Ever since left-wing, anti-capitalist, and progressive thinking came into political prominence, it has been the goal of the ruling classes to suppress it. Despite the efforts of 2 Red Scares and COINTELPRO, movements for social justice and liberation have trudged on and have inspired countless generations of activists. We will be focusing on the struggles of activists today and the current methods of political policing used by the ruling classes. The fact of the matter is that radical progressive politics are being undermined today just as they were for the past century, maybe even more so. This is done through police violence, censorship, and leftovers from the era of COINTELPRO. This is an issue that all progressive activists must take seriously in order to prevent the destruction of revolutionary and progressive movements.
The United States likes to claim that it does not have political prisoners or that it does not conduct political policing but, both claims are simply not true. Political policing in the United States is a tradition almost as old as the country itself. It began in the late-1800s with the crushing of unions and strikebreaking and from there evolved into the system we see today. While much of the frankness of the system has somewhat gone away with the decades, the main method still exists. That method is criminalisation. Criminalisation is when the state makes activism or actions illegal. This has been used to crush unions, the Black Panthers, and the Anti-War Movement among others. Criminalisation is how the United States is able to say they have no political prisoners. Criminalisation is often not outright, for that would grab too much attention. They often stretch the definitions of crimes, rewrite laws, plant evidence, or flat out lie in order to jail activists and revolutionaries. Occasionally actions of protest or political expression can be direct crimes, such as striking or union organising in certain states. There are numerous examples of this throughout the history of activism in the United States. To see the worst of it, look at the Black Panthers. For those not in the know, the Black Panthers were a revolutionary group who worked for the self-defence of black communities across the United States. They worked in response to police violence against African Americans across the United States and besides their self-defence programs, they had programs of assistance to the poor and the communities they defended. For all of their history, they experienced the brunt of what COINTELPRO could throw at them. Criminalisation was one of many methods used against them. Most prominently was Fred Hampton. Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers and was a constant target of police harassment. He was murdered in an “arms raid” in 1969. FBI infiltrators had slipped drugs to Hampton during dinner and he was fast asleep when the raid occurred. The police then proceeded to shoot him 2 times in the head. While the police called it an arms raid, that was not the real reasoning. Most of the Black Panthers’ arms were legally registered and were not kept at the apartment. There was not even a shootout. Investigations showed that the Panthers had only fired one shot while the Chicago Police had fired around 91 shots. All Panthers in the apartment were indicted on trumped-up charges.
When looking for more modern methods of political policing we need only to look at the ongoing case of Mumia Abu-Jamal or simply Mumia. Mumia is a radical activist, journalist, and former Black Panther from Philadelphia. He was a supporter of the MOVE organisation and other radical elements fighting for liberation in the city. In 1981, Mumia’s brother was stopped by a Philadelphia police officer and Mumia had watched the interaction. At the end of it all, the officer ended up with shots in the back and face and Mumia ended up with a shot in the stomach. The prosecution had little to no physical evidence against Mumia and a lot of the evidence they did provide was questionable, to say the least. Even with that Mumia ended up in prison for life without parole. This trial has been questioned by numerous organisations both in the United States and abroad. The call has been for the freeing of Mumia and at least a re-trial. Both are things the City of Philadelphia has been unwilling to do. This is due to the strong levels of embedded racism in the Philadelphia PD and the police advocacy groups and unions pushing back at efforts to give Mumia a fair trial. It is generally believed that the reasons Mumia is being kept in jail are due to the extreme racism of the police and his involvement in radical organising. Philadelphia was one of the cities that cracked down hard on radical movements. Under the direction of Frank Rizzo, the city saw the massive suppression of black liberation movements. This track record does not show much hope for the Mumia case but, hopefully all the outside pressure will cause the city to cave in and free him.
How do these situations relate to today? Well, those actions of the 20th century still occur today. Looking recently we can see the actions of the Trump Administration mirroring the methods used by COINTELPRO. Firstly, the J20 Protestors. J20 is the term given to the protests at Donald Trump’s inauguration. The J20 defendants are anti-fascist protestors that were arrested during the protests in January 2017. 214 people were arrested, with most of them having their charges dropped. 58 people are still being prosecuted, each of them is facing at least 60 years in prison each. What makes this case so despicable is that there is no real evidence proving they committed any crime. This action of mass charges against protestors is a scare tactic meant to dissuade political organising. It has been done for many years, most recently during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Political policing is the reality for radical activists on the ground and it is all too often ignored by the majority of Americans. The J20 case is especially worrying given that these were Anti-Fascist protestors and the Trump Administration has been exceptionally hard on anti-fascists but, light on far-right extremists and white supremacists. Think of that what you will. Another very recent example of political policing relating to the White House’s leniency towards white supremacists is with the “black identity extremists” debacle. Firstly, the terminology is clearly an attempt to criminalise the Movement for Black Lives, a movement often demonised by scared white people. Despite the absurdity and shallowness of this term, it is no laughing matter and is being used to repress progressive movements in black communities. Most prominently the case of Rakem Balogun and Guerrilla Mainframe. Balogun is the first known person to be prosecuted on the charge of being a “black identity extremist”. Balogun was a legal gun owner, activist, and worker who was unjustly detained by the US government. Many point to his organisation to attempt to justify his charge but, Guerrilla Mainframe is not a violent organisation. It does advocate for self-defence for black communities but, it also conducts many community help programs, much like the Black Panthers. These programs include ones providing food, clothes, and housing to the community, much like the Black Panthers. The saying “history repeats itself” is definitely pertinent in this situation.
