revolutionaries who came of age during the Panthers’ heyday. He didn’t give up his radicalism while pursuing a career after the Party. Because of this, he ended up paying for his history and his refusal to compromise. He continues paying even today. For those who have forgotten (or never paid attention), Mumia has been on Pennsylvania’s death row for more than two decades. Accused and convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman in a prosecution involving the sketchiest of evidence and numerous prosecutorial and judicial missteps, Mumia’s life and situation is the subject of a new feature film titled Long Distance Revolutionary.
When I was helping organize antiwar activities in the late 1990s and the 2000s, I learned that many of the younger radicals I was working with came to their politics after learning of Mumia’s case. Thanks in no small part to his eloquence and the support of popular musicians like Rage Against the Machine, these young people saw through the intense desire of the State to keep Jamal in prison and kill him. This understanding opened their eyes to the realities of the system and made them radical. As the film shows, this trajectory is similar to Jamal’s. Mumia is a political prisoner. The Panthers were a political organization. The story of both is a story that needs to be heard. The film is part biography, part commentary from supporters and Jamal himself, and part drama. The sum of these parts is a film that provokes and entertains.
The Black Panthers were bold. The Black Panthers were smart. The Black Panthers were anti-imperialists. The Black Panthers were revolutionaries. This book and this film remind us of that. They also remind us that this world, this nation, could use something with the Panthers appeal and power now.
Read this book, ask your library to buy it; watch this film. Black history isn’t just for black people. It’s for everyone who wants to understand the history of the United States.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.