On infiltrators and agents-provocateurs
In recent demonstrations, including those at the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this year, accusations arose again about activities of police agents-provocateurs. The agent-provocateur is an undercover police agent with a political mission not only to spy on dissident organizations, but also to disrupt them by goading them into committing illegal or violent acts, with the purpose, in some cases, of setting them up for arrest and prosecution.This filthy job has an ancient history. In the United States, the heyday of the agent-provocateur came with the industrialization that boomed after the Civil War, and the intensification of class struggle which this produced. The job of agent-provocateur was already partly “privatized” in those days; both government and industry relied on private agencies such as the Pinkertons to do their very dirty work against labor activists and the working class in general.The main targets of both Pinkertons and city “Red Squads” that began to be prominent by the time of the Haymarket incident in 1886 were labor unions and the socialist and anarchist left. At the time, a large proportion of the industrial working class consisted of recent immigrants from Europe. Tactics that the agents-provocateurs used included, besides fomenting violence that could be blamed on the workers, pitting different ethnic, racial and national groups against each other. A big triumph for agent-provocateurism came in 1919, during the Palmer raids, in which many immigrant union and left activists were rounded up and deported.As the 20th Century rolled on, the creation of the Bureau of Investigation, later Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1908, from 1924 to 1972 under the out-of-control leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, expanded the scope of federal involvement and also greatly increased the degree of cooperation among federal, state and local undercover police efforts.After the Second World War and as the Cold War began to hit its stride, there was a whole other spate of activities of agents-provocateurs and police spies, in the employ of the FBI and local and state police agencies. At this point the Communist Party and those labor unions and other mass organizations in which it played a role were the main target. In hearings of the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities and other official bodies, scores of witnesses were presented who had infiltrated the Communist Party, other left groups and left led unions and mass organizations. Today, if the American public knows anything about this episode, often called “McCarthyism” in honor of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), one of the many scoundrels who advanced their political careers by fear mongering about the “red threat”, it knows about the Hollywood Blacklist. But to a much greater extent, the spying and persecution was directed toward the goal of driving communists, leftists and progressives out of positions of leadership and influence in organized labor. This was largely successful, with the help of the policies of the Truman and especially the Eisenhower administrations and the Taft-Hartley Law, which among other things made unions certify that there were no communists in their leadership, on pain of not having access to the protections of labor law. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its component unions had been built with the active participation of many communists and leftists, but now they were driven out of the leadership of all but 11 unions. These unions, who in turn withdrew or were expelled from the AFL-CIO, and whose leaders were not necessarily communists but took a stand on principle in defense of the rights to freedom of association of their members, were then subjected to relentless raiding by company supported rival unions; and eventually only two of them survived to our own day: The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (West Coast Dockworkers).The attacks on unions were highly focused: Typically, when there would be an election for union leadership or a representation election in a given city, congressional hearings would be held in that city for a date just previous to the election, and all kinds of agents and spies would be brought forth to prove that the progressive leaders of the union “get their orders straight form Moscow”. Besides major corporations, local business elites and the Roman Catholic and other Christian churches were very active in this persecution, which often was highly successful. (The most detailed account I know of this aspect of the McCarthy Period can be found in David Caute's 1978 book, “The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower, Simon and Schuster). The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the African American, Latino and Native American civil rights and freedom movements, the movement against the war in Vietnam, and the New Left. Each of these movements annoyed the ruling class in slightly different ways. African-American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X pushed the ruling class's racist buttons, and also threatened the dominance of city and county level political machines in Chicago, Philadelphia, los Angeles and other places. The anti-war movement created major paranoia on the part of the country's military, political and corporate leadership. And the New Left seemed to perhaps threaten a return to the legitimacy of Marxist ideas in the country's political discourse. Of course, the Communist Party and anybody formerly associated with it never stopped being a target for spying and disruption. The Puerto Rican independence movement was a target of particularly intensive disruption efforts, in which not only local police and the FBI but also Puerto Rico's own Territorial Police amassed files on literally hundreds of thousands of people and deployed numerous agents provocateurs. If one wants to study a particularly brutal example of the use of agents provocateurs to disrupt and destroy revolutionary activists, one need look no further than the Cerro Maravilla incident of 1978. Much of the repressive effort in this period came through the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) which targeted a wide range of dissident groups, and under which “dirty tricks” like the effort to foment violent conflict between the Black Panther Party and the followers of Maulana Ron Karenga were particularly shocking. COINTELPRO-police cooperation led to many deaths, including the 1968 murder of Illinois Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. In addition to several Puerto Rican independence activists, at least two victims of FBI and police abuses of this period still languish in jail, namely Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal. In the 1970s, the fight back against police spying and disruption included efforts to get legal prohibitions on these activities, either by legislation or by court order. In several cities, federal courts were induced to prohibit police infiltration and spying that violated the constitutional rights freedom of expression and association, and of due process. In Chicago, the Alliance to End Repression, a coalition of progressive and civic minded groups, did an excellent job of proving that over the years the Chicago Police and other agencies, along with a private