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Chances Are the FBI Has Files on Your Favorite Human Rights Activist

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Yale University American historian Beverly Gage was sifting through the US National Archives in the summer of 2014, doing research for a book on J. Edgar Hoover, when she came across a letter historians had been searching for for many a decade. Written from the perspective of an imaginary yet disappointed admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr., the missive encouraged the leading civil rights, anti-war, and socialist activist to kill himself.

“There is only one thing left for you to do,” the anonymous author warned, “before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” “You know what it is.”

For years, the existence of the letter had been known, yet it had only been released in drastically redacted form. When Dr. Gage stumbled across the letter, she only confirmed what everyone knew all along: This thinly disguised threat was penned by none other than the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Dr. King knew this the moment he opened the envelope, 50 years ago. Gage writes, “Despite its half-baked prose, self-conscious amateurism and other attempts at misdirection, King was certain the letter had come from the F.B.I. Its infamous director, J. Edgar Hoover, made no secret of his desire to see King discredited.”

Hoover was appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation, the FBI’s predecessor, in 1924. In 1935, he helped found the FBI, which he directed until his death, in 1972. In his half a century of rule, Hoover “waged war on homosexuals, black people and communists,” turning the bureau into what President Truman (no progressive himself, to say the least) warned was becoming the American “Gestapo or secret police.”

MLK is by no means the only American hero whose life the FBI tried to destroy. One need only browse through the digital vault of FBI records that have been declassified and released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), hosted electronically atvault.fbi.gov, to find a slew of US history’s most renowned purveyors of justice. In just this limited archive alone—constituting a mere microscopic percentage of extant FBI files—the bureau has files on:

– the ACLU, Albert Einstein, the American Anti Imperialist League,
– Bertolt Brecht, the Bonus March, the Black Panther Party,
– Carl Sagan, Cesar Chavez, Claudia Jones, Coretta Scott King, Carlos Fuentes,
– Erich Fromm, Edward Abbey,
– Fred Hampton, Fidel Castro, the Freedom Riders,
– Greenpeace, the Gay Activist Alliance,
– Henry Wallace, Hanns Eisler, Helen Keller,
– the League of Women Voters, Lenny Bruce, Luis Buñuel, Langston Hughes, Leonard Bernstein,
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X,
– the NAACP, the National Organization for Women (NOW), Nelson Mandela,
– People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Paul Robeson,
– Stokely Carmichael,
– The Grateful Dead, Tupac Shakur, The Beatles,

among many, many, many more human rights activists, freedom fighters, intellectuals, and artists.

Notice a trend among these figures?

Those who have taken the US up on its claims that it provides “freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy” for all citizens—supposedly regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, religion, etc.—have always been a thorn in the side of the US ruling class.

If you have ever openly challenged and mobilized against the structural racism of white supremacy, you probably have an FBI record. If you have ever openly challenged and mobilized against the structural sexism of patriarchy, you probably have an FBI record. If you have ever openly challenged and mobilized against the structural cisheterosexism of cisheteronormativity, you probably have an FBI record. And if you have ever openly challenged and mobilized against the structural inequality of capitalism and concomitant imperialism, you definitely have an FBI record.

In fact, “Anti-War” and “Civil Rights” activists have been blessed with their own special categories in this vault of FBI “criminal” records.

fbi vault anti-war category

The archive includes at least 423 pages of files on historian Howard Zinn. This is not because the FBI feared the scholar might engage in violent behavior. Zinn was almost a complete pacifist who went so far as to question the use of violence in the “Revolutionary” War, the Civil War, and World War II—the three “holy [as in ‘unquestionable’] wars.” But he was also a civil rights activist. His opposition to war and advocacy for the rights of all human beings, regardless of race, ergo made him a target of the war-loving, white supremacist US government.

The FBI even has at least 206 pages of files on comedian Groucho Marx. In these regards, it is quite a challenge not to see it as satire of itself. (As if this wasn’t already enough, one might also note that the FBI has at least 73 pages of files on the 1951 film I Was a Communist for the FBI—excuse me for a moment; I just might die from the irony.)

