What Brown v. Brooks Means For Black Folk, Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of columns about the fallout from the 2015 confrontation between Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks and former Black Panther Party chair Elaine Brown and what the negative effects from that confrontation means for Black Folk as a whole in Oakland and the Bay Area. If you need to get caught up, see “What Brown v. Brooks Means For Black Folk,”“What Brown v. Brooks Means For Black Folk, Part 2,” and “What Brown v. Brooks Means For Black Folk, Part 3,” and “What Brown v. Brooks Means For Black Folk, Part 4.”

April 17, 2018

If a guy's close to you, you can't slight 'im. You can't slight that guy. A real grievance can be resolved. Differences can be resolved. But an imaginary hurt, a slight—that [mf] gonna hate you 'til the day he dies.” -- Jimmy Hoffa in the movie Jimmy Hoffa

In order to fully understand the implications of the beef between former Black Panther chair Elaine Brown and Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks, we need to go back in time a bit. Bear with me.

In the long history of the Black Freedom Movement in America, just as in the movie Jimmy Hoffa quote above, political differences have always been far easier to overcome than personal ones. While the Movement has often disagreed over where African-Americans should be going and how we should get there, we have often been able to put those differences aside to build temporary coalitions on matters of overwhelming import to the race: the coalition in support of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930’s, or the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association that led the 1956 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1966 Mississippi March Against Fear that spawned both the Black Power movement and spurred Martin Luther King’s public opposition to the war in Vietnam, the 1967 Newark, New Jersey Black Power Conference, the 1972 Gary, Indiana National Black Political Convention, to name only a few more recent examples.

Settling personal differences within the Black Movement, on the other hand, has always been more elusive, with jealousies and animosities more often than not overwhelming the need to come together for the greater good.

But sometime beginning in the late 1960’s, for reasons we only began to understand much later, and too often too late, those personal differences began to become both more common, more prominent, and more difficult to settle.

In the fall of 1967, I was working out of an institution known as the New School of Afro-American Thought in Washington, D.C. The New School was made up of a coalition of groups and individuals from two diverging political trends—Revolutionary Black Nationalism and Black Cultural Nationalism—that were extremely important in the Black Movement of those times. In those swirling months only a year after the emergence of Black Power as a dominant slogan and goal among African-Americans, the coming together of followers of those two wings of the Black Nationalist movement was considered a dangerous action for those whose goal was to disrupt that elusive thing we used to call Black unity.

I considered myself a Revolutionary Black Nationalist at the time, and had come to D.C. specifically to work with other folks of that like. Towards the end of 1967, however, I was making preparations to leave D.C. to join the Movement in the Deep South. It was around that time, if I remember right, that I got a mysterious letter in the mail whose true meaning I was not able to figure out until many years later.

It was from an unknown source, with no signature and no return address. The anonymous letter-writer said they were sending it to inform me that a prominent Black Cultural Nationalist member of the New School—who I’ll only identify now as “GN”—had been going around D.C. talking trash about me and, if memory serves, making threats to kick my ass.

The letter was disturbing to me but also somewhat puzzling at the same time, since I knew GN pretty well, saw him all the time at the New School and at various functions, didn’t know until then that he had any beef with me, and figured if he had one, he would have confronted me about it. I would have asked him about it the first chance I got, but I left D.C. shortly after I received the letter, and never saw GN or communicated with him again. Although I mulled over the letter for a while after that, but eventually filed it away somewhere in my belongings, and it dropped out of my thoughts.

That mysterious anonymous letter came back to mind some years later, however, when rumors and then reports began to surface about a troubling but revealing program of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation called COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was FBI-speak for Counterintelligence Program, and the name was aptly chosen. While the program was initially kept secret from the public, the FBI has since publicly admitted that while it was begun in 1956 with the initial intent “to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States...in the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party.”

COINTELPRO’s targets in the Black Movement went much, much further than the Black Panther Party, however, with the FBI publicly admitting that it also sought to disrupt a wide collection of Black Freedom Movement organizations, including the Congress of Racial Equality civil rights organization and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Eventually, long after the program was officially disbanded, Freedom of Information action by citizens and organizations forced the FBI to publicly reveal the official origins, purpose, and tactics of COINTELPRO’s Black Movement disruptive activities. These were spelled out in the original August, 1967 memo that set up its Black Movement-targeting program now published on the FBI’s website: Counterintelligence Program—Black Nationalist Hate Groups—Internal Security.

The memo is chillingly direct in how the FBI planned—and later carried out—a campaign to essentially end the Black Freedom Movement as it existed in the heady days of the 1960’s and the 1970’s.

