COINTELPRO: WHAT HAPPENED AND LESSONS FOR TODAY
Testimony of Nkechi Taifa, Esq. before May 10th Congressional Forum
On May 10, 2021 three members of the House of Representatives hosted a Congressional Forum, COINTELPRO: WHAT HAPPENED AND LESSONS FOR TODAY. The Forum’s stated purpose was to explore J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the contemporary impacts, and policy changes made in response to the revelations of the abuses of COINTELPRO, and the work that remains. The Forum was chaired by Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN); Congressman Bobby Rush (D-ILL); and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D — CA). I was among six witnesses invited to testify.
The following is my written testimony:
Good afternoon Congresspersons Cohen, Rush and Lee, and other Members who have joined this auspicious forum. My name is Nkechi Taifa, President and CEO of The Taifa Group, civil/human rights attorney, and a long-time advocate for justice system reform and transformation. I am honored to address this critical subject, and will begin as follows:
Cointel’s got Blacks in hell, they open up our mail
Tap our phones, kick our bones and railroad us to jails
Angela Davis, Reverend Ben Chavis, Imari and Assata too
Ruchell Magee all wanted to be free from you know who
FBI went so low they invented COINTELPRO
To stop the rising fire of a Black Messiah
Who could unify and electrify Black people to revolutionize
Co is for Counter, which means to use against
Intel is for, Intelligence
Pro is for Program, they thought it was the perfect solution
Counterintelligence program, to crush the revolution
Fred Hampton and Mark Clark
Will never depart from our hearts
While COINTEL’s got Blacks in jail, this is hell.
So goes excerpts from a poem I wrote in 1975, as a college student, while Chairperson of the National Committee to Free the RNA-11, a group whose organizers and leader, Imari Obadele, were direct targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. During the course of that case I had the inglorious opportunity to scrutinize thousands of pages of heavily redacted documents, starkly revealing the Bureau’s goals to disrupt and destroy Black movements, stop their leaders from gaining respectability, and appalling strategies to stop the long-range growth of Black militant organizations, especially amongst the youth. And I was personally witness as well as victim to the tactics used to bring these goals into existence.
How does all this relate to today? In a number of ways:
First, there are people, victims of the Cointelpro era, who still languish in prison, some for nearly the past 50 years. Elderly people, facing life threatening conditions, such as Dr. Mutulu Shakur — fighting advanced bone marrow cancer; Russell Maroon Shoats — fighting stage 4 cancer; 84 year old Sundiata Acoli — suffering early stage dementia; Imam Jamil Al Amin (aka H. Rap Brown), afflicted with smoldering myeloma; Mumia Abu-Jamal — recovering from heart surgery; Veronza Bowers — treated for lymphoma; Kamau Sadiki — in jeopardy of foot surgery, and more — nearly all also trying to recover from post-COVID 19 symptoms, while being denied parole time after time.
While these elders deteriorate behind bars, not one governmental official ever served a day in prison for COINTELPRO crimes, despite the Senate Church Committee’s findings that the COINTELPRO constituted an illegal and unconstitutional abuse of power by the FBI.
As the country comes to an historic reckoning on race, let us remember the 4th provision of the Japanese-American reparations bill — a pardon to all those who resisted detention camp internment. We must keep that precedent in mind for former members of the Black Panther and other groups who still languish in U.S. prisons from the COINTELPRO era, as well as others who are exiled such as former Kansas City Black Panther Party leader Pete O’Neal in Tanzania, and include in a reparations or other clemency package, a pardon so that those incarcerated might live out their last days on the outside with loved ones, and those in exile be able to return to the U.S.
Second, it is critical to understand that Black resisters are still being monitored, surveilled and subjected to unwarranted harassment and abuse through Cointelpro-successor, over-reaching governmental programs. COINTELPRO did not end. It simply shape-shifted, morphed into a Black Identity Extremist program, an Operation Relentless Pursuit program, among others, and now, with a nefarious assault on constitutionally protected protests, which, if history is any guide, will be disproportionally used against demonstrators and communities of color.
State legislators are now steamrolling a new wave of anti-protest legislation, jeopardizing the constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 34 states have recently introduced 85 anti-protest bills, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of last summer’s protests were peaceful, involving no property damage or police injuries, in stark contrast to the January 6th white supremacy terrorist insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
Many of these measures increase penalties for demonstrators while providing legal protection for counter-protest measures. Some grant immunity to drivers who strike or injure protestors with their vehicles during demonstrations. Others prohibit anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from working in a state or local government role, or prevent those convicted of an unlawful protest violation from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits, or housing assistance, just to illustrate a few laws that have either passed or are on the drawing board.
Although some point to the deadly insurrection at the Capitol as grounds to enact harsher penalties for protestors, what these laws actually do is put a target on the back of Black demonstrators in an attempt to silence movements for justice and accountability, and as a ploy to put more protestors in prison — a tactic direct from the COINTELPRO playbook. This Congress must not be duped by the false narrative that governmental restraint leading up to January 6 was in some way an outgrowth of restrictions from the FBI’s past domestic spying abuses. It was not.
And finally, rather than rushing to embrace these thinly veiled laws, it is my hope that this Congress will look at and learn from the abuses from the past and pass Congressman Bobby Rush’s bill requiring the government to open up the FBI files and have a full, un-redacted accounting of COINTELPRO’s constitutional abuses, and I strongly submit, free victims still incarcerated from the era.
Thank you for your consideration.
Nkechi Taifa is the President of The Taifa Group LLC, and author of Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice.