On Contact: Resistance & Militancy
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to former Baltimore Black Panther leader Eddie Conway about the nature of resistance, white supremacy and the rise of the a new black militancy.
The book, The Brother You Choose, is a conversation between Eddie Conway and Paul Coates. Conway reflects on state repression and the hard road of resistance in a state that stops at nothing to crush resistance movements.
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EC: That's one of the long-lasting, devastating impacts of that whole COINTELPRO on the Black Panther Party, the Black liberation movement. The liberation movement in general is the paranoia it created. And somewhere along the line of--Hoover said one time that we don't have to have an agent behind every mailbox, we just have to make you think we do. And within the organizations, you cannot run a organization if everybody is suspicious of everybody else. And if something happens, then 10 people are looking across at each other trying to figure out who's behind it. And that's the most devastating impact of COINTELPRO. I mean, beyond the fact of destroying the movement itself, it created paranoia that still exists 50 years later.
CH: Eddie Conway, a senior leader in the Black Panther Party in Baltimore, like many radical Black leaders in the 1960s and 1970s, was framed for the killing of a police officer and spent 44 years in prison from 1970 until 2014. In the book, "The Brother You Choose," a conversation between him and Paul Coates, he reflects on state repression and the hard road of resistance against a state that stops at nothing to crush that resistance. He notes that the alleged murder of police officers has taken the place of the mythical rape of white women and is the basis for lynching black men. He returns to Baltimore and is stunned to find that "Instead of advancing 40 years, the world had deteriorated 40 years." Joining me to discuss the nature of resistance, White supremacy, and the rise of a new Black militancy from Baltimore is Eddie Conway. So, Eddie, so much of the system of mass incarceration, the surveillance, the tactics that the state uses to break popular and radical movements was pioneered against organizations like the Panthers. You, yourself, of course were a victim of that. And in the--in the book, you really say they were quite successful in essentially destroying the movement. Lay out what those tactics are because, of course, they haven't changed.
EC: Okay. And I want to step back one minute though because the COINTELPRO, Counterintelligence Program, was actually used during World War II in the war effort against the Germans on the Nazis. And it was allowable and it was permissible because there was a state of war and the Nazis were declared the enemies. They brought that particular program after the war ended back to America and they used it on American citizens. And actually early on, they used it against the Socialist Workers Party, Young Socialist Alliance. They used it against the Communist Party. They used it against the American citizens as if they were enemies because they were organizing and protesting. Apparently, in the--at the end of the '60s, they turned that program loose on the Black Panther Party. And they used that program as if members of the Black Panther Party and people in the Black community that was fighting for change and wanting to better their conditions were the enemies of the United States. They infiltrated organizations, the Black Panther Party primarily, but all other kind of organizations including Martin Luther King's organization, they put agents inside. The program was so vast that the FBI had access to every law enforcement agents--agency in the United States that had access to the Internal Revenue Service, the Treasury Department, the fire departments, the post office, et cetera. Everybody was mandated to cooperate with the FBI with this program, including in civilian areas, newspaper journalists, and radio hosts, and even spokespeople for local churches. And what they did was they put out so much propaganda against the Black Panther Party and against the Black liberation movement that they eventually justified waging a physical war against those movements, Black Panther Party being the primary target. And the public accepted that war because of the massive amount of propaganda and influence they did. And how they did this war was they infiltrated the organizations across the country. They put agent provocateurs inside the organizations. They then caused those agent provocateurs to sow dissent within those organizations to point to other people and label them as fires or police informers, or FBI informers. They went further than by causing those agent provocateurs to commit violence, violence that eventually led to the destruction of the organization. And one particular case I'll cover in just a little bit…
CH: let's talk--let…
CH: Eddie, let…
EC: Go ahead.
CH: Let me just stop you there because you talk about the incident with Stokely Carmichael, which gives an example of how they sow division and mistrust within the organization to destroy it. Explain what happened.
EC: Okay. Well, in Stokely Carmichael's case, he was a member of the--in fact one of the leadership members of the Black Panther Party. And while he was riding in the car with his driver, he got out, he left. The FBI planted a CIA informant form and sheet in the car, in the crease of the seat where Stokely Carmichael was sitting, and when the driver got back in the car, noticed the paper, pulled it out, seen that it was an--it was a CIA informant report, contacted the Black Panther Party. Of course then all this was being monitored. And the Black Panther Party in turn was sending a group of people to investigate to see what was going on. The FBI then in turn called Stokely Carmichael's mother and said the Panthers think that your son is a CIA agent and informant and they are sending a crew of people to execute Stokely. And he needs to get out of town. And course Stokely's mother told Stokely that and he tried to check back I think with the driver. He--his antennas went up, he jumped on the plane, he ended up in Africa. Well, none of this actually was true. He had been set up. And that's the--they called that a black jacket. They had put a jacket on him as an informer to get rid of him. And they did that in several other cases and they actually had people come out as agent provocateurs and so on, and assassinate those people. And people accepted that as something that the Black Panther Party had done when actually later on, the COINTELPRO Church Committee showed that the government was behind it.
CH: Eddie, would you say that the goals were essentially two-pronged, one to decapitate the leadership in the case of Stokely, in your own case railroading you into prison, and then sowing so much dissension within the movement and mistrust that it became inoperable, it just couldn't function? Would that be correct?
EC: Yes. And in fact that' s one of the long-lasting, devastating impacts of that whole COINTELPRO on the Black Panther Party, the Black liberation movement. The liberation movement in general is the paranoia it created. And somewhere along the line of--Hoover said one time that we don't have to have an agent behind every mailbox, we just have to make you think we do. And within the organizations, you cannot run a organization if everybody is suspicious of everybody else, and if something happens then 10 people are looking across each other trying to figure out who's behind it. And that's the most devastating impact of COINTELPRO. I mean, beyond the fact of destroying the movement itself, it created paranoia that still exists 50 years later.
CH: We're going to talk a little bit about, you know, you're locked up for over four decades. You get out, your reaction when you get back into Baltimore. But let me just ask, how do you guard against that? Because, of course, we're seeing the rise now of new movements in the streets, these tactics are, you know, well-honed by the state which are using them again. What do you give in terms of advice to young activists to guard against this kind of destruction of their movements by the state?
EC: Okay. Well, first, I think the way in which the Black Panther Party was organized was probably a mistake, but it was probably a necessity at that time and during those conditions. But the pyramid structure of a top leader and leaders under that is a bad structure and I think young people in the movement today are creating a horizontal structure without leaders or with rotating leadership so that a leader can't be targeted. And the other thing is that it was easy to create paranoia when you had incidents and activities that people assume were authorized or legitimate. I think young people need to always be aware to not violate or break any laws. And if somebody's trying to encourage that kind of activity, they need to either shut it down right away or get away from it. Because in a lot of cases, in the case of the New York 21, a guy kept coming in, claiming that they should take some action against New York City. And he had diagrams and plans, and they ended up rocking up to New York 21. They kept him in jail for two years. They found out later on he was a New York City police officer and he was doing it, and just on the fact that he kept doing it was enough for them to justify locking people up when in fact young people need to say, oh, that's not what we're doing here. We're organizing legitimately or organizing legally. And we don't want to hear that. And if you're doing that, you need to take it somewhere else. I think that's an important factor.
CH: I mean the Panthers were organized as a quasi-military organization. You had ranks, captains, et cetera. And that's--I think what you're saying is that becomes in a resistance movement makes them far more vulnerable.
EC: Yes. An easy to target, the longer--the longer person is in that leadership role, the easier it is to put people close to them, like a Fred Hampton was assassinated because they slipped the agent up into his security apparatus. A number of people were locked up. Geronimo were locked up because of security agents. George Jackson ended up dying because they slipped somebody close to him. So, if you have rotating leadership or no designated leaders when you're operating, that's one thing. The other thing is to not break the law. That's something for somebody else. If you're organizing on the surface and you're organizing in protest and activity, then keep that stuff separated from whatever you're doing.
CH: Great. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with the former Black Panther Leader, Eddie Conway. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the Rise of a New Black Militancy with former Black Panther leader, Eddie Conway. So, you're railroaded to prison and you write in the book that prisons as institutions are designed to, you say, encourage gangs and that you--they create people who, when they are released, are so traumatized that they have a greater propensity towards violence. Talk about what have 44 years you were in prison. Talk about what prison does to people and the social effects on people on the wider population when people are released from prison.
EC: Well, one of the things that people don't really pay too much attention to is that most major prison industrial complex fights are outside of urban areas, hundreds of miles in some cases, the people that's housed in those complexes are mostly from urban areas. They're mostly black and brown bodies in general. And once you take people from the city and you put them in the rural setting, one is this--a class of cultures, people in the rural settings believe that people in the cities are criminals, out of control and not actually humans, they abuse and mistreat them in those environments, their families can't get to them, they're isolated, they feel like society and the community itself has abandoned them. They fight back, they resist, they get beat, they get gassed, in some cases some of them get killed. They end up deciding that, "Well, okay, they can't do anything about it." They suppress that anger and hostility, and infest us. And then they come home after five or ten years of that and they don't have any allegiance to the community and not--there's no such thing as rehabilitation but they're not rehabilitated. And they're angry that they were put in that predicament. One, they were sentenced and they expected to do time, but they never expected to be abused, dehumanized, and have violence practiced on them all the time. So, when they're in--back in the community, they feel like they had been abandoned, they had been punished twice, they had been abused and nobody said anything. So as soon as something happens in the community, they explode. It's like transferred aggression and it happens. It's like creating time bombs, it happens over, and over, and over again, and it's deliberate, and the most outspoken, the most aggressive, the most--young people are abused more than anybody else. And so they come back really angry, and frustrated, and they end up hurting the community. And then people in the rural communities look at that and say, "See? See how they act?" Well, they were created in the prison system. In El Salvador right now, the country is wrecked by gang violence. Those gangs were created in the United States Prisons on the West Coast, in the East Coast, et cetera. Most of those gangs were created by the prison, in the prison system, and they came together to protect themselves from that kind of violence. But in turn now they end up taking that violence to the community. Because that's what they learned, they learned that that's how you control things. One--let me just make one more point. One thing that's important is when I was talking to young people all the time and telling them not to exercise that kind of violence, they constantly point to the United States Government and say, "Hey, look at Gaddafi, you want something, they wanted that oil, they went over there, they killed them and they took it. That's the American way that's what people do. So, why shouldn't we?"
