How COINTELPRO Helped Destroy the Movements of the 1960's
Since COINTELPRO was used mainly against the progressive movements of
the 1960s, its impact can be grasped only in the context of the
momentous social upheaval which shook the country during those years.
All across the United States, Black communities came alive with
renewed political struggle. Most major cities experienced sustained,
disciplined Black protest and massive ghetto uprisings. Black
activists galvanized multi-racial rebellion among GIs, welfare
mothers, students, and prisoners.
College campuses and high schools erupted in militant protest against
the Vietnam War. A predominantly white New Left, inspired by the Black
movement, fought for an end to U.S. intervention abroad and a more
humane and cooperative way of life at home. By the late 1960s,
deep-rooted resistance had revived among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans,
Asian Americans, and Native Americans. A second wave of broad-based
strugglefor women's liberation had also emerged, along with
significant efforts by lesbians, gay men, and disabled people.
Millions of people in the United States began to reject the dominant
ideology and culture. Thousands challenged basic U.S. political and
economic institutions. For a brief moment, "the crucial mixture of
people's confidence in the government and lack of confidence in
themselves which allows the government to govern, the ruling class to
rule...threatened to break down."
By the mid-1970s, this upheaval had largely subsided. Important
progressive activity persisted, mainly on a local level, and much
continued to be learned and won, but the massive, militant Black and
New Left movements were gone. The sense of infinite possibility and of
our collective power to shape the future had been lost. Progressive
momentum dissipated. Radicals found themselves on the defensive as
right-wing extremists gained major government positions and defined
the contours of accepted political debate.
Many factors besides COINTELPRO contributed to this change. Important
progress was made toward achieving movement goals such as Black civil
rights, an end to the Vietnam War, and university reform. The mass
media, owned by big business and cowed by government and right-wing
attack, helped to bury radical activism by ceasing to cover it.
Television, popular magazines, and daily papers stereotyped Blacks as
hardened criminals and welfare chiselers or as the supposedly affluent
beneficiaries of reverse "discrimination." White youth were portrayed
first as hedonistic hippies and mindless terrorists, later as an
apolitical, self-indulgent "me generation." Both were scapegoated as
threats to "decent, hard-working Middle America."
During the severe economic recession of the early- to mid- 1970s,
former student activists began entering the job market, some taking on
responsibility for children. Many were scared by brutal government and
right-wing attacks culminating in the murder of rank-and-file
activists as well as prominent leaders. Some were strung out on the
hard drugs that had become increasingly available in Black and Latin
communities and among white youth. Others were disillusioned by
mistreatment in movements ravaged by the very social sicknesses they
sought to eradicate, including racism, sexism, homophobia, class bias
Limited by their upbringing, social position, and isolation from older
radical traditions, 1960s activists were unable to make the
connections and changes required to build movements strong enough to
survive and eventually win structural change in the United States.
Middle-class students did not sufficiently ally with working and poor
people. Too few white activists accepted third world leadership of
multi-racial alliances. Too many men refused to practice genuine
Originally motivated by goals of quick reforms, 1960s activists were
ill-prepared for the long-term struggles in which they found
themselves. Overly dependent on media-oriented superstars and one-shot
dramatic actions, they failed to develop stable organizations,
accountable leadership, and strategic perspective. Creatures of the
culture they so despised, they often lacked the patience to sustain
tedious grassroots work and painstaking analysis of actual social
conditions. They found it hard to accept the slow, uneven pace of
personal and political change.
This combination of circumstances, however, did not by itself
guarantee political collapse. The achievements of the 1960s movements
could have inspired optimism and provided a sense of the power to win
other important struggles. The rightward shift of the major media
could have enabled alternative newspapers, magazines, theater, film,
and video to attract a broader audience and stable funding. The
economic downturn of the early 1970s could have united Black
militants, New Leftists, and workers in common struggle. Police
brutality and government collusion in drug trafficking could have been
exposed in ways that undermined support for the authorities and
broadened the movements' backing.
By the close of the decade, many of the movements' internal weaknesses
were starting to be addressed. Black-led multi-racial alliances, such
as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign and the Black
Panthers' Rainbow Coalition, were forming. The movements' class base
was broadening through Black "revolutionary unions" in auto and other
industries, King's increasing focus on economic issues, the New Left's
spread to community colleges, and the return of working-class GIs
radicalized by their experience in Vietnam. At the same time, the
women's movement was confronting the deep sexism which permeated 1960s
activism, along with its corollaries: homophobia, sexual violence,
militarism, competitiveness, and top-down decision-making.