“In the case of voluminous pages,” the archive notes, “only summaries or excerpts from the documents are online,” leading one to suspect that the FBI likely has even more records on these figures. To be frank, it seems as though this collection was compiled hastily, without much interest. The index does not appear to be organized in any logical way. It is nowhere near being in correct alphabetical order, and people are listed by first, not last name. Moreover, considering only 226 pages on MLK are included in this archive, and considering we know that the leading civil rights activist was heavily monitored under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, one can only conclude that the files available on this site only constitute a very, very, very small fraction of those the FBI actually has.

The Social Construction of Criminality

We’re constantly told that “criminals” are the dregs of human history. Yet “criminal” is an ideological term. Only some forms of behavior of criminalized—and those doing that criminalizing, given the barriers to entry in such professional fields, tend to come from powerful, privileged parts of society who often do not engage or need to engage in such behavior. Structural forms of oppression shield powerful and privileged classes from the consequences of their ill actions. We all commit crimes (at least three felonies a day), but only some of us are considered criminals.

One can certainly argue that some forms of behavior must be unconditionally criminalized (e.g., rape, murder, torture, etc.), yet these constitute only a minute fraction of committed “crimes.” As the adage goes, “possession,” not violence,” is nine-tenths of the law.”

Foucault showed us that this double standard has been the nature of the disciplining apparatus of every society, not just that of the US. History, always an impartial teacher, demonstrates that not only did all the cool kids break the rules, all the people who truly believed in the values upon which the United States of America was supposedly founded did too. MLK, after all, insisted—like Thoreau and so many before him—that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Such a proclamation doubtless did not put him on the FBI’s Nice List.

In short, the human rights heroes we admire today were the surveilled villains of yesteryear. The real dregs of human history are not those who illegally opposed systems of oppression, but rather those who allowed such egregious systems to continue unchallenged.

The Police State: A Historical Constant

With recent revelations about the obscene extent of the NSA surveillance and police infiltration programs in this country, it has become quite common to hear Americans insisting that the US “is becoming” a totalitarian state.

These gargantuan mounds of FBI files on your favorite human rights activists, nevertheless, evince that the US has been a police state from day one. To put the history bluntly:

First, the US crushed indigenous rebellions against the genocide of their people at the hands of European settler colonialists. (This repression continues to this day, in the form of systemic poverty and structural unemployment, widespread unregulated usury, and pollution and dispossession of Native land by corporate and government power.)

Then the US crushed uprisings by slaves, seeking an end to chattel slavery—what might very well be the most unjust system ever created by human beings. (This repression continues to this day, in the form of class struggle against wage slavery.)

Then the US crushed workers demanding the right to make living wages, to work in safe conditions, to have leisure time and not waste their lives away working 16 hours per day, and to unionize. (This repression continues to this day, in the form of attacks on unions, “right-to-work” laws, an ever-diminishing minimum wage, and ever-increasing work days.)

Then the US crushed black Americans struggling for basic human rights and dignity. (This repression continues to this day, in the form of mass incarceration, the racist “War on Drugs,” and police brutality.)

Today, the US continues to crush dissent, whistle-blowing (read: truth-telling), and social, economic, and environmental justice movements.

Historically speaking, all of these forms of repression intersected and overlapped with one another, and all persist to this very day.

The parts of the population affected by this police state have certainly changed over time. One might argue that, for (rich, right-wing, Christian, cisheterosexual) white American men, the police state is a relatively new historical development. For indigenous and black Americans, however, for socialists, feminists, and environmentalists, the police state has been a part of The American Experience™ from the day this country was founded.

The police state, along with its sibling, the surveillance state, is by no stretch of the imagination a new construct. There has not been a single stage in US history in which the state did not engage in mass police repression of some segment of the population. Although the FBI was only founded in 1935, and the NSA in 1952, their policies and programs are as old as the Red, White, and Blue.

To be fair, such a characteristic is not one that is wholly unique to the US. The police state, and the police and state apparatus themselves, have always existed to serve the powerful and the privileged.

Things don’t have to be this way, but changing them is up to us—the inevitably of ensuing scaturient filing cabinets of FBI files notwithstanding. Understanding the injustice alone is not enough. “The point is to change it.”

Ben Norton is an artist and activist. His website can be found at http://bennorton.com/.

Ben Norton is a freelance writer and journalist. His website can be found at http://BenNorton.com/.

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