CH: Let me ask you about your reaction. So, 44 years you're locked up and you come back to your home city of Baltimore. What do you see?
EC: I saw--and which was the most shocking of all, I was always concerned that I wouldn't be able to adjust to what was going on after 44 years. But when I came home, I was shocked because I saw what looked like a warzone. The city itself had been devastated, the housing stock had collapsed, 20,000 abandoned houses, trees growing up through drug use and people that had suffered the consequence of drug use was--were all over the place hobbled, laid around, not able to take care of yourself, massive unemployment, and, of course, I realized that's why I was in jail, but there was a massive abandonment of men in the community because they were all in the jail system. They were all in the prison system where they believe that some were hiding because there was no work and, so it looked like a warzone. It looked like something after World War II.
OC: And was that deterioration, you know, compare that deterioration to what you left. I mean, what did the city look like when you left? Which--it also was plagued by poverty. I mean, it wasn't--but I know from the book you were just stunned at how far the city had fallen.
EC: Yes. You know, when we--when the Black Panther Party decided to organize, we organized because the conditions were really bad. But the community was intact. There was jobs, there was no massive unemployment, there was very little drugs. Drugs was kind of like put in as the end of the Vietnam War. And people were going to work in the morning. You get up and people were carpooling to work, everybody went to work, they came back, there was money in the community. Even though our conditions were conditions of oppression, even though police were constantly still killing our people, the community as a whole was viable and functioning. And organizing and actually upward mobility thinking in terms of a better future, that was part of what came out in the civil rights movement, and led into the Black Power and the Black Liberation, and the liberation movement itself. All that was gone, you know, the people that had been put in charge were people that did not have the interest of the community at heart. And they were supported by the police department and allowed to be in charge of these gangs or organizations, and allowed to devastate the community, and keep the community under control. And that was an attack against the movement for independence itself.
CH: So, Eddie, you talk in the book about Black Lives Matter, you make a distinction which I think is important that many Black Lives Matter activists come out of the middle class, they're often well-educated, and you feel that there's a divide between those activists and the people--young people living on the streets of Baltimore and that's a divide you want to close. Can you speak about that?
EC: Yes. And I do now think that it is being closed because what happens is that if you were college educated, you're organized, and you're on the up with mobile track, and you want to make changes. But if you don't go back down into the community, you don't interact with the people that's living the pain, suffering the oppression that you constantly talk about and organize against, then there's always going to be a divide there. I think because of this recent amount of activity, I think that divide now is being closed because people in the communities are stepping up, they're getting involved, and they're involved with the activists and I think that's a good thing, and I think experience is the best teacher, and I think [INDISTINCT] experiencing working together and understanding that you can't lead people from up on the mountain, you must be among the people that you're talking about leading. And you must be dealing with their interests because if you don't deal with their interests whatever you're doing, it's going to fail.
CH: And as you watch these movements around the country rise in response to police violence, what are you, you know, what are you worried about in terms of perhaps the ways they can be broken or taken advantage of and what is it that you admire about them?
EC: Well, I guess my concerns is that you have to always be aware of the fact that you need to be prepared to defend yourself because throughout history, people have been organizing for change. One of the things that imperialist powers in the United States is certainly the world encouraged power today has always done, it has used violence against people that protest, that demand change that's set in the street, not just thugs and fire hoses, and obviously police bullets, but they use all sorts of silent violence in the middle of the night. They snatch people, they torture people, they make people disappear and that's a concern because young people have to understand that it's not a romantic kind of a situation that we're going into. It is a situation that's got a lot of stress, a lot of struggle, and you need to be prepared to protect yourself and to defend whatever gains you make in terms of building institutions. I think the thing that I feel that's good is that there is a momentum, there's an understanding, there's resistance to being put in the same predicament that COINTELPRO put the Black Panther Party in in terms of directing where that particular movement goes. I think today's young people, they're not just fighting on a narrow path of, like, Black liberation, they are actually looking and resisting. They're talking about the way in which the culture creates oppression. They're looking at the world. They're looking at the fact that the planet, of climate change itself is going to be a real threat to death, the livelihood, their survival, and their children's life in the--in the very near future. So, it's a…
CH: Eddie, I'm going to--I'm going to--I'm going to have to--I'm going to have to stop it there, Eddie.
EC: Okay. All right.
CH: Thank you very much. That was--that was Eddie Conway, former Black Panther Leader about his new book, "The Brother You Choose."