Criminalisation is no doubt a large problem facing activists and it ties in with another issue: Censorship. Contrary to what conservatives and reactionaries like to say, they are not suppressed at all. Left-wing progressive ideology is far more suppressed by governmental structures and society as a whole looks down on it more than right-wing ideas. This is because left-wing ideas upset the status quo more than right-wing ones. Conservatism does not scare the powers that be. The concept of the leftist boogeyman is merely a ploy to give them more legitimacy and try and appeal to bourgeois notions of free speech. They love to claim that universities are somehow these bastions of “evil Marxism” that is bent on the destruction of Western Civilisation. This is absurd. Right-wing groups are perfectly able to organise on universities, in fact, left-wing organisations have had a harder time organising. This is again due to the fact that left-wing ideas upset the status quo. If you want an example of this look at the University of Virginia around the time of the Charlottesville Protests. The University had penalised anti-fascist students while it continued to allow Nazis and white supremacists to use their facilities without punishment. Look also at the BDS and pro-Palestine movement that has been oftentimes banned at colleges and universities. Right-wing groups are seldom banned unless they are outright racist and even then. That brings up an important point to see when looking at these right-wing arguments. Right-wingers often believe that someone calling out their racism, challenging their beliefs, or merely disagreeing with them is some sort of assault on their freedoms. They whine about safe spaces existing but, will not get out of theirs. They live in an echo chamber and their arguments are absurd and frankly, time should not be wasted on them.
Progressive ideas are censored in a variety of ways. Oftentimes progressive actions will not be reported on or when they are, their meaning and intentions are misrepresented. Take for example, the Anti-Fascist movement. They are often portrayed as violent or people there wanting to censor the speech of others. This is not the case at all. Firstly, the perception of Anti-Fascist protestors as being against free speech is absurd and is a claim that comes mostly from Nazis themselves. Anti-Fascist Action does counter-demonstrations that are not necessarily meant to disrupt the other demonstration, merely protest it happening or provide an alternative narrative. Counter-protesting is key to keeping the marketplace of ideas open and free. As for the issue of violence, this is true. Violence is key to anti-fascism. Fascism is itself violent and can only be combatted through a countering force. It must be stated that Anti-Fascist Action has never been the provocateur of violence, in most cases it is the fascists that provoke incidents to get publicity. Just look at the events of Charlottesville or J20. Another example of media misrepresentation is the Movement for Black Lives. BLM is possibly one of the most misrepresented movements in the modern political landscape. This stems from the embedded racism of American society and the general unwillingness of media outlets to truly try to understand progressive movements. The most misrepresented portion of the movement is their platform. Their platform is often misconstrued as being wholly anti-police or violent, both of which are not necessarily true. BLM mostly calls for police accountability and transparency, although the platform can vary from chapter to chapter. This fact of variance is also not often reported and this can be confusing to the uneducated viewer. Immigrant rights groups, Palestinian rights groups, and a whole slew of organisations suffer the same misrepresentation and censorship. The aforementioned BDS Movement is often censored for its views. anti-Zionism is often conflated with anti-Semitism and this is not a fair or true comparison. Besides the fact that many Jewish people are anti-Zionists. the Israeli government controls much of the narrative on Palestine in the West. The media outlets tend to view things from the Israeli perspective and do not give the Palestinian one. This leads to movements both in Palestine and elsewhere being misrepresented as anti-Semitic. The other method the media uses to discredit activists is to blow up minor events or the views of a minority group. While anyone with critical thinking and basic reasoning could see through these tactics, it often works in fooling people.
Another key method of suppression is the use of infiltration. This is a notable leftover from the days of COINTELPRO that functions in much of the same way. Radical groups are infiltrated by police officers or an existing member is bribed by the police to disrupt the group. These infiltrators are often there not to provide information on criminal activity but, to split and disrupt the group. This can be done by deliberate sabotage of events and meetings. One of the many signs that someone may be in the pocket of the police is when they have severe ideological differences and refuse to put them aside for cooperation. This was a tactic used during COINTELPRO to disrupt New Left and Anti-War groups during the Vietnam War. This being said, this method is probably rarer in its usage today. This is due to a variety of reasons, mainly the shift of priorities for the government and the fact that there are easier and more destructive methods, most of which we have already discussed.
The methods we have discussed are not all of the methods used by the powers that be to suppress radical activism. Discussing each method would take a whole book to do and some of those methods are becoming antiquated as the internet age progresses. The truth is that we live in a time where surveillance in some way should be an accepted reality for activists. Accepting that fact is key to protecting yourself from it. There are a variety of methods one can use to protect oneself but, many are compromised. The best way is to not discuss private organising matters online, discuss them in person. The fact is that there really is not one guaranteed method as a lot of them are built on trust so, activists often have to just take a bet on that. That should not be the world activists live in. This shows the real hypocrisy of the United States as a country. A country that claims to hold free speech as a high ideal has radical activists having to hide their ideas and plans with such secrecy. This is intentional as the state works to maintain the status quo and will do whatever necessary to maintain it. The system wants to break its opposition but, history has shown us that it rarely succeeds. Opposition perseveres. The freedom of ideas must be an important idea for activists, without discourse there is no progress. To quote Mao Zedong:
“Let a hundred flowers bloom and hundred schools of thought contend”