vigilante organizations, had run roughshod over the rights of the people. It did not help the city's case when it turned out that the Chicago “Red Squad” had slipped an infiltrator into the office of the Alliance to End Repression itself. In 1981 a federal judge approved a consent decree which forbade most of the abuses that the police had engaged in for many years, plus mechanisms for relief. In New York, similar dynamics produced the Handschu Ruling of 1985. (The story of the Red Squads and the struggle against them is ably told in Frank Donner's 1992 book “Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America”, University of California Press). (Full disclosure: From 1995 to 2004 I was the Program Director of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, a key member organization in earlier days of the Alliance to end Repression.).Nobody who was involved in the fight for judicial consent decrees prohibiting police spying was naïve enough to think that the people in power would really be constrained forever by such judicial bans. However, having a consent decree like the Alliance to End Repression one in Chicago, or the Handschu one in New York City, on the books gave one legal redress: If the police violated one's rights, one could take them to court and conceivably get damages or at least embarrass them and back them off. This proved to be difficult, but not impossible. My own experience during the period when the Alliance Red Squad decree was in force was that the police continued to commit abuses, but less blatantly than before the decree. A typical example was one evening when I was alone in my office at a college extension program for which I worked, two uniformed police officers dropped by for a casual “chat”, and after exchanging pleasantries asked me how the students responded to being taught “about communism”. The students, as a matter of fact, were mostly studying business administration: Accounting, marketing and the like. This was harassment and a direct violation of the Alliance Consent Decree, but I had no witnesses and so there was not much to be done. What the police were doing was letting me know that Consent Decree or no Consent Decree, people like me were still being watched.Unfortunately, by the 1990s a ruling class counter attack was able to reverse these legal advances. The Handschu agreement in New York was practically dismantled after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks. The Alliance to End Repression Consent Decree was fatally weakened when a federal judge listened to the plaintive siren song of the Daley administration in Chicago in 2001, and was entirely destroyed in 2009. In both New York and Chicago, the need to “fight terrorism” was the argument advanced by police authorities, and this was swallowed by the judges. And now, once again, we hear about the old familiar abuses. Currently, the growth of “Fusion Centers”, in which the FBI and state and local police are brought together, supposedly to plan joint anti-terrorist actions, brings back some very bad memories.Some of the old Chicago “Red Squad” undercover agents are still around. One of them, Marcus Salone, who was assigned to disrupt an African American community organization on the city's West Side, is now an Illinois Supreme Court judge. The biggest overachiever among Chicago's Red Squad Agents, Sheli Lulkin, who infiltrated more than 80 unions, community groups, civil rights and peace organizations, is still occasionally in the news in Chicago, as a “community activist” involved in neighborhood improvement issues. Few remember the days when she not only spied on all those progressive groups, but presented testimony to Congress to the effect that they were all part of an enormous communist network dedicated to violent overthrow of the existing state of things.Circumstances change with the passage of time, but nevertheless there are some lessons today's activists can draw from these past experiences.First of all, be serious about the purpose of what you are doing, and the methods and tactics you use. Do not “play at revolution” or use serious political work as a means for stroking your own ego or competing for revolutionary prestige with other activists. Above all, do not get into the wordy game of “more revolutionary than thou” which was so prevalent, and so destructive, in the 1960s and 1970s. Undercover FBI or other police agents had a fine time in those days using the rivalries among real or imaginary revolutionaries to set people up for entrapment, or simply to disrupt organizations.Secondly, be disciplined and honorable about how you run your organization and your life. Do not open yourself up for undercover agents-provocateurs to push you into a corner in which the only exits are to start cooperating with them, or to go and hang yourself.Thirdly: Study, study, study. Do not go off half-cocked and act impulsively. Do all you can to learn from the experiences of the past. Talk to experienced people, and read. Develop your strategy and tactics out of a sober scientific assessment of what we Marxists call “objective and subjective conditions”. Under the rubric of “objective conditions” comes a thorough understanding of the underlying economic, social and political dynamics of society; of course these things are ever-changing. Under “subjective conditions” comes the constant analysis of the level of class and mass consciousness in the society. No tactics can be developed without this; a whole lot of harm has been done in the past when revolutionaries have misjudged the subjective conditions and have thus pushed tactics which are too advanced, or, occasionally, not bold enough for the moment. To run too far ahead of mass consciousness threatens the left with self-isolation and police disruption, while lagging behind leads, at the very least, to lost opportunities.Fourthly, remember that if one becomes so frightened of police infiltrators that one can not act effectively, the police will have won. A recurring tactic of red squads and provocateurs has been to sow suspicion among activists by spreading rumors that certain people are “working with the police”. You should check out all such rumors and not play into them by spreading them. Rather, carefully investigate their origins and veracity. If you think you have enough evidence to expose an agent, do it collectively. You should also not allow your organization to become distracted from its major goals because of police harassment. Remember, also, that not every police officer is out to do you dirt. Though individual police officers behaving badly are part of the problem, the enemy is still the ruling class and not each individual policeman or woman. In the Chicago situation, an important positive role was, and as far as I know still is, played by the Afro-American Patrolman's League (today the African-American Police League). This organization opposed, and opposes, abusive police behavior including politically motivated spying and disruption.Finally, unity is key. Whatever legitimate differences may exist among tendencies of the left, the goal must always be to work for unity at the working class and mass level. Agents-provocateurs understand this, and instinctively work to divide. Unity is not to be achieved by magic, and can not be based on the abandonment of the legitimate grievances of specially oppressed minorities, but it must be something one works for constantly.