While the problems of the 1960s movements were enormous, their
strengths might have enabled them to overcome their weaknesses had the
upsurge not been stifled before activists could learn from their
mistakes. Much of the movements' inability to transcend their initial
limitations and overcome adversity can be traced to COINTELPRO.
It was through COINTELPRO that the public image of Blacks and New
Leftists was distorted to legitimize their arrest and imprisonment and
scapegoat them as the cause of working people's problems. The FBI and
police instigated violence and fabricated movement horrors. Dissidents
were deliberately "criminalized" through false charges, frame-ups, and
offensive, bogus leaflets and other materials published in their name.
(Specific examples of these and other COINTELPRO operations are
presented on pages 41-65.)
COINTELPRO enabled the FBI and police to exacerbate the movements'
internal stresses until beleaguered activists turned on one another.
Whites were pitted against Blacks, Blacks against Chicanos and Puerto
Ricans, students against workers, workers against people on welfare,
men against women, religious activists against atheists, Christians
against Jews, Jews against Muslims. "Anonymous" accusations of
infidelity ripped couples apart. Backers of women's and gay liberation
were attacked as "dykes" or "faggots." Money was repeatedly stolen and
precious equipment sabotaged to intensify pressure and sow suspicion
Otherwise manageable disagreements were inflamed by COINTELPRO until
they erupted into hostile splits that shattered alliances, tore groups
apart, and drove dedicated activists out of the movement. Government
documents implicate the FBI and police in the bitter break-up of such
pivotal groups as the Black Panther Party, SDS, and the Liberation
News Service, and in the collapse of repeated efforts to form
long-term coalitions across racial, class, and regional lines. While
genuine political issues were often involved in these disputes, the
outcome could have been different if government agencies had not
covertly intervened to subvert compromise and fuel hostility and
Finally, it was COINTELPRO that enabled the FBI and police to
eliminate the leaders of mass movements without undermining the image
of the United States as a democracy, complete with free speech and the
rule of law. Charismatic orators and dynamic organizers were covertly
attacked and "neutralized" before their skills could be transferred to
others and stable structures established to carry on their work.
Malcolm X was killed in a "factional dispute" which the FBI took
credit for having "developed" in the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther
King, Jr. was the target of an elaborate FBI plot to drive him to
suicide and replace him "in his role of the leadership of the Negro
people" with conservative Black lawyer Samuel Pierce (later named to
Reagan's cabinet). Many have come to view King's eventual
assassination (and Malcolm's as well) as itself a domestic covert
Other prominent radicals faced similar attack when they began to
develop broad followings and express anti-capitalist ideas. Some were
portrayed as crooks, thugs, philanderers, or government agents, while
others were physically threatened or assaulted until they abandoned
their work. Still others were murdered under phony pretexts, such as
"shootouts" in which the only shots were fired by the police.
To help bring down a major target, the FBI often combined these
approaches in strategic sequence. Take the case of the "underground
press," a network of some 400 radical weeklies and several national
news services, which once boasted a combined readership of close to 30
million. In the late 1960s, government agents raided the offices of
alternative newspapers across the country in purported pursuit of
drugs and fugitives. In the process, they destroyed typewriters,
cameras, printing presses, layout equipment, business records, and
research files, and roughed up and jailed staffers on bogus charges.
Meanwhile, the FBI was persuading record companies to withdraw
lucrative advertising and arranging for printers, suppliers, and
distributors to drop underground press accounts. With their already
shaky operations in disarray, the papers and news services were easy
targets for a final phase of COINTELPRO disruption. Forged
correspondence, anonymous accusations, and infiltrators' manipulation
provoked a flurry of wild charges and counter-charges that played a
major role in bringing many of these promising endeavors to a
A similar pattern can be discerned from the history of the Black
Panther Party. Brutal government attacks initially elicited broad
support for this new, militant, highly visible national organization
and its popular ten-point socialist program for Black
self-determination. But the FBI's repressive onslaught severely
weakened the Party, making it vulnerable to sophisticated FBI
psychological warfare which so discredited and shattered it that few
people today have any notion of the power and potential that the
Panthers once represented.
What proved most devastating in all of this was the effective
manipulation of the victims of COINTELPRO into blaming themselves.
Since the FBI and police operated covertly, the horrors they
engineered appeared to emanate from within the movements. Activists'
trust in one another and in their collective power was subverted, and
the hopes of a generation died, leaving a legacy of cynicism and
despair which continues to haunt us today.