Black August, COINTELPRO & Learning The Important Lessons

As 2021 moves along, there are a number of things that, like the sun following the moon, remain constant. The international capitalist system continues to utilize its control over our brain waves to promote, institutionalize, and normalize lies, confusion, and misinformation. The masses of humanity continue to resist this oppression in any number of creative and evolving ways. And, the forces attempting to organize against the system continue to claim complete mastery over how the government manipulated our movements in the past while simultaneously and foolishly behaving in the same destructive ways, especially on social media, that sabotaged our work in decades past.

The theory here is that capitalism is relentless in promoting the individualistic vision of life as the one and only way that we can effectively carry out our existence. By “individualistic” we mean that we are taught that the dysfunctional and subjective ways that we view the world is all that we need to participate in and even lead movement work. As a result, many people who genuinely believe that they are exercising healthy approaches in the work that they do are actually acting in ways that result in lots of drama and unnecessary conflict; conflict that our individualistic vision prevents us from recognizing is being used on a much broader scale against our movement work in ways that will adversely impact us for years to come. 

This past Saturday, August 7, 2021, represents the 51st commemoration of the Marin County Courthouse incident involving Johnathan Jackson, William Christmas, James McClain, and Ruchel Magee. Most people know the general history of that incident, but far fewer people know of the confusion and distrust that influenced the events of that day; confusion that was completely and irrefutably orchestrated by federal police agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had developed a nationally coordinated intelligence program called the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). This program had a number of variations dating back to the 1920s when the Department of Justice (the pre-runner to the FBI) engaged in successful sabotage efforts against Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, but by 1967, a new and improved COINTELPRO was released. This program, under the seedy direction of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and facilitated by soulless FBI officials like Cartha DeLoach and William Sullivan, had the specific objective of dismantling the African Liberation Movement. Back in those days, there were very few African FBI agents, so the FBI relied primarily on undercover police informants. These informants represented African people who were facing criminal charges from the U.S. government. Once the FBI profiled these people and determined that they had the temperament to help them, they would offer these people paid work to join our movement organizations and gather information that the FBI could use to filter down to state and local police departments who were reporting to and cooperating with the FBI through this nationally coordinated program. 

Since these people were facing criminal charges if they refused, and most of them had zero political education and/or commitment to our liberation struggle anyway, the FBI had little trouble finding plenty of these people to work for them. From information these people provided to the FBI, the bureau knew that gang antagonisms existed between the US Organization in Los Angeles and the L.A. Black Panther Party membership. They knew that Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, the founder of the L.A. Black Panther Party Chapter, was the former head of the Slausons Street organization (what people call gangs) and that those paramilitary elements within the US Organization who led that branch of that organization were recruited from gangs that saw Carter and other Panthers as rivals. Once the FBI had this information, they knew the weak points and where to push against our organizations. The results were a number of Black Panthers being killed, including Carter, a complete disruption of political unity in Los Angeles, and all of this happened without anyone at the time having a clear understanding of why this was taking place.

The events of August 7, 1970, were not immune to these contradictions. There were always struggles within the Black Panther Party over the concept of waging an all-out war against the empire, and that meant armed struggle and the focus on the Panther’s survival programs. The FBI knew this and they also knew that many of these contradictions were manifested through divisions in the above-ground Panther organizing work and those operating within the underground movements. For example, there were elements who wanted to take militant action to free comrade and Soledad Brother George Jackson from prison. Work to create that plan was developed and centered around the 17-year-old brother of George, Johnathan Jackson. Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) had assumed leadership within the L.A. Panther Chapter after the assassinations of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins in January 1969. Ji Jaga, working to try and solidify that Panther chapter that had obviously been under systematic attack, as was the case nationally with Black Panther Chapters and branches, made an attempt to challenge the feasibility of taking action to free comrade George. In fact, according to eye witness accounts, and FBI records (because remember, everything that was happening, they were aware of), Ji Jaga gave orders to abandon the jailbreak attempt, but due to COINTELPRO interference, that message apparently never reached young Johnathan on the day of August 7th.   

According to FBI file documents, this miscommunication was the objective of the FBI as they hoped the result would be an action that was so poorly carried out that it would have no consequences and would embarrass and discredit the Black Panther Party. Ji Jaga apparently thought the action was dead and the FBI probably thought nothing significant would come of it, but the feds underestimated the determination of young Johnathan Jackson. Undeterred by conflicting information and misinformation, Johnathan soldered his part and entered the Marin County Courthouse on August 7, 1970, armed and prepared to liberate James McClain, William Christmas, and Ruchel Magee, so that they could free George and do much more for our struggle. It’s important that we never forget that the FBI is a soulless organization. Their sabotage work was designed to ensure that the incident on that day would not succeed in its objective to liberate George Jackson. Beyond that, they surely had no concern about who was killed, injured, etc., even if some of those people were courthouse employees. In fact, FBI documents summarizing the day’s events celebrated the moment Johnathan came into the courtroom, focusing on his moment of indecision due to the lack of people being in place that the plan had called for. Able to recover from his momentary and alleged surprise, Johnathan made his famous announcement “Gentlemen!  We are taking over now!”  And, the incident continued with Jackson, McClain, and Christmas, being murdered that day along with a number of courtroom personnel including the judge. Ruchel Magee, 51 years later, remains incarcerated. 

For anyone with a soul, the results of August 7, 1970, should disturb you. A 17-year-old warrior and other comrades were lost and although we understand the moral victories we derive from that action 51 years later, the adverse impact the incident had in helping create the atmosphere that pretty much made it open season on attacking African liberation organizations are things we still struggle with today. Also, anyone who knows of the devastating internal antagonisms that resulted from the aftermath of the incident and the miscommunications and distrust within the Black Panther Party membership understands what’s meant when we say our enemies got their way. The same can be said for the internal dynamics that have haunted the American Indian Movement surrounding the circumstances of the murder of American Indian Movement leader Anna Mae Pictoh Aquash. Just like the Panthers, those wounds are still wide open in 2021. This is important because those wounds impacted the capacity of each organization.

What all of this should mean for us in 2021 and beyond is you are extremely naïve if you don’t believe that the same level of monitoring against all of our organizations is taking place in 2021 that was taking place in 1967. As was stated, COINTELPRO came through several manifestations so clearly, what we are facing today is not going to be the same as it was in 1967, but it’s still happening. And, just because you can’t see it, that means absolutely nothing. No one saw it in 1967 either and the level of technical capacities available today to prevent you from seeing it far exceeds what was in existence 50+ years ago. So, although we probably won’t have clear evidence for some years now, you can bet your bottom that everything you say, do, talk about, think about, etc., is being monitored, filed, and strategized around for how it can be used against all of us. Some of us talk so much that you may say 1000 things and none of them are ever used, but don’t let that confuse you into thinking nothing is happening. Also, the level of participation you have or think you have is completely irrelevant. Even a movement nonentity like William O’Neil could be molded to get close enough to a significant leader like Fred Hampton to cause irreversible damage. This is actually a constant strategy used by our enemies. 

Another thing they rely upon is our indoctrination in individualism and the proliferation of the ego being centered in whatever capacities we have. The reliance of social media in today’s organizing work is a strong catering tool for that proliferation of ego and the ability of people to create whatever type of reality for themselves and others that they desire. All of this is being closely monitored, studied, and strategized around by the enemies of humanity. And, people today are probably as naïve as we were 50 years ago in thinking that nobody cares about what we are saying, etc. At least we hope that this is the case because if not, it would have to mean that people just don’t care how much what they are doing is harming real movement building. 

Best practices to combat this effort to bring us down is to practice time-tested things that strengthen our movement instead of providing our enemies all of the fuel they need to attack us. Remember that disagreements are a natural part of the growth process and that there is no rule that we have to agree with everyone to have a positive relationship with them. It’s the strong who can work with and respect people they don’t agree with because those people understand that everyone has a contribution to make. It’s only the egotistically fragile who believe that their way is the only way and anyone who doesn’t see the world the way they do is the enemy. The FBI loves those of you who believe that last sentence. Develop some intellectual maturity and discipline. When disagreements arise make it a practice to take them to the people they involve and absolutely no one else. Learn how to engage in principled ideological struggle over disagreements and practice keeping those disagreements ideological and not personal. If you cannot subvert your dislike for someone in the interest of not providing fuel for our real enemies, then you lack the maturity to be involved in this work on any meaningful level. Dislike them, but struggle principally with them. Doing so will make you feel better about yourself and will make the person you dislike respect you more which will help stall out negativity because you will recognize the courage you manifested in taking the struggle directly to the parties involved. In turn, they will also see that because they will feel the accountability you brought to them with your principled approach. All of this only makes us stronger while denying our enemies the fuel they are looking for to use against us. If we aren’t willing to implement these simple practices and if we continue to refuse to learn from the lessons of the past, then we are demonstrating that what we are doing now has little to do with mass liberation and more to do with personal advancement and ego gratification. Don’t be that person. Let’s make sure our elders and ancestors didn’t suffer for nothing.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.