“The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor,” the COINTELPRO memo read, “is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder. The activities of all such groups of intelligence interest to this Bureau must be followed on a continuous basis so we will be in a position to promptly take advantage of all the opportunities for counterintelligence and to inspire action in instances where circumstances warrant. The pernicious background of such groups, their duplicity, and devious maneuvers must be exposed to public scrutiny where such publicity will have a neutralizing effect. Efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents must be frustrated. No opportunity should be missed to exploit through counterintelligence techniques the organizational and personal conflicts between competing black nationalist organizations [emphasis added].”

When excerpts from COINTELPRO’s Black organizations-targeting founding memo began being published in progressive and Movement books and periodicals sometime in the 1980’s, a light went off in my head. That phrase “exploit through counterintelligence techniques the organizational and personal conflicts between competing black nationalist organizations” brought immediately back to mind the New School of African-American Thought in D.C., and the coalition between the Revolutionary Black Nationalists and the Black Cultural Nationalists that brought it about, and the anonymous letter I received in those times that sought to create a personal conflict between members of those two factions.

For me, at least, it cleared up the long-held mystery of who the anonymous person might have been who sent that mysterious letter, and why.

I’ve sometimes wondered since then what would have happened if I had stayed in D.C. and confronted GN over the allegations raised in that anonymous letter, and whether he may have received a similar letter of his own making the same sort of charges against me.

I certainly know what might have happened.

Two years ago, Elaine Brown sat down with Truth Out organization for an interview about one of the most notorious incidents of Black-on-Black Movement violence in our times, the 1967 murder of two Black Panther on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles.

“[O]n January 17, [1969] at UCLA, John Huggins, deputy chairman [of the Black Panther Party], and [Bunchy] Carter [who was a founder of the Los Angeles chapter of the BPP] were assassinated by members of Ron Karenga's Us organization, or a member at least, that we know of,” the Truth Out article quoted Ms. Brown as saying. She added that “miraculously,” to use her word, one of the murderers escaped prosecution altogether by fleeing to Guyana, two were convicted of conspiracy in the murders but escaped from San Quentin and ended up in Guyana themselves.

Asked by the Truth Out reporter if there was suspicion that the UCLA slaying of Huggins and Carter was a COINTELPRO-engineered operation, Ms. Brown replied:

“There's testimony from a former FBI informant and other testimonies that suggested there was direct FBI involvement in this assassination. The Black Panther Party at the time and I would say today say that this was absolutely an act carried out by COINTELPRO. That was the beginning of a raging year. This year, of course, was an important year, because J. Edgar Hoover had in 1968 declared publicly that the Black Panther Party was the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” (“1969: The Year the Black Panther Party Was to Be AnnihilatedTruth Out Organization January 28, 2014)

Although the killers of LA BPP members John Huggins and Bunchy Carter escaped punishment, according to Ms. Brown’s account, US organization itself did not come out unscathed.

According to a 2013 Baltimore Sun newspaper article, Ron Karenga, who was the founder of Us Organization and the creator of the popular African-American Kwanzaa holiday celebration, “went to prison on charges of assault and false imprisonment after a trial in which two women claimed they were assaulted and tortured [by him].” That was only two years after the Huggins/Carter murders at UCLA. Released on parole in 1975, “Karenga has always maintained his innocence of the charges,” the Baltimore Sun article continued, “and regards himself as having been a ‘political prisoner’ for four years. Similarly, he claims the Organization Us rivalry with the Panthers, while real, was exacerbated by the FBI and others, in an effort to discredit both groups.” (“Kwanzaa Creator Maulana Karenga Will Speak At Lewis MuseumBaltimore Sun December 20, 2013])

Even if one believes that Mr. Karenga was actually complicit in the torture of the two women, his conviction would fall under one of the other disruptive tools in the COINTELPRO program as outlined in the 1967 founding memo, which instructed FBI local bureaus and agents that “[m]any individuals currently active in black nationalist organizations have backgrounds of immorality, subversive activity, and criminal records. Through your investigation of key agitators, be alert to determine evidence of misappropriation of funds or other types of personal misconduct on the part of militant nationalist leaders so any practical or warranted counter-intelligence may be instituted.”

J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972, and “all COINTELPRO operations were ended in 1971,” according to the official FBI account. The FBI playbook outlining how to disrupt African-American leaders and organizations never went out of existence, however, and remains as a reference guide for any government, corporate, or media forces who want to continue to apply it.

That playbook sounds disturbingly how the current beef has played out between Elaine Brown and Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks. Next time we get together, let’s talk about how all of that ties together and, perhaps, how this tightening knot of a fight might be able to be untangled.


Contact Jesse Allen-Taylor at safero@earthlink.net
Writing Pages Of J. Douglas Allen-Taylor