The FBI vs. the People of Berkeley

by RON JACOBS

November 4, 1980, 9:00 PM.  Jimmy Carter had conceded the presidential election earlier that evening.  Hundreds had gathered at the Shattuck Avenue BART station in downtown Berkeley, CA.  Most were angry and concerned.  The man who had made their city the target of his wrath and the foil for his dreams of running the state of California was now slated to rule the United States.  After a brief speech from a university student, the crowd moved into the streets shouting slogans against Ronald Reagan and his fascist entourage.  As we walked through Berkeley’s neighborhoods, the crowd swelled to at least 2000 marchers.  Drummers pounded out a beat; trumpeters played New Orleans funeral music; and the chanting grew louder and louder with each meter we traversed.  Eventually we ended up in People’s Park, where Reagan’s forces had murdered a man and permanently injured several others.  After a short speak out, an effigy of the new leader of the US was burned.  We left with plans to meet up the next day on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.

The next day at noon an even larger crowd gathered on the plaza and listened to music and speeches against the Reagan future.  Then, a few hundred of us walked past the UC police and into the campus administration building.  We occupied the building until the police removed us.  The Reagan years were upon the nation.  Things would never be the same.

Reading Seth Rosenfeld’s book on the subversion of California’s civil rights and civil liberties it is hard to figure out why any US citizen except for those on the far right would consider Ronald Reagan to be a decent human being.  I have searched for a word that describes my thoughts about him—thoughts that were reawakened reading this book.  The only word I could come up with is a simple one.  It leaves little room for misinterpretation and fits the man being so characterized well.

That word is “pig.”

Rosenfeld’s book, titled Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, is a detailed narrative relating the intense attention the law enforcement infrastructure in DC and Sacramento paid to the radical activity taking place in Berkeley, CA. during the 1960s and 1970s.  Culled from FBI files reluctantly released under the Freedom of Information Act (after years of court wrangling between Rosenfeld and the agency), interviews, news articles and information from other police agencies, this text provides a revealing look at the nature of the forces arrayed against left-leaning movements for change in the United States.  It is also a foray into the networks of informants, undercover operatives, and other individuals that help those police agencies subvert organizations devoted to such change.

The book reflects the paranoia of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, his reliance on rabid right wing anti-communists for information, and the consequent heightening of that paranoia.  Rosenfeld details Ronald Reagan’s intimate relationship with the Bureau and the Bureau’s manipulation of the University’s Board of Regents and the Governor’s office in its determination to impose Hoover’s politics on the university.  The uninitiated might be surprised at the intimacy between ultra-right individuals and the government of California.  They might also be surprised at the way these individuals painted Clark Kerr,  the president of the University of California, as a co-conspirator with communists and anarchists in a concerted effort to destroy the university.  They might be even more surprised to read that Reagan and the right-wingers he took advice from believed that this operation was directed by foreign powers in Moscow and Beijing.  Yet, this was how the FBI functioned.

Since the publication of Subversives, there has been a fair amount of discussion about the book amongst individuals involved in antiwar and antiracist activities in the 19609s and 1970s.  Rosenfeld names various regents, educators and right wing political operatives as informants on university faculty and staff.  He also describes Ronald Reagan’s role as an informant to the FBI.  One revelation, of a more questionable veracity, is Rosenfeld’s claim that Black Panther member Richard Aoki may have been an informant.  Now, for anyone who worked with Aoki at any time during his political life, this information seems quite farfetched.  Indeed, most folks who have spoken up since the book’s publication have stated quite clearly that this claim is just not true.  Others have read not only the book, but the redacted files Rosenfeld used in the writing of the book.  Let me quote from activist/musician and friend of Aoki Fred Ho’s response to the Rosenfeld claim (published by the San Francisco BayView):

Here is where the timid scholars who’ve responded to Rosenfeld can’t engage: the political realm.  I have argued before that should that informant be Richard Aoki, then his contributions to social change (elevating the ideological engagement of radicals, both then and to the end of his life; the leadership in establishing ethnic studies; his return to activism in the 1990s to fire a new generation of radicals; etc.) should be the primary evaluation to challenge and disavow these allegations.  Richard Aoki did not service the U.S. Empire.  He did not foment division, dissent, disruption and debilitation, but the opposite: he provided revolutionary leadership, inspiration, discipline, training and was exemplary.

The fact is Aoki was a Black Panther and a revolutionary before he was anything else.  No amount of redacted files can change this.  When I was researching my book The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, I remained overly skeptical of information I got from government intelligence files.  My experience with the information in those files was that it more often than not was tailored to the politics and prejudices of whoever was providing it.  Given the rabid racism, sexism and anticommunism of the FBI under Hoover, everything in their COINTELPRO files is suspect.

Despite this apparent flaw in Rosenfeld’s work, the story he tells is remarkable in its scope and complexity.  By localizing his efforts to the state of California and, specifically, the city of Berkeley, Rosenfeld has provided a telling tapestry of a movement to change a nation and the chilling efforts of that nation’s authorities to destroy that movement.  Not only a good history, Subversives is also a useful handbook for today’s activists, especially when considering  the police attacks on Occupy and other protests in the past months; the imprisonment of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest, and the FBI raids (and ongoing investigation) of antiwar activists across the nation in 2011.

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: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
September 4-6, 2015
Lawrence Ware
No Refuge: the Specter of White Supremacy Still Haunts Black America
Paul Street
Bi-Polar Disorder: Obama’s Bait-and-Switch Environmental Politics
Vijay Prashad
Regime Change Refugees: On the Shores of Europe
Arun Gupta
Field Notes to Life During the Apocalypse
Steve Hendricks
Come Again? Second Thoughts on My Ashley Madison Affair
Paul Craig Roberts
Whither the Economy?
Ron Jacobs
Bernie Sanders’ Vision: As Myopic as Every Other Candidate or Not?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Arkansas Bloodsuckers: the Clintons, Prisoners and the Blood Trade
Richard W. Behan
Republican Fail, Advantage Sanders: the Indefensible Budget for Defense
Ted Rall
Call It By Its Name: Censorship
Susan Babbitt
“Swarms” Entering the UK? What We Can Still Learn About the Migrant Crisis From Che Guevara
Andrew Levine
Compassionate Conservatism: a Reconsideration and an Appreciation
Kali Akuno
Until We Win: Black Labor and Liberation in the Disposable Era
John Wight
Adrift Without Sanctuary: a Sick and Twisted Morality
Binoy Kampmark
Sieges in an Age of Austerity: Monitoring Julian Assange
Colin Todhunter
Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Depraved Morality of David Cameron
JP Sottile
Chinese Military Parade Freak-Out
Kathleen Wallace
The Child Has a Name, They All Do
David Rosen
Why So Few Riots?
Norm Kent
The Rent Boy Raid: Homeland Security Should Monitor Our Borders Not Our Bedrooms
Michael Welton
Canada’s Arrogant Autocrat: the Rogue Politics of Stephen Harper
Patrick T. Hiller
There’s Nothing Collateral About a Toddler Washed Ashore
Ramzy Baroud
Palestine’s Crisis of Leadership: Did Abbas Destroy Palestinian Democracy?
Jim Connolly
Sniping at the Sandernistas: Left Perfectionism in the Belly of the Beast
Pepe Escobar
Say Hello to China’s New Toys
Sylvia C. Frain
Tiny Guam, Huge US Marine Base Expansions
Pete Dolack
Turning National Parks into Corporate Profit Centers
Ann Garrison
Africa’s Problem From Hell: Samantha Power
Dan Glazebrook
British Home Secretary Theresa May: Savior or Slaughterer of Black People?
Christopher Brauchli
Poor, Poor, Pitiful Citigroup
Norman Pollack
Paradigm of a Fascist Mindset: Nicholas Burns on Iran
Linn Washington Jr.
Critics of BlackLivesMatter# Practice Defiant Denial
Roger Annis
Canada’s Web of Lies Over Syrian Refugee Crisis
Chris Zinda
Constitutional Crisis in the Heart of Dixie
Rannie Amiri
Everything Stinks: Beirut Protests and Garbage Politics
Graham Peebles
Criminalizing Refugees
Missy Comley Beattie
In Order To Breathe
James McEnteer
Blast From the Past in Buenos Aires
Patrick Higgins
A Response to the “Cruise Missile Left”
Tom H. Hastings
Too Broke to Pay Attention
Edward Leer
Love, Betrayal, and Donuts
Cesar Chelala
Cruelty is Not a Human Right
Louis Proyect
Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”
Charles R. Larson
Class and Colonialism in British Cairo
September 03, 2015
Sal Rodriguez
How California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Confinement Reforms